Dining rooms spaced with half the seating. Plastic barriers. Servers and possibly patrons wearing masks. No buffets. Disposable menus offering fewer options.
Many questions have yet to be answered: Must staff and customers be temperature-checked at the door? Will bars be allowed to seat patrons side by side? How do restaurants avoid crowds of customers waiting for tables? Which restaurateurs have enough cash to clean up, ramp up staffing, and stock their kitchens for what likely will not be a crush of business?
And there is an overarching question: Though humans crave socialization and feel trapped in the world of quarantine, will enough of them go out to eat before a vaccine is widely available to justify restaurants’ existence?
Here are some topics and scenarios being discussed in restaurant war rooms now:
Reopening won’t be like flipping a switch
Consultants are urging restaurateurs to use a “fast-follower” approach: Don’t be the first to open, but be poised to follow and learn from others’ mistakes.
Chains, especially the casual eateries that pivoted easily to delivery and takeout, seem to be taking this wait-and-see approach to opening dining rooms.
“We’re all going to learn as we go,” Ray Blanchette, chief executive of TGI Fridays, said in an interview last week. “We’re not going out and opening day one. It’s important to take time and plan, and really make sure you can keep people safe. You have to have a plan to mitigate at least the problems you can think about.”
Starbucks executives said on an earnings call last week that they expect to soon open only 30 of more than 15,000 U.S. stores for in-person ordering, but still with no seating. Starbucks, which has some drive-through windows open now, wants customers to download its app and order ahead.
On the other end of the dining scale, Richard Cusack of June BYOB in South Philadelphia said he and his wife, Christina, would not consider reopening “until the government constructs a smart and sturdy plan with rules and guidelines."
“Otherwise, it is just a death trap,” he said. "But what faith do we have in the government to come up with an effective plan? They have been watching us drown for almost two months. We will have to take matters into our own hands.”
Safety first, and a move to the outdoors
Avram Hornik, who owns six restaurants plus the outdoor establishments Parks on Tap and Trails on Tap, is operating only Rosy’s Taco Bar at 23rd and Walnut Streets for takeout and delivery. When the reopening begins, he intends to focus first on his outdoor restaurants Harper’s Garden and Morgan’s Pier, whose vast spaces will allow 10-foot table spacing. Customers also will feel more secure outdoors, he believes.
Hornik, like many other restaurateurs, bought dozens of thermometers to screen employees before their shifts. He also wants to do contact tracing with customers, tied to their reservations, and have customers wear masks when they are not at their tables.
Restaurateurs are studying floor plans to modify their rooms to conform to evolving social-distancing guidelines. TGI Fridays’ Blanchette said that while the pandemic has taught his company new skills, including contact-less curbside delivery and online ordering, dining rooms are more vexing.
“With a high-back booth, we can extend the height with plexiglass to create an even stronger protective barrier,” Blanchette said. “That way, you wouldn’t have to be six feet away.”
Blanchette said Fridays’ customers also will see “sanitation people” proffering hand sanitizer and setting out cards to indicate that tables have been sanitized. “Typically, you’re cleaning before and after the shift," he said during an interview April 28. "Now, they’ll be constantly sanitizing the high-touch points that didn’t happen continuously before.”
A restaurateur’s biggest challenge will be managing crowds at the front door, Blanchette said. “We’re trying to run different scenarios,” he said. “If there’s a wait for a table because we have limited access to the dining room, we’d rather have people wait in their cars instead of waiting next to each other.”
How about the bar business?
“We might get a couple of months [open] in the fall, but we’ll most likely have to close when flu season starts,” said Hornik, who also owns Dolphin Tavern and Concourse Dance Club. “Four-deep at a bar is not going to happen till there’s a vaccine."
Justin Weathers and Joe Monnich plan to turn their Stove & Tap bar-restaurants in Lansdale and Malvern into dining rooms with touchless ordering and seating — “almost like a beer hall,” Weathers said. They will offer disposable tableware and a smaller menu to minimize labor.
“Are people going to walk into a restaurant that’s two-deep at the bar and an hour wait?” Weathers said. “My wife said that gave her the sweats.”
Weathers and Monnich also recently modified their Chester County restaurant Al Pastor to be a Chinese-Mexican pop-up called Dough Amigos, offering tacos, quesadillas, pizza, and pasta to go. “There’s a reason Chinese and pizza are so successful,” Weathers said. Not only are they “easy,” he said, but they also typically transport well.
Weathers and Monnich, who also own the Bercy, a high-end French restaurant in Ardmore, are treating the downturn as they would a recession. “What services are we buying that are necessary?” he asked. The partners are cutting their linen budget and have eliminated a music-streaming service.
Like all restaurateurs, they are trying to negotiate more favorable terms with their landlords, with the idea that some rent payment is better than a vacancy.
“This is a hard reset for a lot of us,” Weathers said.
Stretching out the dining room
Restaurant-bar owner Teddy Sourias may be luckier than many operators because he owns three contiguous establishments near 13th and Juniper Streets in the heart of Center City: Brü, U-Bahn, and Tradesman’s. Though branding may be an issue, he can open all to allow greater separation between tables.
Smaller restaurants, including many of Philadelphia’s well-regarded BYOBs, don’t have that luxury. The economics of a BYOB are challenging, even in good times.
“Our restaurant is extremely tiny,” said Cusack, who opened the 28-seat June BYOB last year. “The best we could do is place a four-top table in the front by the window, and a four-top table in the back by the wall. That means the most we can serve at a time is eight people,” as customers also expect “hospital-grade cleanliness.”
Cusack cited China’s procedures of taking temperatures and wearing masks, and asked: “After all is said and done, is it even worth the risks?”
Optimism for a quick recovery
“I think all the pantry-loading behavior has slowed down,” Brian Niccol, chief executive of Chipotle Mexican Grill, said during an April 21 earnings call. "And I think there’s fatigue in cooking. So combine that with the fact that also tax refunds and stimulus money [are] starting to get into the hands of people. ... I think it’s time to break the routine of me cooking and being a little stir crazy and let’s reach out for restaurants to solve the solution.”
“The past is in the past,” said Hornik, who has owned bars and restaurants since 1994. “We have to chart a new path forward. The businesses as we knew them are gone already. People need to go out. Restaurants are the ‘third place’ for people. We’re just going to have to think about how we’re going to provide our services in a safe way.”