As we tiptoe out of the COVID-19 quarantine, many diners are speculating about the future of the restaurant experience. No one knows for sure, obviously, but we can predict the short-term reality in both Palm Beach County and Naples, both of which recently began the reopening process.
More social distancing: This goes without saying right now, and it may continue long into the future. Restaurants are initially limited to 25% capacity, progressing to 50% in the next phase. Restaurateurs are understandably nervous about this, since it’s almost impossible to be profitable unless the dining room is full. Your favorite high-energy neighbor joint, where tables are packed together so tightly that you always make new friends, is probably gone forever.
More outdoor dining: Patios and terraces aren’t subject to the 25% capacity rule, as long as tables are six feet apart and parties are restricted to 10 people or less. Look for expanded alfresco options; in some cities, main shopping and dining streets will be closed to vehicle traffic to allow for increased outdoor seating. Naples is in the process of easing permits for outdoor seating.
Masks and gloves: Chatty servers may be muffled for a while, which in some cases could be a relief. Service staff will also need to be more careful about setting down and picking up plates, since they are technically obligated to change gloves after each interaction. Also, they may not be able to box up your unfinished meal in a doggy bag.
Cleaning and disinfecting: The cleaning business will probably be more lucrative than restaurants for the immediate future, and the process will become increasingly automated. In Naples, NCH Baker Hospital has loaned germ-zapping robots to six restaurants that helped feed their employees during the quarantine. The LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robot, manufactured by Xenex Disinfecting Services, uses high-intensity UV light to clean places humans may be unable to reach. Talk about a growth industry.
Staff hygiene: Managers will be responsible for taking employees’ temperatures prior to every shift, rigorous hand-washing practices will be in place, and kitchen workers will also be wearing masks and gloves.
The digital revolution has arrived: The hallmarks of lockdown dining—online ordering and contact-less payment—may be here to stay, and both take-out and curbside pickup will dominate restaurants for months or even years to come. Paper menus will likely be replaced by iPads and other automated systems that can be regularly disinfected. Many personalized aspects of the restaurant experience will be replaced by systems that will be less intimate but safer.
According to the National Restaurant Association, eight million restaurant employees (two-thirds of the national hospitality work force) have lost their jobs in the pandemic, and no one knows how many of them will be able to return to work. Even more uncertain is the fate of bars, where social distancing will be more difficult to enforce. The only thing we can count on is that a new normal is coming, and no one yet knows exactly what it is.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade, are available on Amazon; his third novel, Impeachment, will be released this fall.