How COVID-19 is changing the dining experience

When restaurants and drinking venues reopen in the coming months, their use of space and ways of serving customers will be very different to before

May 11, 2020

Didier Lebrun © Photo News via Getty Images

As bars and restaurants look to adapt to a new normal of minimal contact and social distancing, they’re rethinking layout, service and back-of-house operations.

While Lithuanian capital Vilnius has plans to become a giant open-air café, elsewhere, eating and drinking venues are reconfiguring the indoor space they have. For those looking to move away from the bare bones of takeaway only to welcome back diners, reopening will mean a host of new methods, from reduced seating to increased use of technology.

“The response to COVID-19 restrictions will vary greatly and depend very much on the type of dining experience restaurateurs were previously known for,” says Ken Higman, Foodservice Consulting director at JLL. “In particular, small, intimate restaurants, while being able to add sneeze-screens to bar areas, will find space tight if they need to introduce two meters of distance between tables.”

New ways of dishing up food

In the UK, food retailer Gregg’s is trialing new operational measures to limit the number of people in stores and maintain stringent hygiene standards as part of a phased reopening. Fast-food and coffee shops will find adapting to new social distancing measures easier thanks to their existing serving methods, Higman adds.

“You can see how beneficial existing, very structured approaches of McDonald’s or large barista chains will be, with staff stationed at designated positions, from the tills to the coffee machine, rather than moving around,” he says.

For dine-in eateries, staffing levels and the range of food offered on menus will need to be revised to make the numbers work. Life in traditionally cramped kitchens will have to change, too.

“If a restaurant has been used to a certain number of chefs working back-to-back then that may no longer work,” Higman says. “Rather than seek more space, it’s more likely that staffing numbers will change and that means that menus may need to be adapted; which dishes can be prepared safely and without that multiple input?”

Out front, the way diners are seated will change the reservation process in the medium and potentially long-term.

“Communal seating like we’ve seen in places such as Wagamama is fine if it remains at that spaced out, pre-7pm level,” says Higman. “But the kinds of long queues around the block we’ve been used to seeing at the likes of Burger & Lobster will need to move online. There simply won’t be space for diners to queue up outside restaurants like they have done in the past.”

He adds that while larger restaurant chains can run their own booking apps, allowing people to reserve a table rather than the no-reservations style which has become popular in big cities, independent restaurants will be looking to tech innovators to provide this type of service. Equally there could be more time limits on tables – a measure that’s already in place at many higher-end restaurants.

Tech to the rescue?

The touchscreen order points already being used by fast-food outlets could also become more prevalent post-lockdown.

“Touchscreen kiosks have been around for some time and are one way to get orders taken without human interaction,” Higman says. “As have tablets or iPads for ordering from the table. But they will require even greater levels of cleaning and upkeep.

“In the longer-term, voice or gesture activated menus would provide for even greater distancing.”

Smaller food halls face a particular challenge, although, in large food halls where space is less restricted, social distancing may be easier to put in place. In the U.S, a mix of social media and off-premises marketing have for now been used by food hall operators. Longer-term, tech could again help.

“Where you have space and a range of food concepts on offer, then QR code ordering could become more common,” says Higman. “And food halls, where people order from different outlets, are a good place to put such tech to use.”

Some of the shorter-term changes that COVID-19 brings about are likely to remain. Modifications to the UK’s licensing laws, which almost overnight allowed restaurants to operate as deliveries, are unlikely to be reversed.

Long-term, the dark kitchens, where food is prepared purely for takeaway, could become a greater part of the mix if the heightened appetite for takeaway food continues once lockdown is fully lifted - but only where rents are low.

“Running a dark kitchen out of an empty restaurant in a prime, city centre location will not make financial sense,” Higman says. Despite the government support available in various countries, restaurants will need to look very closely at how they can balance the books in the coming months, and many will need to make some hard decisions.

“The big question is how many diners can a restaurant justify opening for?” he says. “And how quickly will people adapt to the new normal?”