As more and more restaurants reopen, the industry faces important questions in the midst of uncertainty: what will the new normal look like? How will patrons practice social distancing inside venues? Operators are looking to one another for guidance while balancing state regulations with their own intuitions.
One of the most common mandates from state governments across the country is to limit capacity. In Mississippi, restaurants may operate at half capacity with a maximum of six people per party. In Arizona, groups are restricted to ten patrons or less. Restaurants in Arkansas are limited to one-third of their capacity. However, there are caveats to the industry opening back up. Bars and bar areas must remain closed in many states, from Nevada to New Hampshire. In Kentucky, the governor announced that bars and larger gatherings will be permitted during Phase 3 of the reopening plan.
In addition to keeping sections closed, various states are requiring six feet of space between tables. Self-service is not allowed in Nevada, New Hampshire or Ohio. On the other hand, buffets and salad bars in Ohio can open only if staff are running the stations. Foodservice workers will need to be prepared for all kinds of changes in protocol. In several states, employees must be screened for any symptoms of COVID-19 before their shifts and, across the board, they must step up sanitation. This includes cleaning frequently and visibly, such as disinfecting condiment containers on each table before seating guests. Restaurants in many states are obligating employees to wear face coverings too, and some establishments are extending this rule to customers. In Ohio, the governor announced that diners must wear masks.
Operators are also taking measures beyond state regulations to protect their employees and customers. To further encourage social distancing, some are putting away a portion of their stools and tables and asking guests to make reservations ahead of time as a way to prevent crowds. Others are installing new features and equipment, like the owner of Marlow’s Tavern in Georgia, who bought plexiglass dividers to put up between booths and upgraded to a stronger air filtration system. Operators are getting increasingly creative with their approaches to social distancing, from seating mannequins and stuffed animals at tables to providing glass-covered houses and dining pods.
Another thing that is changing is how patrons determine where to eat. More and more are basing their pick on cleanliness and sanitation, followed by value, instead of just great taste. Their food choices will look different, too. During their initial visits, they may not be as worried about healthful foods and will opt for indulgent, comforting dishes. Women are the most likely to do so, a demographic that typically seeks better-for-you foods. Nearly 70% say they’re likely to opt for a decadent menu item.
After a long period of sheltering in place, patrons are eager to dine out again. More than 40% look forward to sitting down and eating at their favorite spot, but the social aspect isn’t the only thing that matters to them. It’s equally important to them to show their support for the food industry, especially for those restaurants central to neighborhoods where they feel personally invested in their survival.
It will require patience and careful planning to adjust to a permanently altered landscape. Operators should focus on building confidence and ensuring the safety of employees and patrons and be respectful if they express any reluctance to returning. Reopening will vary by operation, so it’s strongly advised to review guidelines from your state, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.
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Jennings, Lisa. More states lift coronavirus-related dine-in restrictions with social distancing and limits on capacity, Nation’s Restaurant News, May 2020.
Petre, Holly. Meet the new socially distant restaurant experience, Nation’s Restaurant News, May 2020.