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What COVID-19 Social Distancing Measures Will Mean For Restaurant Dining Room Design

Note: This article is the fifth part of a series examining the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the restaurant industry. For more perspectives on different effects of COVID-19, read part onetwo, three and four.

As restaurants tiptoe towards reopening, it’s clear that it will be a very different dining experience in the aftermath of the pandemic. The intimate, cheek-to-cheek conviviality of the 30-seat neighbourhood joint, assuming that it is one of the fortunate few that reopens, may be a fond memory rather than a reality. Larger chain restaurants with sprawling footprints may have more options, with corporate support and more physical space to distance, although they, too, will not remain unscathed with a predicted 12 to 17 per cent decrease in sales this year.

At a time when so many operators are in dire straits, let alone much of America, it is difficult to discern what the restaurant of the future will look like. As consumers have spent months relying on their own cooking and takeout/delivery options to eat in their own homes, experts are torn as to whether these habits will drive increased restaurant visits or whether people will continue to feast from their own couches in front of the television.

According to research firm Technomic, consumers are more willing to adhere to some social distancing measures than others. In a survey done in mid-May, potential diners were asked how far tables would need to be in order to feel comfortable eating out in a restaurant, and although half of the respondents said that the CDC-recommended six feet would suffice, a further 25 per cent said that they would prefer nine to 15 feet between tables. These findings fall in line with the National Restaurant Association’s recommendations to foodservice establishments, which suggests relying on a reservations-only model or a call ahead seating method.

In pre-pandemic times, however, these measures would have been anathema to many smaller restaurants that, due to no-shows causing chaos on bottom lines, had been gradually moving away from traditional reservations. Furthermore, in terms of restaurant design of the front of house, each seat represents hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year depending on the style of restaurant (which partially accounts for the tightness of the restaurant kitchen space, comparatively). Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema took a tape measure to some area restaurants in 2017, finding some with a mere eight inches between them. Only the high end restaurants that Sietsema visited measured up in terms of space — and that was a relatively spacious four to five feet at the time. According to a sample floor plan by TouchBistro, the average full service restaurant requires 12 to 15 feet per customer; however, a dining room must also include service stations for cutlery and POS stations, a host area, a waiting room, and enough room between tables for servers and customers to navigate, often with bulky coats or trays of dishes and glasses. These elements take up considerable space: for example, according to TotalFoodService, small wait stations range from 6 to 10 feet per 20 diners, or 25 to 40 feet for 60 diners.

For restaurants post-pandemic, these measures don’t just mean shoving a few seats around — operators will have to consider considerable design changes in their dining rooms. Although much attention has been paid to the idea of physical barriers (more on that topic in a later article), there are other areas that will need to be rethought. 

“Try not to allow guests to congregate in waiting areas or bar areas,” reads the National Restaurant Association’s reopening guide. “Design a process to ensure guests stay separate while waiting to be seated. The process can include floor markings, outdoor distancing, waiting in cars, etc. Consider an exit from the facility separate from the entrance. Determine ingress/egress to and from restrooms to establish paths that mitigate proximity for guests and staff.”

These marking recommendations also include tape on floors or sidewalks to guide customers through the restaurant space, and prominent signage asking diners about waiting protocols. 

And although the mind boggles at these measures in the gilded dining rooms of Joël Robuchon or Per Se, they may represent a necessary trade off between safety and aesthetic in our future restaurant visits.

Source: Forbes Business

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