The Unexpected Ways Dining Out Is Evolving

When COVID-19 exploded into a global pandemic that more or less shut down everything worldwide, restaurants began diving for digital cover and rapidly embracing order-ahead, curbside pickup, delivery options, modified menus and rewritten business plans – anything and everything they could think of to survive the shutdown and stay alive long enough for patrons to return for on-site dining.  

But what is “normal?”

During these early weeks of the great reopening, “normal” is a relative term when it comes to dining out in a post-pandemic world where social distancing is the new core value. Consumers certainly want to dine out again: When PYMNTS has polled them on the subject, eating at restaurants only trails seeing friends and family on the list of reasons to venture out. But there’s also a bit of a gap between what consumers want to do and what they will feel safe doing.

The data show that some consumers are worried about their safety and the safety of others, while others have just gone digital and discovered that they kind of like it, and don’t feel quite so strong of a pull to get back to their old lives and physical routines. Why go to the restaurant when the restaurant will come to you?  

And thus, as eateries worldwide are reorienting themselves toward the grand reopening of human civilization in the summer of 2020, restaurants have spent the last several weeks getting really inventive when it comes to bringing consumers to their doors.  

Really, really inventive. Because while all kinds of restaurants have taken this opportunity to reconsider their operations and the role digital will play, things like delivery, contactless payments and app-based orders get absolutely no points for creativity at this stage of the game. Those things have just become table stakes in the post-pandemic food industry – not the sort of out-of-the-box strokes of innovation they would have been as recently as five years ago.

No, the last few weeks have seen a kind of creativity that crosses the bounds of mere technological upgrades and payments improvements to make consumers feel more secure in their dining choices. We would call them “out-of-the-box,” but for the fact that so many of these ideas involve putting customers into a box – or at least a bubble – to increase their dining delight in a maximally safe environment.

These days, the pressure is on restaurants of all types to dig deep and really serve up something new. And we aren’t talking about the food. 

Pool Noodles, Inner-Tube Tables And a Bubble for Every Diner 

The fact that restaurants have been rethinking the in-house dining experience since the pandemic started is not an overstatement. It was in the earliest days of recovery a month ago when PYMNTS reported on Schwerin, Germany’s Cafe Rothe, which combined the innovations of eating outdoors and attaching pool noodles to patrons’ heads to help them adhere to the strict social distancing guidelines necessary to reopen. Keeping people 1.5 meters apart is harder than it might sound, cafe owner Jacqueline Rothe explained – and a strategically employed pool noodle ended up being just what they needed. 

“This was the perfect method to keep customers apart – and a fun one,” she said.

And, fascinatingly, the inner-tube hats weren’t Germany’s only attempt at using giant headgear to help enforce social distancing. Burger King locations throughout German cities tested giant, sombrero-like crowns designed to make it impossible for people to stand closer than 1.5 meters to each other. This seems like a more positive way to encourage social distancing than the company’s attempt in Italy, which saw them tripling the onions on what they called the “Social Distance Whopper,” guaranteed to ruin a patron’s breath.

And while Germany does seem to have all of the silly hat-based safety measures, restaurateurs worldwide are getting creative about helping their guests feel safe, secure and adequately separated from each other while dining indoors. 

At H.A.N.D. restaurants in Paris, France, for example, the staff has hung giant, clear plastic, lampshade-shaped shields designed by Christophe Gernigon for patrons to sit under while they eat. According to the artist, the design aims to create the feeling that diners are eating within a safely confined but non-restrictive floating bubble of protection.

And if a floating bubble of protection in Paris doesn’t feel sufficiently safe, and a pool noodle atop the head in Germany seems a bit undignified?

No problem: Hop over to the Netherlands, where the waterfront vegan restaurant and bar Mediamatic ETEN has transformed greenhouses into outdoor pods for individual parties of up to three diners. Servers wear 3D-printed clear PPE face masks and never directly enter the pods – they hand in items from the outside to ensure the health and safety of diners and staff.

And if one is still desperate to dine out, but for some strange reason is less than excited about the prospect of hopping a transatlantic flight to feel safe while doing so, there are options here in the U.S. as well. 

Travel to Ocean City, Maryland’s Fish Tales Bar & Grill for the chance to sit in the center of a specially commissioned table for one that ensconces patrons in jumbo inner tubes. Once centered in a tube-table, the diner will at all times be six feet from all other diners (also in their tube tables) – though the tables are movable, so diners can bump each other.

“It’s like a big baby walker,” Fish Tales Co-owner Shawn Harman told NPR’s Morning Edition. “There’s a large tractor inner tube that surrounds a doughnut-shaped countertop. You’re standing essentially in the middle of the doughnut hole.”

How long the doughnut hole tables will stay in use remains to be seen, as they were adopted as something of a fun novelty hoping to draw in consumers looking to feel secure.

“It’s the kind of out-of-the box thinking that you have to do to survive now,” Harman noted.

And dining out isn’t the only place where getting a bit zanily creative is paying off. There are an awful lot of restaurants doing takeout at this point to survive – but only McHardy’s Chicken & Fixin’ in New Orleans is doing it with a fried chicken zipline, reports The Times-Picayune. 

At McHardy’s, the customer comes in and orders at a distance, with staff members on the other side of a Plexiglass barrier. Then a long-handled basket is extended and patrons can drop in their payment. The transaction is processed and the order is prepared before being placed in a bag and basket and attached to a miniature pulley system that sends the order down the chicken “zipline.” When it arrives, the customer unclips it and goes on their merry way to enjoy their chicken. Not only is the method safer, Owner Rahman Mogilles told the local paper, but people actually really like getting their chicken by pulley system. 

“They ask me to use it, then have a friend take a video,” Moguilles said. “We hope people see them and it gets other places to think out of the box. If people see us doing this, maybe it makes them stop and think about getting a plan for themselves and what they can do.”

In fact, it seems carryout places nationwide are getting bit cleverer and cuter about leveraging consumers’ safety concerns to drive more business. Granted, a pulley system for chicken is pretty much the gold standard of creative carryout concepts, but at Notch Modern Kitchen and Bar in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, orders come with a hand sanitizer pen, while Clutch Coffee Bar in Mooresville, North Carolina has added reusable cloth masks to its drive-through menu.

And Dear John’s in Los Angeles has redesigned its steakhouse menu for carryout customers by offering what they call “TV dinners” served up in the campy foil trays of a bygone era, with a recipe list based on microwave meals of the past. Steak au Poivre, Salmon, Chicken Parm and Salisbury Steak are all served with sides, a Caesar salad and cheesecake for dessert. According to reviews, the main thing that separates Dear John’s dishes from the microwave meals of the 60s is that they actually taste good. 

How much of these outré dining innovations manage to stick around remains to be seen. In some sense, it is hard to imagine that consumers will want to wear pool noodles on their heads, get their fried chicken via zipline or eat within a protective bubble for the indefinite future. Unlike the digital ordering and contactless payments, bumper tables will likely have a somewhat shorter shelf life among consumers. We just don’t see giant “crown-brerros” becoming the hat trend that defines the 2020s. 

But eating in a greenhouse by the water’s edge, or enjoying a Salisbury steak with a three-peppercorn brandy sauce, whipped potatoes and a pea-carrot medley? That doesn’t sound too bad – even on the wonderful day that the COVID-19 virus officially passes from being an active threat to an unpleasant memory.

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