Dining Do Over

Restaurant experiences have changed dramatically due to the pandemic. Though over 110,000 U.S. restaurants have shuttered since COVID-19 swept the country, those still standing have used this time to reassess. Marcus Paslay, chef and restaurateur of Provender Hall and other Texas eateries, says, “For the fortunate, the pandemic has distilled restaurants down to what is most important [for their businesses to run]." That’s sometimes been quite a surprise. As Sarah Krathen, chef and owner of L’itos in New York City puts it, “Who would have thought three Michelin-star restaurants would do takeout?” We spoke to many in the food service industry to share with us their observations and predictions for a post-COVID-19 world.

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Prepare to Make Reservations

Don’t expect coming in to dine without reservations, says Chef Omar Torres, Director of Food & Beverage and Executive Chef at The Hilton Pensacola Beach. “When going out dining, you should expect to wait outside if possible until your table is ready. Many restaurants, especially fine dining, may move to reservations only in order to have a daily disinfecting plan through the service.”

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Expect Touchless Everything

Laurent May of the hospitality technology company Ready thinks more restaurants will be touch-free. “Restaurants will put their own digital infrastructure in place to leverage and own their unique customer data, and introduce their own rewards programs.” President of Lotus Biosecurity Joe Heaney says the touchless trend will go even further. “Looking forward, we can expect to see more restaurants make the switch to touchless fixtures like sinks, flushometers, and even doors. Consumers will see more air cleaners and hand sanitizing stations. Behind the scenes, we will see a lot more UVC light air purification systems, now recommended by the CDC. HVAC filtration upgrades will also become more common.”


You Will Be Able to Get Your Favorites From Far Away

According to Alex Karavias, owner of Meraki Hospitality, says virtual events and at-home parties will be the new norm, and new customers may be found far away, too. “Gift baskets, ready-to-cook meals, cocktail packages and more are not tools that really help us make up for lost sales, but they are means of exposure, of promoting the brand and connecting with our guests on a more personalized base. Tim Love, Texan celebrity chef and restaurateur, is bullish on Goldbelly, the food gift company that allows you to order your favorites even when they’re halfway across the country. His foods are featured on the site, and he insists that “options like to-go, online ordering, and services like Goldbelly.com will stick around.”


Expect Smaller, Redesigned Spaces

Brad Taylor of BBQ4Life in Boise, Idaho says restaurant space will change to fit new demands. “Restaurants will continue to turn their focus away from dine-in and more towards delivery and pick up while utilizing every bit of space available to them to keep dine-in customers at a safe distance.” Because many dining rooms are being reconfigured for pick-up orders, decor is getting tossed. Noreen Heron, CEO of Heron Agency, says, “We heard of some restaurants that eliminated decorative furniture that was unnecessary to add in just even a couple tables to accommodate.” Charles McMillan, founder of Stand with Main Street, says this new approach is likely the new normal. “The traditional restaurant dine-in practice will never feel the same due to the restructure on the dining rooms.”


Expect Shields to Stay After the Pandemic

Pete Prekeges, the owner of Grumpy’s in Ketchum, Idaho sees a silver lining to new health standards. “My staff has never been healthier. We are in a resort town where every cold is passed around… not this year. I expect the plexiglass barriers to stay, as well as masks and gloves until we have reached herd immunity.”


Dining Options Will Be More Varied — Without Dine-In

Tim Denman, the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer at ServGrow, is looking to the past for new ways to accommodate diners. “I think restaurants are going to start offering experiences from the 1950’s that have disappeared, like dining in your car with servers delivering the food to you. I don’t think the restaurant experience will disappear forever.” But Samantha Glenn, co-owner of Funky Picnic Brewery & Café in Fort Worth, Texas thinks inside dining may be permanently reduced. “I continue to see customers ordering pickup and curbside through call-in or online ordering directly through the restaurant. With more take-out sales and becoming used to reduced-capacity [seating], I’d be surprised to see crowded restaurants across the board in the future.”


Prepare for Higher Prices

Jacksonville, Florida restaurateur Scott Alters of Rue Saint-Marc sees prices going up. “I feel that after the COVID-19 pandemic, upscale casual restaurants like ours which used to serve a high volume of guests per day will have to offer a personalized experience at a higher price point. They will have to cater to certain restrictions and preoccupations of the guests and offer an experience that makes them feel special without breaking the bank. Kari Seher, founder of MELT Ice Creams in Fort Worth, Texas thinks diners will be okay with paying more, however. “I think there will be an acceptance of price bumps to feel secure in smaller atmospheres.”


Expect Tables to Have Time Limits

Robbie Werner, owner of Stir Crazy Baked Goods in Fort Worth, Texas, says the challenge will be in turning over tables quickly enough to profit. “Creating a welcoming space is tricky when people don’t understand our desire to make transactions as efficient as possible.” But Karavias says restaurants will simply have to impose time limits to make a profit. “Restaurant owners will be a little more empowered to kindly ask guests for tables back after a two-hour window frame. We have designated areas where guests can finish up their drinks and stay at the restaurant — this way we can turn tables over.”


