What will your restaurant look like in the months ahead – not so much in terms of the guests coming through your doors but in the structure and layout of your dining room? Forbes reports that most states are limiting inside dining capacity to 25 percent as restaurants reopen, putting further downward pressure on margins and forcing operators to get creative about how to fill – and adjust – their spaces. We may have seen the last of communal tables, buffets and salad bars for a while, while plexiglass barriers between tables will become more commonplace. Even restaurant operators with tables already spaced at a distance will have to think differently about how they will maximize their square footage while protecting the safety of guests and employees. Expect more outdoor seating under heat lamps as operators stretch their dining room boundaries. Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, recently told Boston Magazine that he is in the midst of discussions with state officials about how restaurants might be able to use additional space on sidewalks, lawns and even parking lots to increase their capacity.
The Paycheck Protection Program was presented as relief for small business – access to emergency loans to help business owners continue to pay employees and cover other expenses. But amid Associated Press news reports that $365 million of the $350 billion in available federal recovery funding has gone to nearly 100 publicly traded companies – seemingly not the small businesses the program was deemed to support – many smaller independent restaurant brands have spoken out, particularly as many of them have been denied funding. The transparency about the program may help more small operators. (Some better-funded restaurants that were recipients of the funding, such as Shake Shack and Sweetgreen, said they were returning it in an aim of helping small businesses in greater need. Both of those brands reportedly received $10 million government loans.) However, the funds may not be redistributed as intended. A spokeswoman from the Small Business Administration told Forbes that the money will go back into the Paycheck Protection Fund but new loans can’t be made against the fund until Congress authorizes new funds. (While the program was recently cleared out, Congress approved an additional $320 billion for the fund on April 23rd.) Making the most of new and existing partnerships may offer some help to independents – whether in lobbying Congress or in nimbly managing operational changes. On the Congressional front, consider joining the efforts of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Contact Team Four/Value Four for help in maximizing your purchasing power and identifying operating efficiencies to keep you going during these difficult months.
In news that came as a relief for some and a great worry for others, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order to reopen businesses in the state, with restaurants (at least those that are choosing to) set to reopen for dine-in service. Florida and South Carolina have also taken steps toward reopening their economies as well. The industry will be watching them all in the coming weeks as a model for what’s coming down the pipeline, whether that’s more widespread reopenings around the country or a protracted lockdown. So what will restaurant dining look like in states that reopen in the coming days and weeks? To be sure, there will be many precautions in place. In Georgia for starters, no more than 10 customers will be allowed inside a restaurant and no more than six people per table. While waiting for their table, guests will be separated by floor markings or waiting in cars. They can expect to see signs saying that no one with COVID-19 symptoms can enter. Employees must wear masks at all times and cannot come to work if they show any COVID-19 symptoms. Guests will no longer serve themselves in such areas as salad bars, buffets or stations used to store condiments, drinks and tableware. Restaurant operators will be screening and evaluating workers who show symptoms, providing enhanced food safety training to workers and taking such steps as pre-rolling silverware at each table. Under normal circumstances, these steps would sound comprehensive. But are they enough? What’s happening now in Hong Kong – no stranger to public health lockdowns – might provide some clues. A recent Eater report about the experience of dining in Hong Kong right now sounded fairly similar to the one set to happen in U.S. restaurants given the green light to reopen, with a key distinction: The writer said that upon entry to restaurants there, he must sign a form declaring that he had not left Hong Kong in the past 14 days, been with anyone outside of Hong Kong, or shown any COVID-19 symptoms. He then had to provide his name, phone number and email address so that if anyone at the restaurant that night tested positive, the restaurant could contact him. So even if he paid cash, which was allowed, the restaurant retained his data. That data privacy and protection issue is something that American consumers and businesses may struggle with. The next two weeks may indicate if this is a step restaurants must take nonetheless as states gear up to reopen.