May 14, 2020 - Economy & Business

The restricted future for restaurants

Felix Salmon, author of Edge

Photo: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Restaurants are slowly being allowed to reopen — with restrictions. In Australia, for instance, dining rooms can serve no more than 10 patrons at a time, and each customer needs at least 43 square feet of space.

That's resulted in Frank Angeletta, the owner of Five Dock Dining, putting cardboard cutouts of diners at tables that would otherwise be disconcertingly empty.

  • The Inn at Little Washington, an ultra-high-end Virginia restaurant, is doing something very similar.

The big picture: Restaurant economics have been upended, and many restaurants will never reopen. Those that do will be changed radically.

  • Space per diner will increase — and customers will be newly hyper-attuned to things like ventilation and ceiling height. Restaurants lucky enough to be able to offer outdoor seating will have a huge advantage.
  • Menus will become more limited, as kitchens become less crowded. Expect much more emphasis on daily specials.
  • Take-out and delivery will become central to the business, to the point at which dishes will only appear on the menu if they lend themselves to at-home dining.
  • Reservations will become scarcer than they used to be, and companies like Tock will allow restaurants to monetize them by selling different time slots at different prices.
  • Landlords will often be the deciding factor in terms of which restaurants survive and which do not. Momofuku founder David Chang is closing two locations that won't reduce rents, saying: "I understand their decisions. I don't respect their decisions."

The bottom line: Restaurants have been driving urban revitalization for the past 20 years. Now they might be at the forefront of urban decline. Their suburban counterparts, by contrast, are probably in much better shape.

Go deeper: Restaurants gingerly test how to return amid coronavirus

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