May 21, 2020 - Economy

Restaurants prepare for "distance eating"

Illustration of a plate of sushi with the pieces distantly placed apart

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Shorter menus, pricier food, less service, servers wearing masks and surgical gloves: The future of dining out looks far from festive.

Why it matters: Eating in restaurants is a creature comfort that matters a lot to many people, and the fact that the experience won't just go back to normal will unnerve and disappoint everyone who wishes the coronavirus would simply go away.

A lot of restaurants that closed because of COVID-19 will never reopen, and those that do will have to pour a lot of money into keeping diners away from one another and the waitstaff, according to restaurateurs and industry consultants.

  • Tables and booths will be separated by everything from plexiglass shields to clear shower curtains.
  • Diners may have to wait in their cars or on the sidewalk for a text saying their table is ready.
  • People may have to order their whole meal — from appetizers through dessert — all at once, to minimize encounters with the staff.
  • Paper tablecloths will replace fabric ones, condiments won't be left on the table, and disposable plates and glasses may reign supreme.

"It’s not going to be as romantic as it has been in the past," Larry Lynch of the National Restaurant Association tells Axios.

Driving the news: Restaurant executives met with President Trump this week to ask him to boost federal assistance.

  • The OpenTable CEO predicts that 25% of restaurants will close permanently.
  • Tom Colicchio, the "Top Chef" star, co-founded a group called the Independent Restaurant Coalition to lobby for small eateries affected by COVID-19.
  • "At least for the next year, until there's a vaccine... we're looking at a possibility of maybe 30% of our original business," which is unsustainable, Coliccio said in an NPR interview.

Between the lines: While some restaurants have stayed in business during the pandemic by selling takeout food, meal kits and even groceries, the industry's economics are predicated on table service, which will likely look very different.

  • Occupancy restrictions will mean that restaurants can serve only a fraction of the number of people they did before. (In Florida, for instance, re-opening restaurants must operate at no more than 25% capacity.)
  • As a result, there will be pressure to turn tables quickly, and "peak" service hours will be expanded. The lunch rush will likely happen from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
  • To make ends meet, restaurants will have to streamline their menus, offering perhaps half as many dishes as they used to — the most lucrative ones, most likely — and prices will have to be jacked up.

Will consumers play along? After the initial burst of interest in going out to eat again subsides, it's hard to tell, industry consultants say.

"We don’t know if they’re going to accept a 15% price increase," David Hopkins, president of the Fifteen Group, a hospitality management consultancy, tells Axios. "We don’t know if they’ll be okay with going out to lunch at 11:15 instead of noon."

Here's what else you can expect:

  • Less frequent busing of tables, to avoid contact. Patrons will likely be asked to wear masks on their way to their table or when visiting the restroom (though not while actually eating).
  • To meet demand for "distanced" tables, some restaurants are seeking to expand into sidewalk cafes.
  • Some are converting event spaces into regular dining rooms, or putting up tents in parking lots to add extra tables. One restaurant in Amsterdam installed striking glass tents, one for each party of diners.
  • Restaurants will continue to lean heavily on takeout as a revenue engine.

From a social distancing perspective, "the biggest challenge is going to be the bar," Clark Wolf, a food, restaurant, and hospitality consultant, told Axios. "We’re going to have to find other ways of having cocktails, because that is such a profitable part of the business."

The bottom line: The fun and relaxing atmosphere we've come to expect from dining out may be lost — along with many neighborhood favorites.

  • "Many mom and pops are just not going to reopen, no matter how much money is thrown at them by the government," Doug Roth, a former restaurateur who now serves as an adviser to the industry, tells Axios. "And once they’re open, what is the attractiveness of going out to eat?"
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