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The Future Of Pandemic Restaurant Design

What the dining experience will look and feel like in restaurants built for safety, comfort, and value in the era of COVID-19.

Lauren Chipman is CEO at Chipman Design Architecture, an interior design firm specializing in the restaurant, retail, and hospitality industries. Family-owned for three generations, CDA is headquartered in Chicago with offices in Los Angeles, New York, and Atlanta. Lauren’s clients include Chick-fil-A, Time Out Market, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, and Mendocino Farms.

We work with a wide variety of clients, from some of the most successful huge names out there, to smaller and trendier quick-serve restaurants, to full-service fine dining, to food halls. First and foremost, we need to move quickly as restaurants start to reopen. Dollars are going to be harder to come by, and when people do spend their money, they want to make sure that it’s going to a place that they believe in, that the food is going to be good, and they feel like their dollar is making a difference. We need to make sure as designers and architects and restaurateurs that we are providing an experience worthy of their dollar.

According to the Zagat Future of Dining Study, 84 percent of people said they’d be less likely to visit a restaurant right when it reopens if it’s operating at full capacity. So what’s most important for restaurants is that they’re able to act quickly and create a separate takeout experience. Simply based on floor plan and space, they might not be able to build out a completely separate environment for each experience, but there should be something distinct in the customer journey, whether it’s dine-in, takeout, or curbside.

The restaurateur and operator need to think about how everyone can plan for their experience. For example, I ordered Alinea’s 15th anniversary six-course dinner at home. I ordered online and selected a pickup time, and in the confirmation email it was very clear as to how and where exactly you should pull up, put your window down, and line up—it’s a well-oiled machine. What they’re doing is taking the choreography from the interior dining experience that a restaurant like Alinea is known for, and really extend the experience to the car.

As far as outdoor seating in inclement weather, we think, “Okay, so we’ll just create a tank outdoors.” But you’re creating another indoor environment with the heat. There can be a place for that apres-ski-like environment to a certain degree, where it’s not going to be below-zero, and people have more heaters outside and it’s more temperate.

Courtesy Chipman Design Architecture.

The most important thing from an operational perspective is that there needs to be a different head of operations running each of these customer journeys. You can’t have takeout overlapping where the pickup and check-in areas are—they should be more distinct.

Revolving doors are a big congestion point. It should be very clear to the customer that, for instance, the revolving door is the only way in, while the way out is the ADA door. There are beautiful, elegant ways that are not expensive to implement directional signage in line with the brand—signage that’s movable.

When the pandemic started, we saw a lot of vendors throughout the world who really pivoted quickly to creating social distancing graphics and plexiglass, but using the type of product most appropriate in a grocery store or a Target—very functional, but not typically very beautiful or integrated into the space. One of things that has so delighted us is to see our teams working with art vendors who are developing their own graphics integrated with the brand or look of the restaurant—really high design, but still getting that messaging across.

Come winter, we’ll start utilizing more technology for these concerns. In our current dining climate, there’s a lot that fine dining can learn from quick-service restaurants and fast casuals. Touchless is a big thing. Sinks, soap dispensers, and doors will incorporate touchless operation, for example with a foot pedal at the bottom of the door. Fast food has touchless mobile processes down. What can fine dining do in terms of mobile? Utilize platforms that are already available in order to provide more seamless experiences. A lot of these small businesses and one-off restaurants haven’t relied on technology too much, but it will come to the point where you show up at your appointment time only, as the restaurant has stopped taking walk-ins. It’ll be more regimented, and everything will be communicated through your phone. You might be waiting in your car until you get the ping that your table is ready and you’re able to walk in at that point.

Courtesy Chipman Design Architecture.

I’m a big fan of QR codes. When they came out 10 years ago, they were definitely not the cool kid on the block. Since Applebee’s has integrated QR code-reading into their app, that’s going to be such a meaningful way to communicate easily with people, whether scanning a menu or paying touchlessly. Who’s going to want to touch a check presenter or a pen? Those things are going to go the way of the handshake.

We need to be very mindful about the changes we are making in the physical environment of the restaurant. We need to be mindful that this crisis will end at some point. Of course, there may be another crisis, but everything we’re doing needs to be flexible. I would recommend restaurants stay away from solutions that are prohibitively expensive that cannot be moved around a space.

