Understanding Clients’ Needs for a Workable Return to the Restaurant Experience

Over the past few weeks, we have met with clients, attended roundtables, observed trends and polls, and have kept our creativity flowing, to develop design solutions to help sustain our food and beverage industry partners through COVID-19 and beyond. 

New design solutions we’re considering include temporary enclosures around existing seating groups, devising clever touchless delivery systems inside existing and new restaurants, rethinking the curbside pickup landscape for our mixed-use projects as a starting point. 

However, among our clients’ topmost concerns is creating an “escape” to a semblance of pre-COVID-19 life. Redefining that experience will be important. They are confident people want to go back to dining out and not be reminded of COVID-19. And, although this may be the case, it’s still important to maintain safe precautions. To that end, many clients shared their ideas of what they think will be most important in the coming months.

Cleanliness Is Front and Center 

Moving forward, employees will be wearing masks and gloves – including waitstaff – and conducting temperature checks. As designers, we will need to develop safe storage solutions and possibly vestibules for back-of-house entrances, if needed. Dining guests are also encouraged to wear masks, but where do they put it while they’re eating? Is there a design solution that is incorporated into the table or chair? Can we create small entry vestibules that use UV light to sanitize without it feeling intrusive?

Sanitizing schedules, washing more frequently in front and back of house, and adding more waiter stations with visible hand sinks so patrons can see waiters washing their hands will become commonplace features within restaurants. Others include extra wait stations with hand sinks and sanitizing storage or retrofits, as part of the front of house. 

Some of our clients are now offering restaurant-branded hand sanitizer, to-go packaging or bottled secret marinades or sauces for sale. This “grab-n-go” aspect of restaurant design is likely to stay, and we will be creating new solutions that can be seamlessly incorporated into a client’s aesthetic and dining experience. 

Restaurant guests who choose to dine-in will now be laser-focused on food safety. Totally exposed kitchens may need to go behind glass walls to reassure customers of a restaurant’s sanitary conditions. Many existing open kitchens might also be modified with higher glass enclosures. 

As we begin work on new projects, creating a design that can accommodate for both social distancing and full capacity will be important.  We also anticipate a need for furniture that can be easily moved such as smaller tables or booths and banquettes with removable partitions that can be broken down and stored. 

Or, do we design permanent fixed seating that follows social distancing? This is a complicated question because most restaurants, even nationwide chains, have smaller budgets.  Seating in any form affects the square footage of a restaurant, which directly impacts the client’s bottom line. 

Curbside Pick-Up and Expanded Patio Space

Curbside pick-up will continue to be an important part of the industry, and patio space in all its forms will be more valuable than ever. For example, we are seeing “parklets” pop up in South Dallas, which offer seating in parallel parking spaces and available green space outside of restaurants. Now more than ever, we will be guiding clients on how to design for extra temporary patio dining space and curbside pick-up areas, as well as expanding outdoor space for dining. Additional patios will be especially important for bars, as bar seating is typically designed for closer interpersonal interaction.   

But curbside pick-up and patios are not always a possibility, especially for restaurants located in existing mixed-use developments and shopping centers where sidewalks and landscapes are limited. Looking ahead, we can bring this issue to the forefront with our mixed-use clients. How would this affect the design of the adjacent retail storefront? Can restaurants use parking spaces as temporary seating or waiting areas just outside their own storefronts, if available? 

These are the some of the questions we will discuss with our restaurant and large development clients as we think about solutions for possible retrofits. Restaurants with larger patios serving more patrons year-round will also need additional ways to keep patrons comfortable and safe. All solutions that can be provided for both retrofits and new designs.  

Another obstacle to patio expansions, is the requirement that they are surrounded by a fence with a gate in order to serve alcohol — an issue we could potentially discuss with code officials, for retrofitting.             

Changes to Corporate Dining Venues 

Our corporate clients are currently instituting sanitary criteria for existing food and beverages spaces, including hand sanitizing states at every food station or counter.

Much of the corporate trend in the last few years has been self-order, self-pay, and self-serve, which is now a means of possible contamination.  Those clients still interested in self-order and pay will need to turn to mobile devices and apps for ordering, which is the safest approach available today. Bottled beverages are commonplace in these spaces and will likely continue to be, however, self-serve options like soda and tea dispensers are out for the foreseeable future. 

In the future, large cafeterias could very well be replaced with dispersed, smaller venues that hold fewer people and provide socially distanced lounge and dining seating. Or we may even see a new model emerge for corporate food and beverage spaces.  

Ultimately, understanding the practical needs of our clients, and the emotions behind how and why people will return to dining out and how to do so safely, will enable us to continue creating enjoyable, and memorable experiences for all.