No one moves to a great city to eat alone in their apartment. And yet, right now, many of us are staying home, while thousands of independent restaurants and bars, which give cities their distinctive flavours, are shuttered. We do not know when these restrictions will end completely, or when ‘the new normal’ will just become ‘normal’, but nearly every forecast predicts the restaurant landscape will be profoundly changed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even in the best of times, running an independent restaurant or bar is a labour of love, built on razor-thin margins and a fundamental belief that good hospitality makes cities, and their people, better. Unique businesses, they cater to both the practical and emotional needs of their customers – serving food and drink alongside an intangible but essential sense of connection and community. Perhaps that’s why grim forecasts of a blighted restaurant landscape seem so heartbreaking.
But, as curves flatten around the world and restrictions begin to lift, there are signs of hope. Our essential human need to come together and break bread ensures that there will be survivors although they will almost certainly operate differently than they did before.
“Any restaurant that wants to have a chance of surviving the coronavirus will have to completely reconsider what being a restaurant means,” writes Vaughn Tan for London’s Eater.com. That means pivoting to options that extend beyond basic takeaway and delivery. It means steakhouses operating as butcher shops; cafes selling the food they buy in bulk as groceries; fine dining establishments offering drive-through options; and high-end restaurants developing medium-priced, recession-friendly menu options. Restaurants that can let go of their old identities to adopt new, more fluid ones should stand the best chance of survival.
Your good health
If an ability to transform on the fly isn’t enough of a challenge, restaurants that intend to pull through the pandemic will need to reassure customers that they are committed to health and safety. According to a poll from Morning Consult, a global data collection agency based in the US, 80% of those surveyed think they will still feel nervous about going to a restaurant in six months’ time. A YouGov poll of UK residents found that 60% of them would feel uncomfortable entering a pub in the near future, even if government health agencies gave the all-clear.
To counteract this understandable anxiety, restaurants are already adjusting their marketing messages to focus on cleanliness and safety. The website of Creator, a San Francisco burger restaurant, boasts robot-assisted chefs, as well as “hermetically sealed, double-bagged meals” that can be delivered on a “self-sanitizing conveyor surface”. Not all restaurants will need to veer into deep science-fiction territory but, with major chains including KFC and Wendy’s advertising safety measures such as temperature checks, independent restaurants may need to adopt similar practices to compete.
Survival of the smartest
Restaurant and hospitality real estate developers are already making plans for the years ahead. While smaller, independent restaurants are considering how to make their existing spaces as safe and hygienic as possible, McDonald’s, Starbucks and other behemoths are working with teams of designers to assess how the spaces they acquire in the next few years can reflect the new normal.
For restaurants that reopen, and new restaurants that open in the years to come, expect new design elements based on health and safety. Instead of cosy dining rooms packed with people, there will be fewer tables spaced farther apart, more outdoor space, and a focus on add-ons that provide flexibility in customer interactions, such as takeaway windows in urban areas and drive-through options in the suburbs.
An industry-wide survey by QSR magazine highlighted another long-term trend: contactless everything, with restaurant groups that have the means investing in touch-free sensors on fixtures, bathroom facilities and eventually every step of the dining experience.
Even before the pandemic, some establishments were beginning to use digital check-ins with apps that allowed customers to move more swiftly to their table. Merely convenient before, now they could become a critical safety measure. Looking ahead, full-service restaurant apps are likely to become a prominent feature, allowing customers to reserve, order and pay, all on their personal mobile devices.
In this environment, open kitchens, once a prerequisite for every hipster establishment, may become a thing of the past. Some restaurants may choose to dispense with on-site kitchens altogether. Until now, dark kitchens have been the preserve of takeaway chains. Now forecasters suggest they may increasingly be used for in-house dining too.
Those that continue to rely on traditional, connected kitchens are likely to install plexiglass barriers to separate workers and customers, sustaining some semblance of warmth and visibility while striving to keep everyone safe.
Share and share alike
The post-Covid-19 landscape is also likely to favour restaurants which are generous of spirit. Many restaurants in the UK, while closed to the general public, are donating hot meals to the NHS and homeless communities. In New York City, Eleven Madison Park – a Manhattan institution once deemed the finest dining experience in the world – began operating as a food commissary for healthcare workers and first responders. In other words, restaurants that once provided a sense of community through traditional food service are still doing it by providing essential services – staying connected to their original mission and the hearts of their customers in the process.
Giving back isn’t one-sided, though. In recent weeks, as restaurants have pivoted to help their communities, we have seen communities pivot to help their restaurants. Across the world, GoFundMes have been set up, with locals buying nights out at their favourite community spots now, to ensure they can enjoy them in the future. Again, no one moves to a great city to eat alone in their apartment, and such gestures should help ensure that we won’t – at least not forever. But in the meantime, as the owners of The Clove Club in Shoreditch wrote to customers before closing their doors: “Now is the time for us all to be the change we want to see in our lives. Let’s look after each other and remember to be kind.”
Paige Ferrari is a writer and documentary producer located in Los Angeles, California. She loves exploring the intersections of food, culture, business and technology.