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By Tobias Harris W.
March 26, 2020

While our operating partners in the restaurant industry are developing strategies to survive Covid-19's effect, we, as restaurant visionaries, need to start preparing for the recovery plan. This dramatic event has impacted the restaurant experience, and in the broader term, the dining experience. Our industry is changing. No Doubt!

Even as social distancing keeps us six feet apart, Aristotle's wisdom remains: Humans are social beings, and food almost at the center of every social interaction. Celebrations, victories, unification, and rebellions are often initiated around dining tables and sealed with wine toasts. Although we've seen the recent crisis make dining more individualized, one fact remains: design plays a critically important role in the success of both communal and self-contained experience.

We all hope that the Covid-19 crisis will be the one and only, but another significant outbreak can eventually happen. The socio-economic changes, even from this event, will shape how restaurants function and operate, as well as the place they hold and the role they play in our culture. Naturally, the dining experience, service, and customer interaction will also change.

We have seen how third-party e-delivery has been a popular customer choice, despite the high affinity cost for the operator. Curbside delivery, designated pick up areas, as well as self-serve pick-up cubbies, are adaptations that provide efficient, effective service. These innovations allow customers to take food home efficiently, but we have to ask ourselves a question. Are they a response only to the event, or do they indicate a direction away from social interaction? 

Let's dive into the current design trend. We have always considered that great restaurant design is bright, airy, with an open sense of place complete with a glorious community table. Embracing social interaction is the goal of every restaurant's brand and has been a measure of success.

We continue to believe that social human-to-human interactivity is here to stay, despite Covid-19, or other unfortunate events. It is human nature, after all. The big question is, how should the restaurant experience, or restaurants in general, change? There is no crystal ball, but some practical, strategic measures will present answers. We've had to move on, one way or another.

To start, smaller format architecture is the key to a brand's growth agility. Size reduction is a reaction to high real estate costs in every part of the world. From the revenue angle, we all aware that the dining-in income has been balanced by the drive-thru and pick-up. In addition, smaller format restaurants have been proven to be successful in meeting customer demand for better service. During economic hardships, where a sense of control is beyond necessary, it is confirmed: small-format restaurants are sustainable.

Making drive-thru an integrated brand experience will likely flourish. It supports selective public social distancing without lessening engagement to the brand. Take it to the next level, making the drive-thru and pick up outlet, combine with a ghost kitchen for delivery, got you an excellent new brand channel. We can learn from Pollo Tropical and Starbucks that have successfully initiated this bold effort.

Restaurant convenience service will be elevated and perfected. Restaurants that have been doing excellent delivery curb services and pick up windows have been performing quite well in this hard time. Brands that fully integrate these services into their presence without appearing as an afterthought are more likely to have better customer appreciation.

The soul of food experience is togetherness. Social culture will not go away, but making social safer is achievable. Grace Yek, a food writer and culinary scholar, advises that the food selection process could be the starting point. Simple technology, like menu apps on mobile platforms rather than paper or plastic shared menus, will make the experience safer.

Providing sanitary measures at the point of entry, such as hand washing or a hand sanitizer station, would have been laughable before this event. However, with thoughtful architectural and integrated branded graphics, it will be naturally accepted.

Eventually, a small robotic factory format will go mainstream as a neighborhood restaurant chain, showcasing precise food preparation and sanitary measures. However, that will have a high initial cost, and limited flexibility could be a drawback. Most importantly, it will take the restaurant category further away from culinary.

From an architectural POV, re-thinking open plan trends to provide a controlled environment where trusted individuals can socialize in a smaller setting will be more appealing. Better air circulation technology and architectural design can enhance this safety measure. Open kitchens that showcase trustworthy food preparation will benefit the brand tremendously.

Culinary will stay. Food is a soulful thing that humans need to create. The social experience around food will be different, though. Trust is the keyword of restaurant development for the near future. How a brand can change while establishing trust as part of their Brand DNA will be the key to success, building trusted social experiences, trusted food preparation methods, and confidence in a safe place to gather.

Our industry is changing significantly. How it turns out will be exciting, and maybe a little bit scary to experience. But as a visionary, a designer, a forecaster, and a trendsetter, we see this challenge is a green pasture. With open-mindedness, collaboration, and great partnerships, we will adapt the industry to the future, make it better, safer, and, as always, social.

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Photography by www.jarrinstudio.com

Perspective 03/26 : Are we saying goodbye to Community Tables? Perspective 04/08 : So much has changed. Should your brand narrative change too
Perspective 04/23: Designing Trust Part 1: Fostering safety post COVID-19 Perspective
05/02: Designing Trust Part 2: Leveraging Brand Narrative
05/28: Designing Trust Part 3: Transparency in Demand