Inspiring solutions for social distancing in restaurants – it IS possible!

The very idea of ‘social distancing’ people in restaurants seems to go against everything that they are about. Operators have worked hard to increase the number of customer interactions that they have with their guests, and now, in order to protect them and their staff, they are being asked to have as little interaction as possible.

Very few people in the industry are questioning the needs for these safety measures, but many are worried about how they can adapt their venues to meet the guidelines, keep people safe and also maintain a quality customer experience.

David Chenery, founder of Object, Space, Place, specialises in restaurant design. His team have been working on various design concepts to help operators recognise that there are ways to create a safe environment, social distance AND deliver a great customer experience. KAM interviewed him to find out more…

Hi David. So do you think social distancing can actually work in casual dining and fine dining restaurants?

I think that’s the million pound question everyone is trying to grapple with and the answer is ‘it depends’ rather than a straight yes or no. The main issue is around the business model more than anything – whether the inevitably lower capacity means that the numbers can actually stack up. From all the operators I have spoken to or read about, it seems very clear that government support is needed for all restaurants if they are to get through the next 9 months.

If financial support is made available to the extent that lower capacities can be profitable, then it becomes a question of adjusting your design to deal with social distancing requirements.

Critically, this has to start by looking at your overall brand and strategy (e.g. are we convenience or experience led? What do our customers love us for? What new ways can we delight them?) before you start looking at tactics (how can we divide up tables? How do guests get to the toilets safely?) Making social distancing work will certainly be more difficult for some restaurant concepts than others.

It is important to remember that right now we are not clear exactly what the UK government will require in terms of social distancing measures and our understanding so far is based on collective interpretation of how other countries have responded along with WHO And HSE guidelines.

David Chenery, founder of OSP

You and your team have been working on various design concepts to help inspire operators. Talk us through the idea of the #alonetogether concept. How did it come about?

Pretty early on it became clear that when restaurants were allowed to open again, they would do so under a cloud of new regulations that strike at the heart of what hospitality is all about. Online and in the news, people had been discussing the possible implications of social distancing and generally talking about how much of a negative impact it would have on the restaurant experience. Words like ‘impossible’ and ‘terrible’ were (and still are) being thrown around.

We have taken the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” philosophy, rolled our design sleeves up and decided to try and create a beautiful solution.

But rather than look at it like this, we have taken the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” philosophy, rolled our design sleeves up and decided to try and create a beautiful solution. The simple aim being to inject a bit of inspiration back into the conversation and maybe ignite those creative juices that generally the restaurant business is so full of.

So the first important idea is to change the existing mindset around these restrictions. A great restaurant doesn’t let other health and safety requirements have a negative impact on customer experience, so why should this be any different? If approached creatively, the requirements for physical distancing could be used to reinforce a genuine sense of caring hospitality. After all, you are doing it in order to look after people.

Also, given that private dining has been increasing in popularity, the enhanced separation could be used as a way to create a more unique, special experience for guests.

What are the key elements of the #alonetogether concept which ensure an unforgettable and outstanding customer experience?

I’d say that the top 10 key elements are:

  1. There are separate entrance and exits, both of which are revolving doors to adequately keep guests apart and reinforce a sense of specialness akin to a 5 star hotel.
  2. On entering, the generous lobby area includes hand washing stations for guests to use, plus space to have their temperature checked, if necessary, before heading through to the restaurant.
  3. A glass wall runs the length of the kitchen so that standards of hygiene are clearly visible. This takes the open kitchen idea to its logical extreme.
  4. The delivery orders are served via a separate entrance with a waiting lobby for delivery drivers to avoid them mixing with customers and staff.
  5. The main dining space sees well spaced tables combined with translucent curtains to provide reassurance and peace of mind.
  6. Toilet cubicles are individual, self contained pods that keep people apart whilst creating a very Instagrammable experience. Doors, taps, soap and hand driers are all automatic to minimise points of contact.
  7. The items that customers touch e.g. door handles, table tops etc. are copper. Viruses have been shown to live for much shorter times on copper than stainless steel.
  8. At the bar, framed glass screens are used to separate customers and staff from each other with a small band of open space just above the bar top to allow for interaction.
  9. Food and drink are brought to the table on a beautiful trolley. Guests can choose to take the food themselves or to move away from the table as their food is served.
  10. As there are fewer guests to be served, a fine dining takeaway service is offered, including a beautifully boxed meal, access to the restaurant’s music playlist and a virtual chef’s table. This chef’s table is set behind glass in the restaurant and linked to a webcam to allow for live streaming of cooking demonstrations.

Guests that order delivery are granted access for 1 hour, so they have the opportunity to engage with the restaurant and give live feedback or ask questions.

What do you think will be the main concerns or considerations of customers when deciding where to dine out post-lockdown?

I think people will be craving familiarity and their regular haunts from pre-lockdown, so will gravitate towards these for both comfort and curiosity to see how different they feel with social distancing measures in place. And here is a key point – all restaurants will be making a FIRST IMPRESSION on guests again after lockdown. What impression will you leave your guests with? Will it be one where they want to come back soon or maybe wait until you are back to normal?

As a result of the above, particularly in the early days of lockdown being lifted, I imagine there might be a lower appetite for trying somewhere new.

I expect that value for money will drive some early behaviour as the uncertainty around the economic outlook means larger numbers of people clamp down on discretionary spending.

What reaction have you had to your social distancing advice and concepts which you’ve shared so far from operators?

The response has been very positive so far, although naturally tempered by some overriding concerns around making the financial side of things work. I have found that people are pretty interested by the idea of taking something so negative and trying to weave that into an interesting restaurant without it feeling like a compromised experience.

Our goal is to try and stimulate ideas and debate, so that anyone who is looking to re-open with social distancing in place can find some positive inspiration to take direction from.

Thanks David, absolutely fascinating stuff.

You can watch another interview with David, which was carried out as part of our Hospitality Talks series below. You may also be interested in watching our interview with Anthony Pender, co-founder of Yummy Pubs, who takes us on a tour of his London pub addressing how they are adapting for re-opening.