Modifying Your Environment: 7 Wins For Restaurants During COVID-19

As CEO of one of the most cutting edge architectural design firms, servicing a wide variety of clients, from household names to trendy quick-serve, from fine dining to food halls, I can tell you first hand, we need to move quickly as restaurants start to reopen.

According to the Zagat Future of Dining Study, 84 percent of people said they’d be less likely to visit a restaurant right when it reopens if operating at full capacity. Dollars are scarce, and when patrons do decide to spend, they want to be sure of two things: 1.) It’s a business they believe in 2.) It’s safe.

I am acutely aware of these simple and valid customer demands as I lead a talented team of designers and architects in helping restaurateurs provide a successful guest experience that keeps their doors open during a global health crisis. Here’s how my team at Chipman Design Architecture is thinking about restaurant design mid and post-COVID-19.

CDA Design Strategist, Julie Babcock, sketches the customer journey

1. Prioritize Takeout

What’s most important for restaurants is that they’re able to act quickly and create a separate takeout experience. Based on the existing floor plan and space, a completely separate environment for each experience might not be possible, but there should at least be something distinct in the customer journey, whether it’s dine-in, takeout, or curbside. Consider appointing or hiring different heads of operations to oversee each of these customer journeys to avoid overlapping in physical places like pickup and check-in areas.

2. Plan For Outdoor Seating

During the summer and fall months as well as in temperate climates, moving the dining experience outdoors feels like a no-brainer right now, provided a restaurant has the space. But we need to keep in mind how that will work operationally. We are helping our clients plan for those what-if weather moments, such as rainstorms, temperature drops, and sudden wind to make sure that the outdoor dining solutions are adaptable. Looking ahead to winter, we are innovating on outdoor solutions beyond simply creating a tank outdoors. The best, low cost, readily-available example would be something like an apres-ski-like environment with outdoor heaters and clientele prepared with appropriate gear.

3. Direct Traffic

One of the quickest and most effective actions a restaurant can take is figuring out and communicating safe traffic patterns and pathways in their space. For instance, revolving doors are a big congestion point, so it should be very clear to the customer that the revolving door is the only way in, while the way out is the ADA door. There are also many beautiful, inexpensive ways to implement moveable, directional signage that feels on-brand. It has delighted us to see our teams working with art vendors who are developing their own brand-integrated graphics with elevated design and clear messaging.

Pre-pandemic, a patron scans a QR code. Image from Restaurant Business Magazine

4. Leverage Technology

In our current dining climate, there’s a lot that fine dining can learn from quick-service restaurants and fast casuals. Most notably, the touchless experiences of high trafficked quick-service can be carried over to fine dining. Everything from sinks, soap dispensers, and doors have the ability to incorporate touchless operation. It doesn’t all need to be digital. An analog solution, for example, is a simple foot pedal at the bottom of a door for contactless entry and exit.

Implementing a more robust mobile process can be an effective solution as well. What can fine dining do in terms of mobile? We recommend utilizing platforms that are already available in order to provide more seamless experiences. Though many small businesses and one-off restaurants haven’t relied too heavily on technology to date, it will come to the point where walk-ins are prohibited and reservations are required, with most communication happening on a mobile phone.

I’m also a big fan of QR codes. When they came out 10 years ago, they were definitely not the cool kid on the block. Since large national chains such as Starbucks and Taco Bell have integrated QR code-reading into their app, it’s shown what a powerful and meaningful tool it can be in easily communicating with people, whether it’s scanning a menu or contactless payment methods.

5. Rethink Indoor Layouts

In terms of dining in, we’re looking for elegant solutions to distancing that use the existing architecture in the space as much as possible. Guzman y Gomez, one of our restaurants in Chicagoland, is utilizing existing architecture like custom steel mesh to create visual cues for how guests should safely move through the space. Fine dining has distancing built into their layout already since no one wants to bump elbows with a stranger while enjoying their $35 steak.

Redesigned spaces and new buildouts don’t need to look sterile. Although trends have skewed minimalist in restaurant design for a few years now, the public will be hungry for the theater of food. The fine dining experience will be even more important as it will be marked for important celebrations. We believe that one of the lasting effects of this pandemic will be maximalism in interior design, with the dining experience becoming an escape.

We have already been using beautifully designed, prefabricated dividers that create a feeling of safety and privacy. Though we do not recommend anything be installed permanently. Instead, look to temporary clip solutions that can be easily moved around. If you have a beautiful terrazzo floor, you don’t want to drill into that and ruin it.

6. Consider Safer Materials

When looking into new solutions, or upgrading current architecture, consider using safer, more hygienic materials. Utilizing materials that have typically been specified for healthcare is an easy win for restaurants and porcelain tile has always been bleach-cleanable. Copper is naturally antimicrobial, and there are many durable textiles that are easily cleaned, including new virus-resistant textiles being developed that we’re keeping an eye on.

7. Don’t Forget The Kitchen

The kitchen is such a hard topic because we all know that restaurant margins are notoriously slim. The struggle that I have is that there’s so much discussion about the guest experience, when the back of the house comfort is generally left ignored. In my mind, the kitchen matters. The kitchen staff is the heartbeat of a restaurant. If they aren’t taken care of, then no one will be.

Spatially speaking, a restaurant’s back of the house is traditionally so tight that every inch is used to full capacity, so it’s hard to change what is in there. In a post-COVID-19 experience, the first change that can be made is from a chef perspective: streamline the menu to ease operations. Additionally, we might see reclamation of part of the front of the house, as all prep doesn’t have to be done in the kitchen.

In the current climate, the restaurant industry needs to adapt, but it won’t all be cold, dystopian, and full of sad six-foot markers and plexiglass. I feel challenged by the demands of creating a safe and beautiful space for diners, but not discouraged. The opposite is true, in fact. I’m excited by the creative solutions that will surely rise to the challenge. We need to be mindful that this crisis will end at some point. Of course, there may be another crisis, but with resilience and flexibility, we will be able to pivot to meet it head on together.

CEO | Principal at Chipman Design Architecture