July 17, 2020

How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Changing Restaurant Design

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the hospitality industry extremely hard, but they are a resilient group, and, like all great service leaders, they adapt on the fly. For example, hotels have rotated rooms so that guests have a gap of 72 hours in-between stays, floors have been spaced out to accommodate social distancing, rooms are now used for remote working, and enhanced cleaning and sterilizing has become an important part of the daily routine. Like their hotel counterparts, restaurants have also come up with some inventive ways to maintain service in the face of the current climate. They have transformed into grocery stores, begun to create family meals for to-go orders, developed custom drink kits that can be made at home, and pushed toward touch less drive-thru or pick-up services. Each of these solutions is a necessary adaptation, not an attempt to make a greater profit but to maintain some revenue in hopes of keeping staff members employed and the doors open for the future.

The Rise of Take-Out

As restaurants evolve, customers will notice design updates to both the front-of-house and back-of-house. We may or may not see the evolution of the grocery store inside of a restaurant, but there will be a greater uptick in take-out orders. Restaurants were already dedicating areas for pick-up only and parking stalls, which will only continue to become the norm. Staff members carrying orders to cars will require separate systems and a greater staff flexibility. This, too, will continue to become more prevalent as COVID-19 restrictions stay in place. Diners want to have great food and so will continue to visit restaurants, but they may opt to take their food and eat it at home.

For a typical dine-in restaurant, changes in response to this new type of visitor can be as simple as adding an additional host who is dedicated to these take-away transactions or perhaps adding a dedicated space at the bar for order pick-up. However, this may interfere with guests already in the area who are asking for a table, waiting to be seated, or just enjoying a cocktail. Instead, creating a separate entrance that is connected to the service area can streamline the guests who are for pickup, with the added benefit of avoiding any complications in social distancing. Currently in quick-service restaurants (QSR) and Fast Casual restaurants, a separately staffed cook/prep line is dedicated to take out and delivery. This design feature may make its way into standard full-service restaurants, especially if there is promise in the new meal-to-go kits.

Outdoor Dining in the COVID-19 Climate

In addition to increased pick-up orders, restaurants are facing the challenge adhering to social distancing rules. I recently spent a few hours in the parking lot of a brewery. I would say it was a great experience. They had taken all indoor dining and placed it in their parking lot so they could provide the required distancing and still maintain operations. Designing more flexible spaces that involve the outdoors will be a much bigger component as we continue to design and build new restaurants.

It seems that the ability for architects to design a restaurant patio space to be operational for 70-80% of the year will be a common goal as restaurant owners look to maintain capacity year-round. This means considering operable partitions, large windows, built-in heaters, fans, and potentially misters for restaurants in areas with hot climates. While such features may not be a significant challenge to build and operate in moderate climates, late fall and winter bring a new set of considerations. One of the benefits patio dining offers is that it typically comes at a lower cost to build and with an increased seat count (paying customers), resulting in a greater profit margin for restaurant owners. But the addition of these new design features will drive up the cost of building the patio. Incorporating natural elements and allowing for natural ventilation can prove to be a benefit with mitigating cost and the spread of the coronavirus. Even after COVID concerns have lifted, a large and flexible space that can be utilized during most of the year will continue to be a benefit to restaurants.

The Future of Restaurant Design

Many of these innovative concepts currently being implemented so that restaurateurs can keep their doors open will have lasting and future impact on how restaurants are designed. The adaptation of even minimally different features that increase efficiency and flexibility will allow restaurants to respond to a variety of emerging trends more easily in the future.

Form follows function, and right now, function is ever evolving.

Read more about how restaurant owners have adapted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic

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