Safety Will Be a Priority

Sweetfin co-founders Alan Nathan and Seth Cohen see the changes in the lesser expensive restaurants sticking around. “Fast-casual or fine-casual will transform to ‘safe-casual’ where there will be an increased emphasis on store cleanliness, sanitation, and other safety practice.” Steve Haigh, co-founder of Scotch + Bacon Group, thinks design is key moving forward. “I predict that as guests return to the dining scene, they will be more conscious of their surroundings. They will want more space, visible sanitation practices, the introduction of more private rooms for smaller groups. Additionally, I see pre-ordering and paying ahead of time being something restaurants can use to their advantage, as well as blocked dining times with cancellation fees, which help maximize their potential, whilst keeping a spacious dining area.”

Related: Are You Required to Put Yourself in Harm’s Way? Know Your Rights When Returning to Work


Hotels Will Offer In-Room Dining

Hotels offer food too, and William Rademacher, General Manager of The Wayfinder Hotel in Newport, Rhode Island sees a trend he thinks will last. “We’re noticing an uptick in in-room dining as guests continue to practice social distancing and take precautionary measures when traveling. We’re expanding our in-room food and beverage offerings again to provide guests with a full in-suite dining experience. It’ll be like having a restaurant in your room, which is something we haven’t done before.”

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Eating Outdoors Will Become Even More of the Norm

Peter Merriman, chef and owner of Merriman’s Hawaii imagines dining outside is a trend that will last. “So far, our guests love the option to dine outdoors and enjoy the fresh air, especially now that we know outdoor dining is generally safer. We’re throwing a socially distant outdoor party every night.” Griz Dwight of GrizForm Design Architects also believes outdoor spaces will continue to be huge for the restaurant industry in 2021 and after. “Guest desires are moving more towards a year-round alfresco dining experience. Operable walls, heaters, and fans will all be incorporated more into the restaurant design concept.” Mike Falahee, owner of Marygrove Awnings doesn’t think adding a few tables and chairs outdoors is enough, however. “High end establishments that are selling an experience rather than a full belly will have to come up with creative solutions to protect people. Tables at least six feet apart, taking temperatures. Perhaps installing some UV lamps. The Michelin star-level restaurants may even move into a smaller space, and only host one party at a time.”


Some Restaurants Will Operate Largely With Ghost Kitchens

The ghost kitchen model is one way to further pickup over dine-in. Cameron Davies, President/CEO of Cruising Kitchens in San Antonio, Texas says, “We have had brands build mobile food trucks to bring their food to the consumer without losing any of the quality they are known for.” The lack of kitchen staff is what Will Lucas, CEO & Founder of Mint House thinks is coming. “Post-pandemic, I think some restaurants will consider incorporating a ghost kitchen model into their business. Ghost kitchens have been on the rise since the beginning of COVID and will remain a popular option offering new restaurants a reduced cost in real estate and labor, and existing restaurants an opportunity to expand into new areas with a lower risk.”

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DoorDash and Postmates Won’t Be the Only Delivery Options

Chef Ouita Michel, owner of Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants of Lexington, Kentucky, says he’s opting out of the standard delivery apps. “We’re working with Lexington-based Delivery Co-Op — a first of its kind food delivery service — 100% owned and operated by its member restaurants and drivers. There are no hidden fees and restaurants have control of menu prices, whereas other apps upcharge and have us pay a marketplace fee between 15-30%.” It’s up to restaurants to shed those high-priced apps, according to Julie Richter of Relay Delivery. “They need to combat the high commission fees of third party apps. Restaurants can use multiple ordering channels to market themselves and take orders, and use Relay couriers to fulfill each delivery.” He notes that Relay is the only delivery service that pays an hourly rate.


Restaurants Are Finding New Ways to Get Food to You

Julio Ramirez, CEO of BurgerFi is, like many restaurateurs, putting a greater emphasis on pickup but has added new ways to get food to customers, including installing a drive-thru with plans for more. “We’re always finding ways to grow, develop, and pivot. During the past year, we also started partnering with ghost kitchens to offer our menu items and deliver our food.”


Restaurants Are Leaning Into Technology for Contactless Options

Say goodbye to menus and touch point of sales, says Daniel Schmidt, Director of Food and Beverage, JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa. “I think that guests will continue to focus on contactless experiences like to-go options, the use of takeout windows, or delivery services. Guests will be more focused on safety, encouraging the use of protective gear and at some point, mandatory vaccinations for all service staff. Technology will continue to evolve. We saw the use of QR codes or apps to view menus and electronic table tents, and I expect these to stick, even in our fine dining establishment. John Coker, president at incubator FoodWorks, agrees. “Consumers will look for ways to limit in-person interactions, especially with strangers. In 2021, we’ll see more restaurants offering apps for contactless dining experiences and create a smooth flow for diners, from menu perusal through taking that first bite.”

