Your Playbook to a Successful COVID-19 Restaurant Experience

It’s no secret that the dining scene has changed drastically in the wake of COVID-19. As states across the country have lifted and eased restrictions, more and more restaurants have been able to open up — but how are they adapting, especially if they don’t have proper outdoor patios? And what happens now that the temperature is starting to drop in many regions?

With more than one million restaurant locations across the United States and 63 percent of consumers saying they’d rather spend money on an experience instead of buying an item, restaurants are getting creative and finding new ways to adapt. 

From customizable protective shields and partitions to hand sanitizing stations and tricks for taking an outdoor dining space to the next level (umbrellas and planters, anyone?), here’s what restaurateurs need to know to fully embrace the “new normal” dining experience.   

Design Your Floor Plan with Social Distancing in Mind

Layout has always been an important part of any restaurant, but now it’s taking on new meaning. The floor plan of a seating area should not only make it easy for employees and patrons to observe social distancing guidelines, but the foot traffic flow should also make sense. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Make sure that the tables are at least six feet apart, which for most restaurants means you may need to reduce the number of tables. 
  • Remove buffet and other communal food areas.
  • Move tables away from high-traffic areas, such as bathrooms and service stations, in order to minimize contact. 
  • Set up partitions or plexiglass dividers to mitigate potential contact from one table to the next.
  • Lower the number of items on the tables — yes, including condiments! — to reduce touchpoints. 
  • Create designated areas (for curbside pickup and for those guests waiting to be seated).
  • Establish designated entrances and exits to keep traffic flowing in one direction. 

If you have the time and space for any kind of loftier projects, now might be the right time to renovate your flooring. For example, using different colors and textures is a great way to designate and differentiate certain spaces within the restaurant. 

Give Your Outdoor Space a Refresh

All states have reopened in some capacity, but in many cases, restrictions remain. To maximize the safety of both employees and patrons, many restaurants have embraced outdoor seating. This has forced businesses and city officials to get creative, blocking off sidewalks and even closing down streets in order to create al fresco dining rooms. 

It’s important to note, however, that restaurateurs should always be mindful of city ordinances, which can dictate everything from barrier design and rules about access to lists of approved materials for furniture. 

Given that plein air is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future, restaurants have been looking for ways to spruce up their outdoor spaces — decks, patios, courtyards, etc. — in order to create an aesthetically pleasing environment and accommodate an influx of customers. Some simple ways to update a space:

Planters are an effective way to mark space, create distance between tables and minimize noise, all while creating a vibrant atmosphere. There are a wide variety of options to choose from, including wood crates, ceramic or terracotta pots, tire planters and more, so you can customize the design to match your aesthetic. 

Temporary furniture can be both practical and stylish. For a more rustic design, picnic tables can comfortably seat small groups of people and are harder to remove, making it easier to enforce social distancing. For a more industrial design, metal surfaces are durable and easy to disinfect. You can even incorporate furniture into your design plan so that it serves the dual purpose of accommodating patrons and dividing the space. 

Umbrellas add color and comfort to any outdoor dining space, enabling patrons to enjoy beautiful weather without direct exposure to the sun.

Incorporate artwork in the form of eye-catching wall, sidewalk or street murals to generate visual interest. Pro tip: Faux wall paneling is suitable for any climate and can provide an excellent backdrop for a vibrant design. Plus, the panels are durable, weatherproof and resistant to rot, mold and mildew.

If you’re in an area that will soon see a drop in temperature, consider investing in outdoor patio heaters and heat lamps so you can extend your outdoor dining season well into the cooler months. 

Dining igloos, clear plastic domes that are temperature-controlled, are newly popular among restaurants that have the budget and sufficient space 

Some places are even turning to the public for help. Chicago has lunched the Winter Dining Challenge “asking locals to submit ideas to ‘stimulate and encourage’ winter outdoor dining that’s safe for both workers and patrons” with a cash prize of $5,000 for winning ideas.

Build Sanitization Stations into Your Design

Obviously, the health and safety of patrons and employees is the top priority for any restaurant. Although diners are advised to have hand sanitizer on them at all times and use it frequently, people can be forgetful.

Restaurateurs can make diners’ lives easier by installing sanitation stations so they can quickly sanitize their hands after touching surfaces. This benefits employees, as well, because they interact with a wider variety of objects and surfaces — rather than having to run to the bathroom to wash their hands every time they handle a patron’s cash or credit card, clear dishes or wipe down a table, they can simply sanitize on the go. 

