🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now
A masked waiter serves a customer at a reopened restaurant in Florida on May 11. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Ready to go back to eating out? Your favorite restaurant won’t look the same

Lukas Southard May 20, 2020
A masked waiter serves a customer at a reopened restaurant in Florida on May 11. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When we do walk back into our favorite local restaurant, it will probably look a little more barren.

Some of these changes may seem temporary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a flowchart to help full-service restaurants — sit-down restaurants with table service — reopen. Most places are already stocking up on sanitizers, redesigning seating plans that allow for 6 feet between tables, and the ubiquitous masks.

“Full-service will see the greatest amount of attrition,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association. According to restaurateurs and business owners he has talked to, there will be somewhere “between 20% and 50% of full-service restaurants that don’t make it.”

The long-term changes to restaurant service are already being tested during lockdown because it will be a matter of life or death for most small-to-medium-sized restaurants in a post-coronavirus era. Those who create multiple revenue streams, embrace efficiency technology and cut costs wherever possible will be the ones who still fill tables two years from now.

Mom and pop restaurants are at the most risk

Doug Schmucker and his wife have run his family diner for 20 years. Schmucker’s has been a part of Toledo, Ohio, for three generations, dating back to 1948, when his grandmother’s catering company turned into a roadside eatery specializing in pies.

Doug Schmucker took over the family diner in Toledo, Ohio, from his mother, Alice (left).

“We’re a diner: five tables, five booths and 13 chrome stools on a curved counter,” Schmucker said proudly. “Of our 53 seats, we make 23 kinds of pie.”

When the governor’s order to temporarily close all sit-down service came down, Schmucker immediately pivoted to curbside pickup of to-go meals, which reduced his staffing needs. He put the choice to his 30-person team in the form of a question with three possible answers:

“I need to work. I would be happy to be laid off. Or whatever you need.”

He hopes that by the end of the summer, he can have his whole staff back dishing pies and ringing up at the antique register on the counter, but the unknown is hard. His main dilemma? Keeping the same intimate, communal feel to Schmucker’s while accommodating social-distancing guidelines once he reopens for sit-in diners.

“What about the two gentlemen that meet every morning to eat together? I’m not supposed to let them do that,” he said.

Putting up cloth drapes between booths and putting up plexiglass barriers between counter stools could ruin the familiar atmosphere of his restaurant, but it is necessary. 

Schmucker’s is currently operating on 50% less revenue, surviving on preordered family meals handed to customers in their cars.

Offering his community home-cooked comfort food to go was not originally part of his business, but Schmucker hopes it will keep Schmucker’s afloat.

Lockdown strategies might be a permanent fixture of urban dining

More concentrated urban areas will have other challenges.

New York City restaurants have long relied on packing customers tightly into small dining rooms.

“We are not trying to make a profit. We are just trying to make it to the other side,” said Henry Moynahan Rich, owner of the Oberon Group. The company operates two wine bars, a full-service restaurant and a catering company in Brooklyn.

Reducing the number of tables and expanding the space between them will be necessary so customers can feel comfortable dining in again. That’s one of the factors feeding expectations of a 50% decrease in occupancy, said Halley Chambers, deputy director of the Oberon Group.

In order to stay afloat, the restaurant group has developed new revenue streams that will most likely continue once diners can sit down again and order a bowl of fusilli with walnut pesto.

Purslane, the group’s catering company, is offering meal packages and grocery items ordered online. At the Rhodora wine bar, new connections to local farmers created a CSA program — community-sponsored agriculture — to offer fresh produce to people who are staying away from grocery stores. All of Oberon’s outlets are selling wine by the bottle as a retail option as well.

One big saving grace for N.Y.C. restaurants during lockdown has been the governor’s order allowing them to sell alcoholic drinks to go, which boosted revenue for places that would have otherwise shuttered. Many New York restaurants are petitioning for the new laws allowing retail and to-go liquor sales to remain permanent after reopening.

Menu changes can reduce health risk and costs

Menus that can be wiped down easily with sanitizer or thrown away after a single use seem like a given in a pandemic world. There also will be a reduction of the extensive menu options that have come to represent the abundance of American chain restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory or Applebee’s.

More streamlined menus, people being more effective using cross-utilization of products,” predicted Pepe Guzman, founder of Hats Off Hospitality.

With 40 or 50 items on the menu, restaurants need to keep a lot of ingredients in-house. Changing out the squid-ink pasta for a pasta primavera that uses the same vegetables used in other dishes will shorten menus — and cut costs.

According to people Guzman has talked to, the average restaurant lost about $5,000 to $10,000 in wasted produce when they were suddenly ordered to close. Permanently reducing inventory will lighten overhead and cut down on food waste, leading to healthier margins.

Henry Rich sees tighter menus as both a public-health issue and a way to maximize the number of people served each night. This might mean doing away with the multicourse meals that were a regular part of service at Rucola, Oberon’s Northern Italian restaurant.

“A little consolidation so that people are enjoying themselves, but they are probably not spending quite as much time with us,” Rich said. “Anything we can do to marginally lower the percentage of somebody getting sick in our space, we will do.”

Reducing physical contact between patrons and employees will be safer and more efficient. Shorter meals mean more potential customers per evening.

More digital technology in day-to-day management

Printed menus themselves might become a thing of the past. Digital tablets are easier to sanitize and can streamline service to reduce the time servers spend at tables.

Bob Donegan is president of Ivar’s, one of Seattle’s oldest seafood chains. Donegan normally operates three full-service restaurants, six burger restaurants, 23 seafood bars and around 30 stadium outlets, as well as a chowder production plant. Currently, with only 22 quick-service shops open, he employs at least 700 fewer employees than he did at this time last year.

Like many other states, Washington hopes to use contact tracing to help it reopen safely.

“Everyone who comes into the restaurant has to have a reservation. So if a confirmed case shows up, there is a mechanism to contact people,” Donegan said. But it doesn’t stop there. “Do we prop the door open? Do we have a greeter who sanitizes the door after each use? Do we accept cash, or is it all remote pay?”

All these decisions will drastically change how a restaurant is run. These changes to service will affect staff requirements.

“Digital ordering will be a way to save on your highest cost,” said Anton of the Washington Hospitality Association, referring to payroll.

Back at Schmucker’s diner in Toledo, Doug Schmucker hopes that to-go orders can keep his business afloat and a masked waitstaff won’t turn away customers looking for a plate of chipped beef over toast, a hand-dipped milkshake and a slice of scutterbotch pie.

“You can tell when someone is smiling by looking at the eyes,” he said. “It will take a little more effort, but I think we can do it.”

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.