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Founding Farmers restaurant, an example of design by D.C.-based GrizForm Design Architects, who spoke about designing restaurants for socially distant dining.

Coronavirus forces a rethink of restaurant design

Plastic dividers may be a temporary fix, but will touchscreens become less touchy and food halls less communal?

Making diners feel comfortable has always been the end game of hospitality design. But now “comfortable” takes on a whole new meaning as restaurants move into a new post-coronavirus age, in which guests are feeling shaky about returning to dining rooms.

A survey in late April by Columbus-based Inspire PR Group and market research firm Illuminology found 37% of diners nationwide are “extremely or very worried about getting sick from other customers if they eat a meal inside a restaurant.”

“These findings contribute data to what we’ve believed to be true, that restaurants should prepare to meet consumer expectations for health and safety for some time to come,” said Hinda Mitchell, president of Inspire PR Group.

This is where restaurant designers come in.

“Social distancing is here for now, and with recent studies shedding light on the current situation, it looks like we will be practicing social distancing for a while,” said Griz Dwight, founder and principal of GrizForm Design Architects, a Washington D.C.-based firm with restaurant clients that include Founding Farmers, 3 Stars Brewing Company and Barbatella.

Restaurants_Ready_770.jpgDesign concepts like allowing guests to build their own dishes, chef action-stations and communal eating areas — so popular pre-pandemic — are now shunned and restaurant design experts are living by a new caveat: the less touch, the better.

What about food halls?

According to Dwight of GrizForm, “food halls are here to stay.”

“Our team is working on two food hall projects at the moment — the Western Market Food Hall and the Bevy (both in Washington, D.C.).” Rather than scrapping the idea of big food halls, Dwight thinks adaptation is the way forward.

griz.jpg“Since the pandemic both [food hall project] clients have inquired about social distancing plans, asking questions like ‘How can we change the layout so tables and chairs are spread out six-feet apart and how can we reconfigure the queue to avoid overcrowding?’” Dwight said.

Instead of redesigning the whole space, “we’re looking to upgrade these spaces in order to accommodate guests’ comfort, which has us thinking about how to reduce touchpoints by making things like trash cans and ordering stations touchless, as well as integrating contactless pickup areas,” Dwight said.

In short, converting food halls will require making communal spaces a bit — less communal.

One factor to remember is that people are not a design element and not so easily controlled, according to David Shove-Brown and David Tracz, co-founders and principals of //3877, a D.C.-based boutique design firm.

Cranes DC 6R-1.jpgPhoto: Areas of natural congregation like bathrooms, the one on the left is pre-quarantine at Cranes, will need to be reconfigured because, as Shove-Brown says, "we still can't control people moving about and going to the restroom."

Credit: Cranes

“I fear that as we open, food halls and food courts will be hardest to control,” said Shove-Brown. “Similarly, although you can reorganize a restaurant for social distancing with a bit more strategy, spreading guests out, we still can’t control people moving about and going to the restroom. Screens are going to be important in high-contact areas. We may see many food halls take seats out or block seats off to spread people out. But at the end of this, food halls will come back — it might take a little more time and effort, but they will return.”

Parted by plastic

Plastic dividers could give way to more permanent, less-dystopian looking measures.

“Rather than installing plexiglass shields, which look terrible in my opinion, we’re looking for more permanent fixture to limit contact,” Dwight said, such as “high-back booths with tasteful screens or dividers that will help achieve the feeling of separation. Incorporating more booths and fewer banquettes will be an ongoing trend for the next few years.”

On the other hand, flexibility could be key “assuming this situation will continue to ebb and flow,” according to Lesley Hughes-Wyman and Tamara Ainsworth, partners and principals of MatchLine Design Group, a Dallas-based firm that focuses on luxury for hotel, spa, convention centers, senior living and restaurant clients, including Tex-Mex powerhouse restaurateur Stephan Pyles.

“Options that allow varied gathering reconfigurations are paramount,” Hughes-Wyman said. “Given how quickly things are changing, and the lower revenues that many facilities are seeing, not everyone can order brand-new furniture to adapt to the ‘new normal.’”

Wallpaper_Rey Lopez.jpg

Designers say tables that allow for flexible reconfiguration, like these from The Grill, can help spread guests out, but controlling the movement of diners within a restaurant is also a challenge.

From an economically-minded standpoint, MatchLine is recommending multiple, smaller tables that could be reconfigured into a larger table depending on group size, or booths with dividers or panels that can be switched out at a moment’s notice for flex configurations. Integrating more intimate dining “zones” will provide both physical distancing and visual cues to help diners feel safe.

Another way for restaurants to spread out their footprints is through outdoor dining, something, Ashley Kirkland, director of interior architecture at GrizForm Design Architects sees as a trend that will gain more and more momentum.

GrizForm9.jpgPhoto: An easy and cost-effective way of distancing bars is to block off barstools to separate guests who have not arrived together. “As for bars, many may also opt for fewer bar stools to give patrons more space to spread out,” said Dwight Griz.

Credit: GrizForm

“Guests will want to dine more outside because it feels safer and more open,” Kirkland said, adding, “there will be lots of separation. Tables will be spaced farther apart and a lot more booths will be incorporated within these spaces.”

Touchscreens are out of touch

“Pre-COVID, many restaurants used a lot of touchscreens, which is a great way to limit human-to-human contact; however, guests are still touching something,” Dwight said. “We’re currently seeing the introduction of more cleaning protocols. Maybe there will be a glove station and/or anti-viral wipes beside each screen. Like every business, we’re still trying to figure out what is best for our client’s guests.”

:3877.jpgKirkland suggests another scenario: “Guests order through a speaker at their table … similar to how drive-ups work now,” she said. “Guests would be speaking to their server, yet still reducing contact.”

Hughes-Wyman of MatchLine predicts a mix of solutions when it comes to kiosks and touchscreens.

“Firstly,” she said, “there’s going to be a learning curve, where we begin to understand guests’ varying comfort levels when eating out. We may see single-use, disposable menus in sit-down restaurants, while at fast-casual dining, the staff might continue to take orders at the main counter, or input the information on quick-order kiosks to eliminate multiple people using them.”

David Tracz of //3877 added, “Restaurants may push their technology further — voice control will come more into play. Theoretically, that technology is already available. We just might see more advancements by using our own devices.”

:3877 2.jpgNew normal might be more like old normal

“I can see some subtle changes happening to design as time progresses,” Tracz said. “However, at the end of the day, as people, we’re very forgetful. We’re going to start building back into a little bit more of the usual arrangement of tables … restaurants are going to try and get as close to their previous revenue as possible, in as short a time as possible, especially if there’s a vaccine that’s developed.”

Shove-Brown agreed.

“There will be a vaccine,” he said. “But somewhere down the line, there’s going to be another pandemic. This is a situation that we’ve handled poorly; however, in the future, we’re going to have a better idea of what to do. I think we all have a new respect for restaurants and we’re all in hopes to get back to as normal as possible.”

Contact Tara at [email protected].

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie.

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