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The Return to Normal Will Be Slow

Even once the pandemic is over, don’t expect a speedy return to normal, according to Jon Bonnell, executive chef and owner of Bonnell’s Restaurant Group in Fort Worth, Texas. “In full service and fine dining restaurants, I predict a much slower return to normal, with a clientele still more wary of this disease taking a gradual approach to old routines. We’ll see more QR codes, less formality, digital options, and an overall emphasis on home meal replacement.”

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Restaurants Will Go Overboard to Make You Feel Welcome

The warmth factor cannot be overlooked according to Chef Trisha Pérez Kennealy, owner and Culinary Educator of Inn at Hastings Park in Lexington, Massachusetts. "Dining is going to be much more personalized when we come out on the other side of the pandemic. When they do venture back out, I hope they will be touched by the many steps restaurants are taking to keep both them and our employees safe, while providing memorable experiences."


Restaurants Will Add Services

Hospitality expert and CEO Jon Squire of CardFree sees a grocery retail trend within restaurants. “Restaurants were creative in transforming their locations into grocery and retail supply shops. In 2021, restaurants will not only keep this option, but build it into their model for ramping up and down as another revenue stream.” Another idea for indoor dining comes from restaurant lighting expert Alex Thompson, director of Festoon House, who says, "I think the dining experience will morph into buffet-style dining. Although an unpopular opinion, I think buffets are great as they offer more safety compared to a la carte service.”


Restaurants Will Get Tax Breaks and Grants

The pandemic will leave a mark, says Marco Li Mandri, President of New City America, who thinks government needs to help restaurants stay alive. “Too many mandates have been ordered at the local level that will make it impossible for this industry to return to its pre-pandemic status. The new administration must provide tens of billions of dollars to provide long-term, low-interest financing or grants, to get millions of people back to work in the hospitality industry. Otherwise, we will reduce our local and neighborhood business districts to a shadow of what they once were.

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Restaurants Will Add Healthier Menu Options

Fresh and healthy is going to be a top trend according to Rocco Mangel, owner of South Florida’s Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar “We want to be among the industry leaders when it comes to change. We will protect the health and safety of our staff and guests while still providing them the experience we are known for. I’m predicting more health-conscious menu items while elevating the experience. When it comes to health being top of mind, we are putting a focus on new mocktails infused with fresh ingredients and healthy menu items.”


Restaurants Will Make Their COVID-19 Status Known

Expect COVID-19 transparency from your favorite restaurants, says Chef Omar Torres, Director of Food & Beverage and Executive Chef at The Hilton Pensacola Beach. “Restaurants and hotels now have to implement stronger guidelines to avoid an outbreak. We’ll see leaders taking extra steps when a team member calls out sick and being more transparent, like letting team members know they’ve been exposed. Restaurants and hotels will spend more on cleaning supplies, disinfectant, gloves, labor, COVID-19 tests, which will cause them to become more creative so costs are not impacted.

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You’ll Still Be Able to Order Booze, But You May Also Get a Meal Kit

Atlanta based-chef Chris Buffin, owner/chef at Swell Cuts, is a big believer in the portable chef experience. “Restaurants will morph into offering meal kits in their establishment aside from their dining services. I’ve seen a market open up for private chefs coming in-home to deliver that personal touch.” Sean Wheaton, VP of Culinary for Cuisine Solutions is hoping to make meal kits an ongoing part of the future of dining. “We want to expand with chef-created meal services for all meals, but also making our frozen sous-vide products available at the touch of a button.” Alcohol sales will also become more flexible according to Flynn Dekker, CEO Bonchon. “I think many states will relax laws around alcohol-to-go for the long term. The acceptance of it is here to stay. Property development and zoning will need to be adjusted to accommodate outdoor consumption of alcohol.”


Restaurants Will Be Recreating the Dine-in Experience

James Beard award-winning chef Jose Garces thinks restaurants will be reimagining the craft of dining. "I think that we’re going to see a more curated form of dining that’s treated as an experience, rather than just sustenance. As hospitality professionals, we’ve had to be very creative in the ways we bring our craft to our guests during the pandemic.” Both indoor and outdoor spaces will be reimagined according to Dwayne MacEwen, Principal & Creative Director, DMAC Architecture. “Food and beverage (F&B) could become the new influencer and anchor of retail where retail is the amenity to F&B. I’m not sure outdoor dining bubbles solve the problem.”


Expect Street Closures and Rezoning

Shay Lam of TPG Architecture sees cities redesigning and rezoning restaurant rows. “While the weather is a challenge, the street closures provide a reprieve to congested streets, traffic, and loud noise. For a city like New York, restaurants must apply more pressure to our local government to ensure a safe return while helping the industry persist through the winter.”