What will the restaurant experience look like in the coming months?
As restaurants fire up the kitchen stove and swing open their doors again, the dining experience will be far from normal. Expect temperature checks upon entry, masked waiters and half empty venues.
Looking to the East for inspiration, American-based chef Dave Chang tweeted on April 16, “Can diners in Taipei, Hong Kong, Korea, China send me photos of what it looks like in restaurants.” Replies poured in, with pictures of restaurants with tape across tables, plastic sheets between diners and even cardboard dividers—not the most attractive ways to appeal to diners, but a pragmatic temporary solution.
The outlook for restaurants in America is bleak. According to experts, 75% of independent restaurants in America “won’t make it” and The National Restaurant Association predicts the entire industry will lose $225 billion in the coming three months because of the pandemic. States are slowly allowing restaurants to reopen with strict regulations, but many business owners who are not offering deliveries or pivoting business to sell food boxes or even groceries are taking their time to decide on reopening.
Dining out will not be the same again. Many restaurants are regaining people’s trust by strictly following safety regulations. Others are going a step further by purposely installing design that makes for a unique and memorable dining experience and some are using this time as a “reset”.
In China, the government is using a health app that indicates a person’s status via a color code—green, yellow or red. Originally used for those wanting to travel, restaurants and cafes are increasingly requesting customers to show their color code before entering.
Yardbird Hong Kong reopened in April using plexiglass dividers between booths, only allowing parties with a maximum of four people and sanitizing surfaces every 30-minutes. Lindsay Jang, cofounder of Yardbird Hong Kong notes that the “energy” in the restaurant is not the same, however she believes people appreciate the boundaries put in place so that they feel safe whilst dining there.
Kay’s Boutique café in Bangkok, Thailand opened again on 3 May 2020, with a two-meter distance rule for tables, temperature checks, thorough sanitation, partitions between diners, employees in masks and face shields, contactless payment and their iconic flower tunnel remains open but will limit the number of guests to three at a time.
Dining experiences that cater to large groups are going through a rethink too. Bangkok’s Penguin Eat Shabu hotpot restaurant have put up plastic dividers with the help of white PVC piping and are only allowing a maximum of two people per hotpot to share.
One restaurant in Amsterdam is changing their dining set-up to create one that is safe, intimate and atmospheric. Mediamatic ETEN installed Serres Séparées (separated greenhouses) along the waterfront as a solution to distanced dining. Opening for business on 21 May, booking released for that week and June are fully reserved.
Originally designed as a test, the dining pods are going ahead. “In these times we are reinspired by contamination precautions and the redesign of togetherness,” Mediamatic says on its site. “Our greenhouses protect you from the outside and others while offering you a unique experience of intimate dining.”
Denmark will soon announce the second phase of openings which could include restaurants and cafes in mid-May. However, some restaurants are taking the time to rethink business and not rush to open immediately.
Noma, which currently ranks second place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, announced on their site they will delay opening the restaurant until June 2 at the earliest. Speaking to Vanity Fair, chef and co-owner René Redzepi suggests Noma will be rethinking what people will be looking for when they choose to dine out. “No one is dreaming of sitting down for five hours over a 10-course meal,” Redzepi says. “We’re dreaming of being out with friends, ordering two bottles of champagne and a big platter of shellfish.”
In New York City, Eleven Madison Park (EMP) recently told Bloomberg Pursuits that a question mark looms over if it will reopen at all. Chef and owner Daniel Humm notes that it will cost millions of dollars to reopen and worries the original creativity may be lost. In addition, Humm is thinking about purpose. He is currently producing 3,000 meals a day feeding the homeless and hungry, and says he will continue to use the EMP kitchen for this mission if it were to open again.
As consumers reevaluate priorities coming out of a lockdown, restaurants and cafes are also using this opportunity to reconsider business plans. In an April article by The Guardian titled “Restaurants will never be the same after coronavirus — but that may be a good thing” author Jonathan Nunn explains the industry’s flaws, from struggles to break even because of extortionate rent to the unethical reliance on cheap labor. Nunn points out, “to move forward, we must start by examining what we would like the save about the industry, giving space to things that nourish us and our communities, and discarding what we believe doesn’t deserve to survive.”
Lockdown has given restaurants a chance for introspection. As dire as the situation is with many restaurants potentially closing down, the hope is the ones that survive and prosper will offer a fresh approach to the dining landscape and provide value and purpose within the community.