Be My Guest: Reopening the Restaurant Industry
What will the “new normal” look like for restaurants in the era of COVID-19?
By Apoorva Prakash
Since we were young, we have been taught to be guests. From invitations to the homes of friends and family, to small talk at cafés, gatherings outside food trucks and elegant multi-course meals at restaurants, food has always brought people together. Families bond, friends joke and businesses negotiate across a table. On a larger scale, countries develop their culture and assert their individuality through their food. And across cultures, the desire to be treated and served well rests deep down within all of us. And lately, that’s been hard to find.
The COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled reservations, put brunches and dinner parties on hold and kicked restaurant awards to the curb. In short, the global hospitality network has gone into hibernation. Some restaurants are offering takeout and delivery options in an effort to make ends meet, just scraping by day to day. Others have slapped on their “we’re closed” signs until this is over. And still others have already opted to permanently close their doors.
Governments and restaurant associations have begun rolling out strategies and guidelines for reopening restaurants, as we try to visualize the post-pandemic dining world. For many, the revenue that would come from reopening is vital, but only a few will manage to survive the new normal, and reopening will be slow. Here’s why.
The Cost of Reopening Restaurants After COVID-19
Closing wasn’t the work of a day, and reopening won’t be, either. Ordering produce, hiring a cleaning crew, filling up the fridge, and re-hiring staff — all this takes time, and none of it is cheap. For cash-strapped restaurants who have taken on dizzying amounts of debt while closing their doors, finding the funds to reopen may not be possible.
On April 27, restaurants in Georgia were given the go-ahead to open up shop, yet many owners felt that it was too soon to do so. In an industry known for its slim margins, restaurants can’t simply pick up where they left off. Add on the possibility of a second wave or a positive case in-house, forcing them to close doors again, and reopening could be deadly. In Vancouver, restaurants are looking at the possibility of a soft opening — but like in Atlanta, they worry about the economic impact of potentially having to close a second time.
Reduced Spending and Smaller Budgets for Customers
In the economic uncertainty of the past few months, consumer spending has consistently been low. According to Dan Barber, chef and owner of Blue Hill, “the idea that people are going to be spending money in restaurants is preposterous. We’re headed for an enormous recession.” In addition to safety concerns, restaurateurs need to consider whether consumers in their area will be willing to spend anywhere near what they used to. And will they dine out as often? Some restaurants, like this Atlanta restaurant group, are testing the waters by surveying their regulars about their expectations.
A Complete Lack of Tourist Contributions
Businesses that have historically relied on income from tourists during periods of high traffic will have to forgo that contribution this year. For instance, Michelin-starred restaurants that once attracted an eclectic mix of patrons from across the globe will, for now, only be able to cater to locals and regulars. And with the continuation of travel restrictions, those tables are going to stay empty for the foreseeable future.
Some are finding creative ways to adapt, such as Denmark’s Noma, which is having a soft opening as an outdoor wine and burger bar. A little different from their usual fare — arguably the best Nordic cuisine in the world — but a smart way to safely serve their guests.
A Less-than-Picturesque Dining Experience
Many restaurants will open their doors with pleasure, but with that “open” sign will come a whole lot of new and stringent rules. Hand sanitizer, masks and temperature checks will be the beginnings of this new reality. Diners may be required to disclose personal information such as health and past travel details. In short, you are going to require some extra time and patience for your next reservation.
Some restaurants, such as Hong Kong’s Black Sheep group, have shared their own restaurant reopening plans. Here in BC, WorkSafeBC has issued detailed guidelines on how restaurants can safely reopen for business.
Plexiglas barricades in spacious locations will be part of the new equation in many places. This effect of this will be most felt in cozy ramen noodles outlets and snug corner shops. In some places, plexiglass shields will be erected between tables. In others, guests may find themselves dining alongside mannequins to provide an illusion of fullness.
