When dining out resumes in Massachusetts, expect to be asked for contact tracing info when you reserve a table. After you arrive at your seat, which won’t have silverware laid out on it for fear of contamination, you might summon your server from your mobile phone, then grab your dishes from a cart that is wheeled through the room.
As restaurants contemplate reopening amid the coronavirus crisis, they face an entirely new challenge: how to serve guests and make them feel welcome while also doing everything they can to make them feel safe.
“How is someone going to celebrate a birthday if the whole time they’re here they’re worried about someone coughing on their table?” asked Will Gilson, the chef-owner of Puritan & Company in Cambridge. “There isn’t a restaurant playbook for this.”
Over the past several weeks, as they’ve been pivoting to takeout orders and advocating for more federal funds, restaurant owners have also been meeting with architects, weighing new technology, and getting barraged with e-mails pitching plexiglass barriers. Few are optimistic that phase one of Governor Baker’s reopening plan will include restaurants, and so in the absence of any official guidelines, many have been scouring the Web to see what other countries have been doing to allow patrons back in to dine.
In mid-April, Gilson said he spotted a tweet from David Chang, the restaurateur whose Momofuku empire includes Fuku in the Seaport, asking what recovery looked like in Southeast Asia. Gilson said he’s using the links and photos in the responses as the basis of his reopening plan.
“We created an entire playbook based on what places in Hong Kong and Seoul and Singapore are doing,” he said.
“Two months into this issue, there are still really big pieces of the puzzle that have yet to come into place,” said Shore Gregory, the owner of Row 34 and Island Creek Oyster Bar. Gregory, like many others interviewed, said it was extremely difficult to create a reopening plan without knowing what social distancing guidelines or capacity restrictions will need to be in place.
But he was certain of one thing: "Lowering occupancy by 50 percent creates an incredible strain on our business model.”
So, owners are trying to reconfigure floor plans to make things as contact-free as possible, based on their own best assumptions.
Restaurateurs Jody Adams, of Porto, and Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer, of Little Donkey, have been participating in a case study by the MASS Design Group, an architecture and design collective that has worked with Partners in Health to create safe, sanitary spaces during infectious disease outbreaks in places like Haiti and Liberia.
Now MASS Design is bringing its expertise home to Boston, and has released a set of open source documents offering spatial distancing guidelines for restaurant owners. The goal, said the group’s executive director, Michael Murphy, is to sort out how “restaurants can reclaim their role in the public realm.”
And that doesn’t simply involve moving tables apart. “I think it’s really important for us to recognize that six feet of social distancing is basically a nail in the coffin of the restaurant,” Murphy said. Very few have the room to reopen at full capacity, he added, and "very few can survive at a quarter to 50 percent capacity.”
The team has been working with Porto and Little Donkey to re-envision spaces, accounting for things like the traffic patterns of cooks and waitstaff, and finding separate entry points for delivery and takeout orders. Murphy has been discussing extending barriers between booths to reach up to the ceiling, and also thinking about walling off the open kitchens we’ve all become accustomed to seeing.
Air flow, Murphy said, will also be a “fundamental issue” for restaurants as they resume operations, citing a recent research paper out of China that found that nine people were infected with COVID-19 after a restaurant’s air conditioning system circulated virus-laden droplets around the room. Ensuring ventilation systems can circulate air properly will be essential to a restaurant’s ability to keep its staff and patrons safe, he said.
And many owners may opt to move a kitchen entirely offsite to make space for a dining room, or have tables spill out onto the street.
Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of the streets, said the city is looking to Europe and other US cities for ideas on how to offer more outdoor dining. Possible solutions include “moving parking away from the curb into the travel lanes, and using the space for restaurants to flow out into the streets," he said.
Adams, the chef-owner of Porto, said the design group’s template will allow her to have 150 seats in what was a 180-seat space, which may be enough for her to stay viable when she opens. But more important, she said, is that through design, they’ve “really shined the spotlight on the importance of trust in the relationship between the customer and restaurateur,” she said.
“We don’t want to be taking people’s temperature. We’re in the business of hospitality and opening our arms and doors to people with a big hug,” she said. The challenge now is how to translate that to this new reality.
In addition to the physical layouts, restaurateurs will also need to make adjustments that will signal to customers that they’re safe, said Siobhan Barry, the design director at the Gensler architecture firm, which is working to open the High Street Place food hall with social distancing measures in mind. Those include outlining linear flows for people to move safely through the space, strategically placing furniture to avoid crowding, and placing an emphasis on mobile ordering.
As they reopen, restaurants may choose to ditch the romantic lighting for brighter air-filled spaces, and tables may need to be bolted down for a while to ensure people don’t cluster. “We need to know the guardrails are there,” she said.
Barry and others point out that restaurants are uniquely prepared to handle the challenges of managing a sanitary, socially distanced space. Restaurants are among the businesses that have the highest level of inspection and food safety practices, after all.
The challenge is finding a balance between clean and sterile.
“I think one of my fears with plexiglass is that it’s a quick fix, which is great, but it starts to turn your dining room, that you spent time and money curating, into a zoo or lab space,” Gilson said. So he’s thinking about wooden partitions that match his restaurant’s aesthetic, and has already ordered custom-designed masks for his staff to wear. Now he’s looking at ordering wheeled carts to bring dishes to tables.
“I’m going to approach cleanliness as if I’m trying to scrub in as a doctor,” said Gilson. “The crazy thing is, restaurants for the past decade have been getting smaller and table spacing closer. Being in a place that’s vibrant and crowded is the sign of a good busy establishment. Now we have to go back to what restaurants were like in the ’80s. Dining was spread out, tons of space, and everything was delivered by a cart to your table.”
Adding to the complexity, many said, is that they’re also contemplating new technology to make the process easier. Local restaurant-payment software firms Paytronix and Toast are reportedly building new apps to allow for mobile ordering and payment from tables.
Paytronix CEO Andrew Robbins said the Newton-based company just launched a curbside ordering tool for its customers, and will soon unveil an app where customers can scan a QR code from their table, allowing them to access a menu and pay for their food all through their phone. He also hopes to expand the service so that someone looking to dine at a restaurant can pre-order their food and have it waiting for them when they arrive.
“I expect technology to play a much bigger role in people’s dining experience,” said Gregory, who said he has been considering tech options, but also worries that it may mean fewer touchpoints with diners.
Restaurateurs say that even as they prepare to reopen, they’re simultaneously rolling out amped-up takeout operations, adding beer and wine, produce boxes, and other add-ons to help bring in revenue while capacity is scaled back for in-person dining.
But perhaps most important for many restaurant owners is the underlying question: What if they reopen only to end up operating at a loss?
“One of the challenges that the restaurant community faces right now is that we are waiting on guidance from the federal government on whether PPP loans are going to be amended, and from the states in terms of dates of reopening or the specific contact tracing [protocols],” said Gregory. More funding from federal and state governments is needed to help restaurants cover expenses while they’re expected to operate under limited capacity, he said.
“There’s been an outpouring of support for the industry,” he said. “However, I still think there is a lack of nuanced understanding of how challenging the landscape is for retail and the restaurant community.”