In terms of dining in, with the kind of solutions we’re looking for—like dividers, that sort of social distancing or dividing experience—we’re really trying to use the architecture in the space. Guzman y Gomez, one of our restaurants in Chicago, is utilizing existing architecture like custom steel mesh visual cues for how people should line up, and then adding one layer of plexiglass, which creates divides with what exists already. Fine dining has that built in a little bit because there’s often space between tables, so they already have a little bit of an advantage. No one wants to be eating in a fishbowl or a shoebox.

We have beautifully designed, pre-fabricated dividers that can create a feeling of safety and privacy. Nothing will be drilled in for installation—it will be more clip solutions that can be easily moved around. If you have a beautiful terrazzo floor, you don’t want to drill into that and ruin it. There are easy solutions that can be hung from the ceiling, or can be wrapped with anti-microbial textiles. You can laser-cut metal material with a layer of acrylic or plexiglass.

There are floor tiles that have been used in hospitals for a long time. Porcelain has always been bleach-cleanable. Copper is naturally antibacterial, and there are a lot of textiles that are cleanable, and new virus-resistant textiles being developed that we’re keeping an eye on.

When guests arrive, they’ll see a welcome concierge at the check-in station, which will have sanitization capabilities. When waiting, what you’ll be able to see is people aren’t going to be crammed into a vestibule or entrance area. We can create an elegant outdoor waiting experience with benches and greenery. We can use cabinetry, and it can literally be dropped in overnight.

When you wait at a bar, it’s usually crowded and people are jostling each other. My dad will only sit at the bar at a restaurant, and so that’s his whole dining experience. In our design, the function of the bar will fundamentally change from a waiting area to a very controlled dining experience. Barstools will be fixed, and there will be extremely reduced seating six feet apart, highly controlled by the restaurant. That might turn some people off, but for the safety of other guests and the staff working in the restaurant, everyone needs to be very clear.

We’ve created reduced four-tops in our design, because a lot of parties will probably be just eating with a partner or family. You might have to rent out a private dining room for a larger group of people. Walkways around the tables and throughout the entire restaurant are mapped out with social distancing of six feet.

Without demolishing your entire bathroom, which is so expensive, you need a bathroom attendant. Because you can see how narrow that hallway is, you don’t want a bunch of people lining up there, so you need that guided experience.

We’ll create an organic flow and egress through the restaurant so diners can leave through the secondary entrance when possible, creating less congestion at the entry point.

The kitchen is such a hard topic, because we all know that restaurant margins are notoriously slim, and the struggle that I have, not only as a designer, but as a human being frankly, is there’s so much talk about the guest experience and there has been so much focus on the front of house. The kitchen matters because these are the people who are the heart and soul of the restaurant.

A restaurant’s back of the house is traditionally so tight that every inch is used to full capacity, so it’s hard to change what is in there. We might see a little reclamation of the front of house, because all prep doesn’t have to be done in the kitchen.

Redesigned spaces and new buildouts don’t need to look sterile. Although trends have skewed minimalist in restaurant design for a few years now, the public will be hungry for the theater of food. The fine dining experience will be even more important as it will be marked for important celebrations. We believe that one of the lasting effects of this pandemic will be maximalism in interior design, with the dining experience becoming an escape.

Restaurants have really been taking note of how important lighting is, which will naturally continue. Sound has meant that excitement is happening, giving energy to a restaurant—but in a loud restaurant, you’re yelling and creating more aerosols, and that’s how COVID is spread. In March I was listening to an NPR piece in my car, and it said if you’re in a restaurant that’s loud, it’s a bad sign that too many people are in there, and too much spread is happening. Unfortunately in the past, I think acoustics have been value-engineered out of projects. But knowing what we know now, a loud environment is going to make people anxious.

In particular, in this time of unrest throughout the country, some are seeing essential workers in a way that they had never seen them before. It’s going to be important for restaurants to remind their community that it’s not just the chef that’s creating their meal—it’s the sous chef, the bartender, the dishwasher, the hostess at the front stand, the server that you love to go see and bullshit with every weekend. It’s the people behind all of this.

I hope we will realize that the restaurant industry needs to adapt. It’s going to be difficult while we are in a recession, but we need to figure out how to continue to take care of people, especially the people who make up these restaurants. Regardless of if you see them or not, it’s important for the restaurant to communicate that and tell their story.