Planning a Restaurant in Our New Reality


Planning a Restaurant in Our New Reality

As we adjust to the new normal, I am struck by the daunting challenges faced by our food service clients. Our reality has been upended, and suddenly we must retool what we took for granted. Can restaurants survive for this period of time until a vaccine is developed? And is this period of time transitory or will it forever change us?

I am struck equally by how much I enjoy the quiet days and nights at home and how much I miss the outside world. Dinner at home, for those of us fortunate enough to have others sheltering with us has taken on a valued social aspect. But boy, do I want to eat out with my friends, my social circle (if they even remember me) and my business partners.

As I reach for the phone to order out one more time, I’m drawn to the simplicity of this effort. As I stand in line to pick up my order, in a restaurant where the tables and chairs stand forlorn in a corner and to-go bags are piled up on a counter I despair for this establishment and for all of my restaurateur friends, past and future who have to contend with our new reality.

Today’s restaurant faces a prolonged period of adjustment, between fear, social distancing and changing customer habits. Seating will, for now, have to be spaced further apart to accommodate new laws. As we slowly transition to the new normal, many will still eat at home. Many will choose to order out, necessitating a functional (and attractive) to go area. And perhaps the most jarring, bars too will have to practice social distancing.

At the core of the problem lies profitability. Restaurants have huge overheads, from staff to benefits to rents to the cost of food. Social distancing will cut a significant number of seats, as tables are spaced further apart. A restaurant that counted on 50 diners and two turns may now have 25. Its hard not to imagine the impossibility of running a business when half the revenue is lost.

How will health departments look at customers and how they sit? First the issue of table spacing. In Sweden social distancing guidelines are 3 feet. Here they are six. Let’s optimistically set a future expectation of 3’. That’s 3’ between all tables, with free standing chairs or banquettes. How will individual parties be seated? In an individually responsible society, the assumption might be made that diners know each other and are generally from the same social cohort. On that basis, we can still use the tables that we currently do. But now we have further spaced tables at bench seating to accommodate the 3 foot distance, and moved tables further apart. Strategies such as dividers can be used to enable proximity, but that is a luxury reserved for larger spaces with more flexibility.

At first blush, prices will have to double. But that’s unsustainable. So operators will have to place more emphasis on other profit centers, such as delivery, pickup and impulse buying. This might include accommodation for delivery services, in house delivery and customer order and pickup.

The key to success in this area is functionality and aesthetics. I‘ve been studying restaurants‘ counters for the past month – the spaces, and the people that use them.

Bags, boxes and a steady influx of customers and delivery personnel, that’s the dream for a successful restaurant.

More than a decade ago, Adriano Paganini of Pasta Pomodoro started planning a Pomodoro to Go element in his restaurants. It was a prescient move, one I look at often as a sign of how forward thinking he was. Now, our friends at Oren‘s Hummus are doing the same thing with Oren‘s to Go. A separate door opens onto a small differentiated space, containing a grab-n-go section for impulse buys and drinks and a counter with a POS station for service. The to-go component has direct access to the kitchen when possible, allowing what are essentially two businesses to co-exist and work together.

You’ve probably been in a restaurant where people are standing and waiting for their orders close to where you were sitting. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling to be looked at, and now its dangerous for your meal to be exposed. Hence the value of this separate to-go space.

In the short term, I see us carving out and designing attractive and functional spaces for this purpose. And in the long term, I expect this to become the new normal.

Bar areas within restaurants and bars themselves pose the greatest challenge perhaps. For the foreseeable future the shoulder to shoulder crowds will be gone. And alcohol is the single biggest income generator in the food service industry. Here too, partitions might help separate parties, but for now, the bar seating will have to be spaced apart and the area formerly used for congregation will have to be rethought as seating or perhaps more dining to offset the loss of other tables.

It is a sobering time, and a challenge to accommodate the new functions and adjacencies in existing spaces. But done well, in aggregate they may just bring a business back to where it was, if not better.