For casual eateries, it was always about the meal and the company you share it with, and that won’t change with some shifts in service style. At fine-dining establishments, however, part of the experience is the royal treatment guests receive, which will certainly be affected by incoming restrictions.
Contact between front of the house teams and diners will be kept to a minimum. Masked smiles, gloved hands and minimal contact will all play their part in the pathway to recovery. Gone are the days when captains gently drape white linen napkins onto your seats. Chalkboards, disposable menus or e-menus accessed from your smartphones will replace the firm grip of leather. Sommeliers’ sales pitches will no longer include a whiff in the airspace of a wine glass. Interaction will be limited to getting food to the table. In many cases, billing will be switched to an online portal or contactless payments, and cash may not be accepted.
To enable proper social distancing, in-seat dining will be slashed by about half and group dining limited to four or fewer. From an economic perspective, this makes it nearly impossible for restaurants to make ends meet (as detailed by several restaurateurs in Seattle).
Most restaurants earn a majority of their revenue on weekends; these dollars pay the weekday bills. Being limited to half capacity doesn’t necessarily mean that they will constantly operate at that capacity, nor does it confirm fifty percent of previously earned revenue. Will businesses be able to attract enough diners to reach this new seating capacity, and will the average cheque from those customers be enough to make up for the lost income? Only time will tell — but for many, it’s not looking good.
For newly reopened restaurants, loyal diners will be the first to trickle in, searching for the nostalgia and appeal of past experiences. Many will be understandably hesitant about the safety of in-seat dining. It is imperative that hygiene is a top priority, now more than ever. Demonstrating a clear commitment to recommended hygiene practices will boost customer confidence and consequently, encourage repeat business and recommendations.
Despite new protective measures, some extra-cautious diners will continue to avoid restaurants — or will visit, but spend their meal preoccupied by adhering to hygiene standards. Staff can assuage their worries by being careful to follow these protocols themselves, and providing speedy service so they can leave quickly (with a bonus that this leaves more room for other diners). Others, who missed the leisure of being served, will return and adapt to the new normal, possibly hesitatingly. Still others will choose to stick to take-out and delivery options until COVID-19 dies down altogether — which could be a long time.
Fewer Staff, More Rules
Many hospitality staff troops were temporarily laid off. Given the state of uncertainty in the industry and the necessity of keeping costs low, re-hiring will be kept to the bare minimum. Chefs will have to manage two stations to maintain distancing, and avoid touching food with bare hands. Hand washing every thirty minutes, scheduled sanitizing of shared surfaces and banning of physical contact between employees will reinforce workplace safety. Up at the front, servers will be signed off for fewer shifts, and enforcing the new guidelines will be a big portion of their job duties.
Involuntary Menu Changes
Restaurants that previously offered varied menus to their customers will be forced to dial it down to a single page. This will help lessen the variability of food costs, wastage, and keep a moderate inventory level on shelves. Bi-weekly or monthly rotating menu changes will help restaurants attract repeat customers and be able to offer seasonal produce. A shorter menu can be executed by a smaller number of cooks, keeping labor costs low. Fine-dining establishments that are primarily tasting-menu focused will adapt to a shorter version, with fewer courses offered, and find new ways to live up to their premiere standards.
The Road Ahead for the Restaurant Industry
To get to the point where guests can once again indulge care-free at restaurants, restaurateurs will need to get creative and find ways to adapt to the hygiene standards necessary to keep everyone safe in a pandemic. Doing everything possible to minimize the spread of the disease will have a huge impact on the future welfare of the food and service industry; diners and restaurant artisans will both have to do their part. For now, the warmth and comfort that we associate with restaurant dining will have to be on hold, for the future of food fare and dining.
Apoorva Prakash is a freelance writer with a strong affinity for food, travel and culture. Her culinary stints include L’espalier, Boston; GAA, Bangkok; and Masque, Mumbai. She is currently at Hawksworth Restaurant, Vancouver.