The future of dining
Staff at the Mediamatic restaurant serve food to volunteers seated in small glasshouses during a try-out of a setup which respects social distancing abiding by government directives to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Photo: Peter Dejong, AP
Finally, we had the first day without new hospitalizations in Albany County since the shutdown, and with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announced four-phase economic reopening for New York state and plausible mid-June dates for the restaurants to reopen, the idea of a return to on-site dining is feeling distinctly real. But figuring out what it might look like — or how it will work — is less clear. As chef-restaurateur Tom Colicchio said in a recent New Yorker interview, “The question isn’t when a restaurant can open. The question is: When can the public feel safe going to a restaurant?” His comment struck a chord.
We can confidently assume comprehensive measures will be in place in accordance with federal guidelines and metrics for reopening New York. Measures are certain to include staff in face masks and gloves, disposable menus, sanitized or sealed cutlery, contactless ordering via an app, sanitizer stations for customers and staff, surface cleaning every 30 minutes, partitions at counters, spacing between tables, 50% to 75% reduced capacity and a focus on outdoor spaces whether they be patios, sidewalks or newly pedestrianized streets. Whatever it ultimately looks like, it won’t be a simple turn-key return to dining as we knew it. No matter how well such measures are rolled out, they are likely to detract from the experience overall, but the degree to which we miss dining out means we will hopefully weather it well.
Via Zoom I asked girlfriends if they’d hurry back to their favorite bars and restaurants with the ban lifted. Yes, most said, if they could sit outside. Yes, with the expected safety protocols in place. But consensus foundered on a pressing, thorny issue close to the heart of most women: bathrooms, that most exposed, high-traffic, potentially infectious, multi use contact point. (It’s no surprise that the leading voices on the importance of public toilets in urban planning and inclusive urban design are women: Dr. Clara Greed in the U.K. and the late Jane Jacobs in the U.S.) Would alternating stalls meet distance regs or increase the density of use on fewer lavs? Would a hand-sanitizing station outside the bathroom inspire confidence before touching the door handle? Would dedicated staff sanitizing between customer use? Should we limit our liquid intake? Carry stand-up portable female urination devices? Would our willingness to dine at restaurant tables falter on this?
Public toilets, as a matter of public health, is a question not only for restaurants but open-space venues. Take the new drive-in raves in Germany and Denmark, where 250 cars, limited to two people each, converge on drive-in theaters (“autokinos”) for socially distanced raves. Cars park 5 feet apart but occupants who must, at some point, pee observe the distancing markers at frequently sanitized porta-potties onsite. Would this work at Tanglewood and SPAC? Could we copy high school students “circling the wagons” most nights in school parking lots and tailgate our fix of summer arts?
Though the overnight implosion of an industry that employed 15 million workers and had been expected to generate $899 billion in 2020 sales has demonstrated the fragility of the hospitality industry, worker protections and deep flaws in the food system, there are glimmers of hope in innovations that could improve the industry overall. What those will be is getting chewed like cud in food media, but my takeaway comes, in part, from a daily interaction with Instagram.
Seeing so many people cooking and baking at home has surely increased the awareness of what it takes to produce a meal, the cost of shopping for multiple ingredients, the time involved with braising meat or baking something as simple as bread. With that, it should be easier to reset consumer expectations of the cost of labor and food and make this a teachable moment: Big Industrial Food is unsustainable. For future success, restaurants will need to be multifaceted with to go, delivery, dine-in, retail, and agile enough to pivot as needed, perhaps with little time. Those who added grocery shelves will almost certainly keep them. The pandemic has expanded restaurant identity and that forward propulsion is unlikely to change back.
It could go one of two ways: Dining out may be a pricier treat on par with going to the theater, or simplified menus may steer us back to the early millennial trend for inexpensive, tapas-style, personal plates. The rise of virtual tipping jars, via Venmo, Cash App and similar, seems likely to stay and — finally — optional tipping may be eliminated in favor of stabilized front- and back-of-house wages, particularly since servers whose income depends on tips will be hit by reduced capacity seating. For future success, restaurants will need to be multifaceted (to go, delivery, dine-in, groceries) and agile.
We’re getting a glimpse at the future in short-term practices coming out of Asia and Europe. Think temperature checks before entering restaurants, scannable QR codes detailing disinfecting protocols and times (like an electronic version of the initialed bathroom checks in store restrooms), floor markers for customer distancing and contactless, everything from curbside and entryway pick up, to ordering and payment via restaurant app when dining in. Even fast-food chains are exploring changes: In Milan, Burger King is testing a dine-in reservation and ordering app; in McDonald’s in Hong Kong, customers stand before a thermal monitor before ordering.
If guest comfort is the dominant variable, the return to restaurant dining is likely to be slow at first, and it will be a challenge for restaurants to afford to open at 50% capacity (or lower) with sufficient staff to handle supervising guests and sanitizing surfaces while running food and drinks. There are endearing models coming out of Europe like the two-person “quarantine greenhouses” at a restaurant in Amsterdam (in the Netherlands), where servers in plastic face shields pass plates to diners on planks and pour wine from outside. In the U.K., air purifiers are part of the modeling plans for revised restaurant layouts.
I turned to my stash of restaurant trends, an end-of-year rite of passage as data companies make annual forecasts. One, by QSR magazine back in January, caught my eye for its effort to predict restaurant trends for the next decade. Like Colicchio’s comment, it struck me hard. “The greatest wars in the world will be fought in the food service industry,” declared the founder of one consulting group, while contributors to the article anticipated the rapid evolution of “what constitutes a restaurant,” diversification in restaurant offerings, hybrid restaurants offering twin dine-in and takeout functionality, the technological influence on all aspects of operations, growth in mobile ordering, social media marketing, delivery and artificial intelligence, spurred on by the youthful, tech-savvy and cuisine-eclectic Gen Z and Gen Alpha. Despite the continued social component of dining, “the restaurants of tomorrow will be designed to cater to people who don’t want to come in” was one strangely prescient quote, although another forecast a “return to wanting to dine in.”
A Bloomberg opinion article raised the prospect of de facto segregation in terms of risk tolerance to socializing and dining out: those more comfortable, or who have had the virus, versus those still at risk. No one foresaw a global pandemic and hospitality shutdown, yet these trend forecasts seem to support restaurant reopening plans. Perhaps, with stimulus money correctly allocated, there is greater hope for survival and regrowth than we have allowed ourselves to expect.