Here are some tips when it comes to hand washing and sanitization:

Clearly Communicate Safety Guidelines

When it comes to safety, don’t leave anything to chance. Display colorful, eye-catching signage with information on everything from the appropriate way to wear masks to how to thoroughly wash your hands in highly visible locations, such as near entrances or in bathrooms. Check out the CDC’s free catalog of print resources to get started. Floor decals can also be invaluable for directing the flow of traffic on the dining room floor. 

Signage is just one component — restaurant websites and social media channels should promote important safety information to help let patrons know what to expect when they come in to eat. Many businesses have worked with graphic designers to come up with clever and creative branded content, including infographics and videos, to share on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and more to get the word out. 

Eliminate Share Touchpoints Wherever Possible

The more people who interact with an object, the greater the risk of transmission. As a result, according to CDC guidance, restaurants and bars are advised to “discourage sharing of items that are difficult to clean, sanitize, or disinfect” and “avoid sharing items that are reusable, such as menus, condiments, and any other food containers.” 

In light of COVID-19, many restaurants have embraced digital solutions, including cashless payment, contactless payment and digital menus to combat the spread of germs. Restaurants could also consider implementing a modern point-of-sale system to streamline their business processes. 

Prioritize Customer Service

For many guests, returning to their favorite restaurant is their way of trying to restore some sense of normalcy during a time of upheaval. But with restaurants forced to operate at reduced capacity and enforce stringent social distancing rules, the dining experience can feel anything but normal. 

That’s why restaurants must make every effort to deliver a high level of customer service, both on-site and online. Restaurateurs are encouraged to be more active on social media, to take the time to really connect with customers and try to develop an understanding of what is most important to their audience. 

The fact of the matter is that, despite restaurants reopening, many would-be patrons are still choosing to stay home, opting for take-out or delivery over outdoor dining. It’s vital that, until it’s safe to completely reopen again, restaurateurs go above and beyond in terms of service and build connections with their audience in order to stay top of mind.

Implement a Rigorous Cleaning Regimen

This one goes without saying, but to ensure proper sanitation the CDC advises restaurants and bars to:

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, cash registers, workstations, bathroom stalls and elevators (if applicable) as often as possible
  • Clean shared objects, such as payment terminals, tables, bars and condiment trays, between each use
  • Use cleaning products that meet EPA8 disinfection criteria for approved surfaces
  • Sanitize food contact surfaces with an EPA-approved food contact surface sanitizer
  • Develop a schedule for increased, routine cleaning and disinfection
  • Use gloves when handling and disposing of garbage bags and other trash, and immediately wash hands after removing gloves
  • Store all disinfectants safely to avoid food contamination 

Consider Alternatives to On-Site Dining

Most restaurants transitioned to some combination of a drive-through, delivery, take-out and/or curbside pickup model during the height of quarantine. Although it was challenging for restaurants to sustain business based on these services alone, now that restaurants have reopened they make for an excellent complement to on-site dining and can prevent overcrowding in outdoor dining spaces. 

Some restaurants have even started exploring the idea of food trucks as an alternative or in addition to on-site dining. It’s easy to see the appeal: Food trucks enable restaurateurs to take their business directly to customers (including into residential areas), guests can order ahead to reduce contact and there’s plenty of room for patrons to spread out and eat their food without the risk of violating social distancing guidelines.

In both cases, cashless and contactless payment systems have been invaluable to streamlining the payment and pickup processes and limiting the amount of face-to-face exposure between employees and patrons.

When In Doubt, Get Creative!

From requiring patrons to wear hats fashioned out of pool noodles to seating mannequins at each table, restaurants around the world have come up with innovative solutions to the challenges posed by COVID-19. Not only do these ideas promote safety, they make for a more memorable dining experience, one that ensures that guests walk away with a smile and fun story to share. Here are some other creative ideas for inspiration:

  • Guests sit inside their own private greenhouse at this Amsterdam restaurant, while face shield-wearing servers deliver dishes at the end of long wooden planks.
  • At this Maryland restaurant, patrons get their own “bumper table” — a jumbo inner tube attached to a wheeled table — so they can roam and socialize while maintaining appropriate distance.   
  • At this New Zealand coffee shop, guests get their coffee delivered by way of remote-control train in accordance with the country’s strict no-contact rules.  
  • Stuffed pandas add a touch of whimsy to the dining experience in this Vietnamese restaurant in Bangkok.  

There’s no telling what the future of dining will look like, especially in the coming months. But restaurants can embrace a variety of secure and creative options in order to offer the best possible — and most importantly, safest — dining experience for both patrons and employees.