When the pandemic was declared, Vancouver restaurant owner Michael Brennan wasn’t sure his business would survive. The guidelines issued by WorkSafeBC and the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association put a strong emphasis on physical distancing, which would be a challenge in his pub, the Heatley. It’s a cozy communal space in the city’s Strathcona neighbourhood that hosts live music and events.
“Obviously there’s the option of putting plexiglass everywhere, but to me that was disheartening,” he said. “The selling point of the Heatley is that it’s the in-house experience of being in the room and the general vibe there.”
While some restaurants are placing “reserved” signs on certain tables to enforce physical distancing measures, others are using stuffed animals or life-sized dolls to occupy seats.
Brennan wanted to do something different, effective and stylish that fit the look of his establishment. After some brainstorming, he designed barriers throughout his restaurant in a way that would meet health guidelines but also be visually compelling. Instead of resorting to plexiglass, which can be costly in terms of both material and installation – and is currently in short supply – he chose to upcycle antique windows and doors to create dividers that were more in line with the feel of his space.
“That provided the necessary six-foot backing on each of the booths,” he said.
Ways of reconfiguring spaces and navigating guidelines in the hospitality industry are still unfolding, as businesses scramble to accommodate the disruptive restrictions brought on by the pandemic. The guidelines for reopening vary between provinces and territories, and many regions still require restaurants and bars to limit their indoor spaces to 50-per-cent capacity. As a result, hours of operation are shorter and service is slower in order to accommodate the challenges of safely taking orders and bussing tables while also following physical-distancing rules.
Brennan said this means a lot more work for his staff, who will have to spend more time cleaning tables and other surfaces. “We have a cleaning checklist that we need to mark and make visible to the patrons.”
In fact, the presentation of cleanliness and sanitation is becoming more evident. During an online panel in June on postpandemic hospitality design, hosted by Frame magazine, interior design specialist Caroline Cundall said there will be a theatrical component to the sterilization of shared spaces in hotels and restaurants. It will no longer be something that is done discreetly or behind the scenes. “It will be a visual thing,” she said. “People will want to see people cleaning.”
She noted that some hotels are putting stickers on bathroom stall doors that have been cleaned – a variation on the “Sanitized for your protection” ribbons placed across toilet seats.
Visitors can also expect fewer frills and accessories in hotel rooms – things such as throws and accent pillows will be removed.
Cundall also predicts that hotel touch points such as the checkout desk will shift to smart TVs so guests can settle up virtually, without any human interaction.
In restaurants, expect more tableside payment processing through a device like a tablet. Andrew Pittam, vice-president of client partnerships at Toronto-based design firm Astound, says the hospitality industry is working hard to find creative solutions for safe, touchless contact points.
“They may not have menus any more,” he said. “You might just open up your phone, scan the QR code on the table, and it pulls the whole menu on your phone. The technology exists – it’s just a matter of restaurants having a means to do it.”
In the meantime, restaurants that continue to run exclusively as a takeout service are working hard to adjust. Matt Davis, a partner with Toronto design firm DesignAgency, says some of his clients are working to create a safe space that can accommodate more delivery pickup.
“Restaurants are approaching takeout service just as if it’s a reservation,” he said. “If you have a reservation for 7 o’clock, that’s when your takeout will be ready, to try and maintain the culture of dining.”
Many places are stepping up food-to-go services to create a unique experience that can be brought home. Craig Wong, chef and owner of Toronto’s Patois, is selling single-serve, ready-to-eat bento boxes and heat-and-serve “care packages” for larger groups. However, he admits that this reality is a serious challenge for the industry.
“Restaurants can open at 50-per-cent capacity, but the clear thing is that restaurants aren’t operating at 50-per-cent rent,” he said. “There’s immense costs to running a restaurant. Already the profit margins are minuscule, so it really doesn’t set restaurants for success.”