Restaurants like JWB Prime Steak & Seafood may use plexiglass to keep guests safe.
McBride Company

Restaurants like JWB Prime Steak & Seafood may use plexiglass to keep guests safe.

Design Goal No. 1 for Restaurants Today: Create a Safe Dining Room

The industry’s new normal brings with it a new look for restaurants—one that not only provides for safety measures, but also gives customers peace of mind.

Full-service restaurants that have persevered through dine-in bans are not out of the woods yet. Reopening, even once it’s back to full capacity, brings its own slew of challenges. One of the many considerations in reaching the anxiously awaited “new normal” is creating a safe dining room, one designed both to meet regulations and make guests feel safe.

Will the new emphasis on safety change how restaurants are designed in the future? Or are these measures just temporary? No one knows the answer, but brand leaders are actively discussing these questions with restaurant design firms like Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (jza+d) in Princeton, New Jersey. There is a general expectation that change in the near future will look more like a set of small modifications rather than a completely new approach.

“In the past, restaurant owners have always sought to maximize space in order to increase covers and profitability,” says managing partner Joshua Zinder. “Now they’re being told they can’t, in the near future, pack their dining rooms to capacity, and that’s a really big challenge. So now we’re looking at things like higher booths, modifications to some booths where you might incorporate plastic barriers, things like that. A lot of our clients are asking about outdoor space, because suddenly that’s viewed as a great way to help create the natural spacing in a fresh-air environment.”

Zinder’s clients are also looking into improving airflow in their dining rooms and increasing the safety of “parklets,” or the spaces formed when parking spots are turned into temporary outdoor dining spaces.

The McBride Company—the firm that designed the Jimmy Buffet–inspired Margaritaville restaurants, in addition to various other experiential concepts—helped one of its clients, Landshark Bar & Grill, install removable plexiglass in between booths. The firm also created branded graphics for Landshark and other restaurants that help guests know where to stand and where not to stand.

Yet much of the onus, creative executive Johnnie Rush says, will fall on operators to communicate the exact measures being taken to keep restaurants clean and guests safe.

“Really, the question becomes: Is the COVID-19 pandemic a psychological problem for restaurant owners, or is it a physiological one?” Rush says. “Right now, it’s definitely the latter, and so you somehow have to retrofit a restaurant with social distancing in mind. But everyone seems to think this is the new wave of restaurant design, and we actually disagree. There are things we can do right now that will help this process, but in terms of how restaurants will actually look into the future, I don’t think that will change much.”

Still, there is one restaurant area that Rush thinks will undergo a makeover as a result of the pandemic: the restrooms. He expects to see more usage of quartz, copper, and other virus-killing surfaces, as well as entry and stall doors that do not require bare hands to open.

“These are things that you’re already seeing in hospitals, where they’re using materials and hands-free technologies that help stop the spread of viruses,” he says. “These are what I call ‘tacit design solutions.’ They might not be obvious, but a virus is given passively, not actively, so combating it is going to take these little tweaks.”

Burton Heiss, CEO of Buddy’s Pizza, a 14-unit brand out of Detroit, has been wrestling with those tweaks since the pandemic started. Buddy’s Pizza prides itself on a family atmosphere, and though it was able to quickly pivot to off-premises—these sales doubled in March in April—at the core of its brand is the full-service experience.

“The first thing we’ve really focused on is: What is our desire, and what are we trying to accomplish?” Heiss says. “In our case, we want to create the safest possible environment for our team members and our guests. That has to be a goal.”

Like other pizza brands, Buddy’s Pizza has developed procedures to provide contactless food delivery, making the process touch-free from the time pizza leaves the oven to when the customer grabs a slice. The company has also outlined procedures and marked out areas for employees to stand to ensure everyone is six feet apart.

Curbside pickup has been added and all takeout for Buddy’s Pizza is channeled to a space with new signage that lets customers know where to pull up. At select locations, the brand is moving its host stands outdoors to ensure large groups of people waiting for a table can safely distance themselves from one another.

These small shifts are part of a longer list of ongoing design changes that requires alertness and agility.

“It’s so hard right now to know … how many people are going to want the old experience of coming in and sitting at a table and enjoying a meal,” Heiss says. “Maybe things change quickly, and there’s a vaccine, and we get back to the old normal in short order. But we do know it’s worth exploring how we can best serve our guests and changing with the times to make sure it keeps them and our employees safe.”