As restaurants reopen, they reinvent themselves

With even those states hit hardest by the coronavirus preparing to reopen the economy, restaurant operators are wondering what that means for their dining rooms. The close quarters that were considered intimate and vibrant just two months ago are unsafe and untenable now, meaning these businesses will have to completely reinvent themselves to continue operating in a post-Covid-19 world.

For many, that means investing heavily in technology that will minimize the contact a guest has with surfaces, from menus to door handles.

Paytronix CEO Andrew Robbins told The Boston Globe he predicts a new restaurant landscape where technology is even more prominent than it is today. He suggested we could see guests using phone apps and QR codes to access their menus and bills, and that order-ahead technology may be used for the dine-in experience in addition to takeout.

Over the last month, major brands across the hospitality industry have been announcing their reopening plans, sharing details of how they’ll keep guests safe.

In New York City, which saw the worst coronavirus outbreak in the country, restaurateur Stratis Morfogen was preparing to open a new concept – the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop – just before the pandemic hit. He has since completely scrapped the original concept, and has vowed that when the restaurant opens, it will be completely devoid of human interaction. Instead of counter service, patrons will find an 11-foot-high wall of lockers, each filled with hot dumplings.

Others are finding ways to safely maintain the hospitality their guests are accustomed to. Ruth’s Hospitality Group announced earlier this month that it would open 12 of its 86 Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse dining rooms, with an additional 20 to 30 potentially opening over the course of the second quarter.

The chain said it had implemented changes to promote the safety of employees and guests, including requiring workers to wear masks. The company also plans to send menus to guests’ personal devices via QR codes to limit shared menu handling.

Similarly, Bloomin’ Brands had opened more than 355 of its Outback Steakhouse locations by early May, with seating capacity reduced by 75 percent. Chief Executive David Deno said Outback’s off-premise sales have enabled the company to beat its variable costs even with the reduced seating in dining rooms.

Bar seating at the open restaurants is still unavailable, and tables were moved further apart to maintain safe social distancing. Servers were retrained and are required to wear masks and gloves, and guests are asked to wait in their cars until their table is ready, eliminating the risk of crowded vestibules.

 

In the quick-service realm, coffee giant Starbucks is in the process of opening 85 percent of its U.S. stores with an emphasis on mobile ordering, contactless pickup and cashless payments. The company is learning from its experience reopening stores in China earlier this year.

The Starbucks app, which currently has about 20 million users, will also offer new options for voice ordering and curbside pickup as the company moves toward more cashless experiences, according to chief executive Kevin Johnson.

Reopening will be a series of trial-and-error experiments for the foreseeable future as the industry adjusts to a new normal of living, but those that are flexible and thoughtful in their approach will fare best. Check this page for regular coronavirus updates.

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