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Making the customer comfortable

How restaurants and other Main Street fixtures evolve to accommodate the new normal

The COVID-19 pandemic presents myriad challenges for the architecture, engineering and construction industry. These challenges could deepen depending on the severity and length of this crisis. It is evident that coronavirus has had and will continue to have a profound effect on today’s built world. The COVID-19 outbreak is causing widespread economic hardship for consumers, businesses and communities alike. The bottom line is we need to get back to work and our new “normal” lives.

Here at H2M, we are continuously adjusting the way we approach and think about our designs to meet the needs of our clients during this pandemic. Working through this crisis as an essential business, we have identified and seen daily changes in the industry and are focused on staying ahead of the curve while watching the recommended government guidelines. We know that we will come out of this pandemic eventually and businesses will slowly start to open again.

Many parts of our communities have been hit hard. Schools, retail and recreation to name a few. In particular, the restaurant industry has endured one of the most profound impacts. The question now is, what comes next? What can be done to ensure customers return and how do we better prepare our clients for similar events in the future? It will not be the same as before, and H2M is working to be a strong partner by identifying new ways of approaching design. As we discover more about COVID-19 and develop a way to live and survive alongside it, restaurants will start to open again in time. To operate, they will need to pivot and readjust their business and operating plans.



One of the most challenging issues surrounding this pandemic is how quickly everything is changing.

Each day brings new information and new recommendations. What does this mean for the evolution of the restaurant industry? From a mandate perspective, restaurants should have a less complicated path to reopening then some other businesses as owners can reconfigure tables and limit seating capacity. There will be fewer people. The 6-foot distancing mandate will ensure that restaurants will reopen with a fraction of their previous capacity. It remains to be seen what percentage that could be.

Restaurants will most likely need to implement a reservation-only business model to better space patrons. In addition, restaurants may hesitate to seat parties of larger than four people. Floor plans will be updated for common dining areas, to redesign seating to ensure proper separation between table setups. Texting guests when tables are ready will mitigate large gatherings in waiting areas. Designating traffic flow with segregated entrance and exit paths will help to reduce the face to face exposure upon entering and exiting buildings. The open kitchen concept will need to change for the time being and may include plexiglass dividers, which you may also find in seating areas, and at checkout areas.

Personal hygiene will be of utmost importance increasing frequency of cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, and risk mitigation such as wearing masks when it makes sense and as advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be critical. The restaurant industry has had high standards for cleanliness in the past and this will not change now. Some key points in terms of safety, cleanliness, and hygiene going forward may be: cleaning menus or switching to disposable ones; cleaning credit cards when handed to an employee as well as when returned to the patron; cleaning point of sale terminals between transactions; changing gloves between customers and regular use of hand sanitizer, as well as placing items like napkins behind the counter and requiring customers to ask for them.

Consider these questions when it comes to hygiene: Have you trained your employees on proper hygiene policies? Do you have a procedure in place that increases cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting?
We can expect that we will see a shift toward automation and the removal of shared items. No longer will you see saltshakers and ketchup bottles sitting on your table. Expect condiments to be provided in single-use packages. Bathrooms have already begun to move toward automated plumbing, but foot pedal sinks and other hands-free fixtures may become the norm. You can expect there will most likely be hand washing stations as you enter restaurants through automatic doors. How will we be coat checking once the colder months are upon us?

Modern ordering and payment technologies will be standard, such as mobile apps, limiting the use of shared touch screens, cash and credit cards. Disposable menus that can be discarded after each use will be encouraged. Quick response codes could be used to place orders on guests’ personal devices. It is quite possible that we could see check-signing pens being stored in ultraviolet sterilizers between use. It will be important for businesses to look at solutions such as anti-microbial POS screens to address these issues. Restaurants will want to look toward improving ventilation controlling air quality which would include high-efficiency filters and UV treatment in the ductwork.

Takeout business, as we have recently seen, will most likely continue to thrive. Takeout will represent a major piece of business going forward into the immediate future. Some traditional restaurants may opt for designing new takeout rooms separate from the main dining room. One of our clients, an Italian restaurant, is having more success now than when the outbreak began. Due to new standards in mobile ordering and parking lot delivery, the owner has been able to re-focus staff responsibilities and keep more people employed. Curbside pickup has added a whole new dimension to the business. Guests may start adapting to this new lifestyle and—after it’s all said and done—habits may remain. Do not eliminate the new takeout and/or delivery system you implemented as soon as you are able to reopen – customers may still be looking for it.

Expect more outdoor or fresh air dining areas. These spaces will flourish when fresh air and proper ventilation are of utmost importance, in addition to restaurants trying to recapture some square footage. From partially shutting down some streets to turning parking lots into dining areas, as owners begin to think about reopening, some are hoping to make up for the lost capacity indoors with the expansion of their outdoor dining. Some restaurants are considering having outdoor areas where people can drive their cars in and have a picnic beside their car, along with some forms of entertainment, such as live music. Restaurant owners should consider anything that makes their customers feel more comfortable.

It remains to be seen how the restaurant industry will recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many keys to success will be about increasing customer confidence, creating cleaning dining areas and focusing on creating experiences that transcend the challenges that this pandemic presents. New challenges will bring new ideas and innovations that may change the way restaurants do business in the future. We must not be resistant to change; this is how we will all come out of this pandemic stronger and wiser than before.

Michael Bonacasa is senior vice president and real estate market director at H2M architects + engineers.

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