What Does Social Distancing Mean for Social Businesses Like Restaurants?

What are some ways restaurant owners and operators can be safe and welcome guests while maintaining social distance?

As the Coronavirus crisis continues, Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine asked industry insiders what best practices restaurants should have in place for social distancing, as per CDC guidelines

Rakuten Ready surveyed more than 100 customers to measure how behaviors around dining have, or are anticipated to change around the perceptions and impact of COVID-19 on restaurants, food delivery and order for pickup. Among the findings:

  • Most diners are not overly fearful, with 57 percent making no change to their dining behaviors. 
  • However, 20 percent of respondents did, unfortunately, say they were avoiding restaurant dining completely. 
  • 17 percent said they were just avoiding dining-in (opting to pick-up or have food delivered), with 10 percent appearing to lean toward Ordering for Pickup only. 
  • 34 percent of respondents saying they plan to prepare more meals at home 

"It's a challenging time for restaurants — large and small — and we believe that there are some practical steps restaurants can take to address the social distancing concerns you and many are voicing today," said Susie Fogelson, Founder/ CEO, F&Co. "First and foremost, restaurants need to address the obvious points about density and restrictions being put in place by local public officials, about cleanliness and safety and engagement.  Utmost care and attention is required today."

She said this is also a moment of opportunity for restaurants. 

"The desire for convenience has always been present, coupled with an equally strong desire for delicious food.  In today's world, safety is the third leg of the stool.  So the best way for restaurants to remain relevant, stay in business and stay connected to their customers is to increase delivery and pick up orders. And communications is front and center, particularly for restaurants that might not be as well known for out of restaurant food.  It is critical that restaurants message this option at every touchpoint (social!), reinforcing that the food customers love is still as delicious as ever prepared in a safe manner."

Bo Peabody, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of restaurant reservation and rewards app Seated, Board member of Boqueria Restaurants, and Co-Owner of Mezze Restaurant Group, suggests:

  • Beyond spacing out tables, take advantage  of outdoor space if you have it available. We’re lucky in the sense that this outbreak is happening while we have milder weather, and people will feel more comfortable in an open air environment. So while it’s early in the season, open up patio and sidewalk space if you have it. 
  • To the extent that you can, create spaces where people can feel safer because there’s airflow and they’re not confined in a space with no windows or open windows. Crack a window, open the blinds, do what you can to make the space feel open and airy. 
  • Up the restaurant’s hygiene and cleanliness standards: fully sanitize tables, menus and chairs after each reservation. Not only does this maintain cleanliness, but it will provide comfort to other diners in the restaurant who witness it. 
  • Continue to clearly communicate your plan of action to both customers and employees. Reassure them that as long as it’s safe and comfortable to do so, you’ll remain open but with heightened hygiene and cleanliness standards. 

"It’s important to remember that in times  of disaster, restaurants have always served as a gathering place for the community," he stressed. " It’s up to us as restaurant operators to create a welcoming, comforting environment when people are feeling concerned."

Rob Pellegrini, a real estate and business attorney for restaurants in Greater Boston, is anticipating a need for towns/municipalities to change their local laws so that restaurants can operate outside of the confines of their brick and mortar space (for those who are not permitted).

"Restaurants and bars with outdoor spaces will have the greatest chance of surviving a coronavirus downturn this year and for the rest, they may have to pivot to Plan B,"  said Robert R. Pellegrini, Jr. Esq., president of PK Boston.  That includes working with the town to amend certain by-laws and have an open dialog with local leadership.

Disaster response expert Patrick Hardy said preparation is key when establishing social distancing measures and said restaurants can quickly create customized plans for free via the Disaster Hawk app.

His other advice:

  • To avoid touching other people, implement a tablet ordering system. Be sure to wipe down the tablets frequently.
  • Use a system where the greeter informs the guests of where their table is and then have the person leaving the menus put their hand up so they know where to go. Then, they can take two steps back and let the guests sit at the table.
  • Have the servers leave the drinks at the front of the table and let guests grab them after the server has stood up.
  • They should consider leaving menus at the table instead of having the server take them. If this is not feasible then make sure that one of the bussers grabs the menu and not the server
  • Make it clear to the servers to limit the number of times they are touching cash and credit cards.

"Social distancing can be effective, but restaurant management needs to consider how it applies to both the front of the house where patrons are, and the back of the house where the staff is likely to be together for eight or ten hours," said Roslyn Stone, MPH, COO of Zero Hour Health and Founder of Zedic. She also suggests:

  • Upfront, consider seating every other table, taking less reservations and upping “to go” options so patrons can eat at home. Certain jurisdictions like New York City are requiring seating only 50 percent of capacity.
  • In the back of the house, restaurant management should discontinue alley rallies and staff meetings; instead, communicate via group chat or video so all staff get the same messages.
  • Family meals should be “to go” or served buffet style -foregoing everyone sitting around one table.
  • Many employees socialize after their shifts – either at yur bar or elsewhere. Please discourage or suggest limits this right now.
  • Kitchens often have tight workspaces where staff are working closely together, particularly in prep areas.  Considering spreading prep out, either physically or by schedule.

"It bears reminding that we continue to hear about very complicated situations where managers worked sick and attended meetings, employees self-quarantined after very casual exposure to someone who hadn’t tested positive (or had) and many had difficulty finding testing for sick employees. These are all things that are out of our control, but social distancing is something that can be controlled in many circumstances and will help curb transmission."

On Tuesday, March 17, Stone will present a free webinar in conjunction with The Food and Beverage Shows titled, "Restaurant Preparation to Minimize COVID-19 Disease Risk and What You Need to Do Now." To learn more and register,  click here

Rick Camac, Dean of Restaurant & Hospitality Management at the Institute of Culinary Education, pointed out the patrons and restaurant operators need to be smart and safe so this current health crisis doesn't become a long-term economic one. 

"Restaurants that are 70 percent-filled look empty and if they go to 50 percent, it will be horrible." (Limiting seating capacity to 50 percent is in compliance with New York State’s COVID-19 public gathering mandate.) 

Camac said many restaurants already have stringent cleaning practices in place making them a safer environment than, for example, the car service that dropped them off. 

"You're in a social setting everywhere," he said. "Be smart about choices."