It’s Friday night in Seattle — pre-COVID-19 — and you’re going out to dinner. You walk into a crowded vestibule and give a hostess your name; you’re one of many waiting for a table. You weave through the crowded room, dodging purses hanging off the backs of chairs, and squeeze through what feels like a 6-inch space between “your” table and its neighbor, finally collapsing on the bench, careful not to encroach on your neighbor’s space.
Your server brings menus; today’s date is on the bottom right corner, but given the random smudge, you know you’re not the first to handle it tonight. You give him your drink order, and after he leaves, you and your date try to decide what you’re having while also attempting to ignore the couple arguing on your left.
When drinks arrive, you move the salt and pepper shakers around to make room for them and your water glass. You unfurl your napkin and place the silverware on the tabletop. A woman on your right drops something and you bend over to pick it up, placing it back on her table.
Every step of the way, you’re within the proximity of dozens of other people. You’ve touched communal things and surfaces that, in the coronavirus era, now seem hazardous — and you haven’t even eaten anything yet.
Those are the two elements of the typical dining experience that Washington’s almost 15,000 restaurants will have to change if they want to reopen in Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan. Everyone is finding different ways to adapt, says Anthony Anton, president and CEO for the Washington Hospitality Association: “There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer.”
So how will restaurants adapt to meet customers’ needs as dining rooms reopen?
Some, like Stuart Lane, chef at Capitol Hill’s Spinasse, have decided that sanitation begins with trying to clean even the air customers will breathe on the premises.
Lane says an ultraviolet air scrubber was installed in the restaurant’s HVAC system. They’ve also staggered staffing and deliveries to minimize cross-contamination. Staff get their temperatures taken daily and everyone is wearing masks and gloves. No one besides staff members is allowed inside the restaurant; takeout orders are picked up curbside and deliveries are left in the alley.
Still, even with the UV scrubber and online ordering, Lane says he’s hesitant to open the dining room right at the start of the second phase.
“My gut is to wait a week or two. Figure it out from there and limp along,” he says.
New tech for a new era?
Other restaurants are working with consultants on how to optimize their operations while fulfilling the 13-point Phase 2 reopening checklist from Inslee’s office, which calls for restaurants to maintain social distancing standards throughout their premises, limit parties to five or less, and distribute only single-use menus. Buffets and salad bars are not allowed, and condiments have to be either single-use, or judiciously wiped down after every party.
Rick Braa, the owner of AMP Services, a restaurant accounting and consultancy company, has amassed a portfolio of 200 restaurants in 22 states over the last 18 years. As restaurants cautiously start to reopen, it’s Braa’s job to advise clients on how to position themselves for post-pandemic success.
One option he’s suggested to clients — keeping the menu to a page and slipping it between a clear mat and the tabletop.
But, there are also other, more innovative low-contact menu options: “It has to be app-based,” Brass says. “One-time use menus are a lot of trees to kill, and you still have the whole handling of the menu.”
Michael Wolf, editor of food tech newsletter The Spoon, adds that restaurants should aim to keep prices down on menus — whatever form they take.
“People are going to have less money. If you had $30 meals on your menus, you need $6 meal options on your menu” Wolf says.
Other options Braa has suggested to clients that you might see at your neighborhood restaurant: table tents with barcodes to menus or payment systems people can access from their smartphones.
Some restaurants already do this in some fashion — 19 Gold, a Taiwanese soup restaurant in Fremont, offers customers a small discount if they pay their bill via Venmo. Xiao Chi Jie, a dumpling restaurant that operates out of a Bellevue food hall uses self-order kiosks for contact-free ordering. (A spokesperson from Inslee’s office said Monday that they are still evaluating whether self-order kiosks will meet the reopening criteria for restaurants.)
Matador Restaurants, a client of Braa’s, is considering introducing table tents with QR codes customers can scan to access the menu on their phones.
“We’re under no false expectation that things are going to go right back to the way they are. We’re trying to find the best way to be what we were before while maintaining the safety of our customers and staff,” said Ian Brousseau, president of Matador Restaurants, adding that they’re open to ideas as they work toward reopening their 10 locations. “Our whole operation is being an aesthetic experience, we never wanted to be big into to-go (orders).”
Changing the experience
There’s one thing every restaurant has in common: They’re trying to sell you a complete experience built on a creator’s vision. And while everyone agrees that for safety, it’s important to adhere to the state’s social distancing regulations, those same regulations make it difficult for restaurants to deliver the atmosphere and aesthetic they pride themselves on.
Jeremy Price, who co-owns the Sea Creatures family of restaurants with chef Renee Erickson, says they’re looking for ways to still keep the magic in the experience of dining out. That might take the shape of an outdoor tent at one of their locations, or it might be in the popular Adirondack chairs at Westward, which is shooting for a June reopening.
“Where we’re leaning toward is beginning to reopen spots with opportunities for outdoor dining,” Price says. “Restaurant people are creative and adaptive and we’ll find a new way to create that special little escape for folks. I don’t know if it will look exactly the same, but we’ll find a way.”
But maybe it’s time the restaurant dining experience moved away from the “sit down and wait to be served” style that’s been the norm since 1782, when La Grande Taverne de Londres — often acknowledged as the grandfather of luxury restaurants — opened in Paris.
Even before the pandemic hit, we saw the proliferation of quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants. Anton says specifically in King County we’ve been “seeing it for a long time, as full service has become unaffordable.” That’s the wave Xiao Chi Jie owners Jennifer Liao and Caleb Wang hopped on when they opened their restaurant in Bellevue in 2018 with the goal of modernizing the traditional sit-down Chinese restaurant experience and creating something more “efficient, effective and scalable.”
That’s partly why they set their restaurant — which serves a pan-fried soup dumpling called sheng jian bao (a cousin of the popular steamed soup dumpling xiao long bao) — in a food hall. It’s also why they eschewed traditional paper menus for self-order kiosks and television screens that display menu options.
“Honestly, we’re in our early 30s, and it just made sense to us,” says Wang.
XCJ’s small scale also made it easy for them to pivot quickly to delivery and focus on selling frozen xiao long bao during the dining room shutdown. And with more people wary of being around crowds for extended periods of time, fast-casual dining is a happy medium between “stay home and order takeout” and “sit down for a traditional three-course, full-service dining experience.”
Then there’s Addo’s Eric Rivera, whose creativity has been on full display during the pandemic. Rivera started his restaurant as a two-seat dining experience out of his apartment, and he’s consistently shown he’s never afraid to switch things up.
Over the last couple of months, he’s gotten even more creative with the idea of what a restaurant should be, and the functions it should serve. He’s trotted out an ever-changing menu that can consist of family-style meals and pantry staples one week, and “Game of Thrones” or Mariners-themed dinners the next. He’s also offered at-home versions of his 20-course tasting menu since the dining room shut down and has successfully launched an in-house delivery service.
Rivera can’t predict what the post-pandemic restaurant scene will look like more than anyone else, but he’s not the type to hang onto a menu item over nostalgia or ego, and is willing to unhinge from the traditional dining room experience to experiment with what works for Addo and his customer base.
“You have to take the idea of a restaurant off and say, ‘I’m going to run this like a business.’ Find out what people need, what people want and give it to them,” he says of his approach.
That nimbleness will be valuable in a new dining world where the rules of operation evolve more quickly than restaurants can keep up.
“We will never operate the same. The use of tech will be so paramount, same with the shift in behavior and cleanliness standards,” Braa says. “It will never be the same, it will be better.”