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Amy Brandwein On Recalibrating Restaurants For Outdoor Service

Patios, terraces, sidewalks and other outdoor dining spaces could make or break restaurants trying to get through the pandemic.

Amy Brandwein is the James Beard-nominated chef/owner of Centrolina and Piccolina in Washington DC.

When the pandemic hit, we closed down all of our dine-in operations. We moved to takeout and delivery instantaneously. I’d already put the menu online last winter for the market, but then we were able to activate the delivery services and get all that working really quickly. We had two restaurants going right now, with limited takeout and delivery.

Then the government let us know that they were going to be moving towards allowing patio seating. We’ve been scrambling, trying to get that prepared. The question was whether we had enough area to appropriately space people out. My restaurants are actually across from each other on an alley, so I have a lot of space. We spread tables out six feet.

We’re still figuring that out, but we had to change our reservation system. I wanted it to be completely touch-free. So for the first time, we’ve done pre-ordering online—you make a reservation and pre-order and pay with the tip and everything. If I’m going to reopen, this is the only way I feel comfortable doing it—to make it contactless and less stressful for the customers and for ourselves. So far it seems to be working successfully.

Reorienting for delivery was still a little bit challenging. When you’re integrating all these systems, they all have different requirements for data entry. That was a little bit of a bear in the beginning—making sure that everybody has the right menus, making sure they’re updated correctly. It sounds like a small thing, but it becomes a huge thing. We had never really worked with a delivery service, so we weren’t really sure what to expect.

It all worked out eventually. It’s been pretty smooth all around, though it is really expensive for us. The 20 percent fee for delivery service is very high. The more services we use, it’s just a lot of different charges being put upon us. I decided not to change the prices. I felt like it was a better idea to keep the prices where they were, and try to manage the fees however we could manage them. I didn’t see the benefit in adding more fees onto the customer right now.

Then you have to look into disposables—what we’re going to serve the food on. We just purchased those today. And then how we’re setting up our traffic patterns is really important—how we’re separating out our to-go and pickup and delivery services with our patio dining and the flow of customers. If they need to use the restroom, how is that going to work? It’s just creating separate traffic lanes.

The patio at Centrolina before and after social distancing of tables. Photo: Courtesy Amy Brandwein.

When customers enter the restaurant, we’re going to have a hostess there to greet them and inform them where the restroom is. We’re going to have it marked with lines or separation tape to delineate where some of our kitchen operations are. We’re basically cutting the restaurant in two parts. The hostess will serve as a gatekeeper and provide information for the guests, making sure that everybody’s waiting in a queue outside the area rather than going into the restroom area and waiting there. We had to think about that, because we didn’t want people congregating in the restroom hallways.

Most of our customers are following all these rules themselves. We have signs up everywhere. We have a very small market, so it’s one person at a time that we let in the door. When they see that you’re being serious about these things, they follow suit. In terms of the dine-in experience, we have all the policies and procedures front and center on the online reservation system. People are reading that before they even book.

We have custom server masks that we had made. Beyond that, we’ve had some customers make masks for us. We’ve had bags and bags of masks dropped off. And we have to have masks available for the customers in case they don’t bring one. The mayor of DC says you have to wear a mask. We hope everybody follows the rules and doesn’t put us in a situation where we have to refuse service. But at that point, if they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we will.

We’re not making any money, but we are employing people. I’m always one to try something, then evaluate later. We’re not going to know how this works until we do it. The struggle for everyone is everything depends on how big your patio is, if this works for you or not. It comes down to square footage. That’s a difficult situation, because people can’t fix that.

In terms of staffing, we probably need to hire back two or three people for the patio service. Otherwise, my core kitchen team is already here doing the other dining services. So for us it’s just a matter of bringing back a few servers, basically. It’s not huge now.

And yet, the general sense is that no one really wants to reopen. It’s a very stressful time period. It’s very stressful for operators. It’s not just not stressful for the customers. Not that we don’t feel like we’re doing the right thing. It’s just a matter of the extra burdens being put on everyone right now to do things that used to be much simpler.

There were many people in the beginning who said, “We’re going to stay closed until this whole thing is over.” But seeing how long this is going on, people realize that that’s an untenable situation. We have to activate into producing something. I don’t know any landlords who are going to permit you to stay on the sidelines for six months and wait. That’s the difficulty of this whole thing.

After all this is over, the restaurant industry might turn back into what it was like when I was growing up here. There were a handful of fine-dining restaurants, and people went to them on special occasions. Dining out wasn’t an everyday experience. It was something you did once every couple of weeks. I’m thinking there’ll be fewer restaurants, unfortunately. And people won’t be going out to eat as much, even when this gets back to normal. I think there’s going to be a recalibration of the industry.

For us, we have a fast-casual across the street, and we have a market. We’ve always had a pretty small restaurant, so it’s not that big of a problem. I think we’re well suited for this type of situation, particularly because my style of cooking is excellent food in a stripped-down format. It’s not really fine dining. It’s something that people will always want to come back to.

Beyond that, I think marketing is going to become huge. We’ve been working on that a lot. We’re really word of mouth now. We obviously do get media hits and stuff like that. But one area that we haven’t explored, and that we are starting to explore, is marketing and social media and connecting with people in a different way. That’s going to be a huge part of surviving this.