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What Does "The New Normal" Look Like For Restaurant and Bar Design?

COVID-19 disruptions have been especially substantial for the restaurant and bar industries. From economic slowdown and supply chain interruptions to stay-at-home orders and decreased disposable income for many, these industries have unquestionably taken a huge hit. Dining rooms closed and then opened again, and then closed once again. Fine dining restaurants started selling burgers and breakfast sandwiches to stay afloat. Chains and local spots started selling groceries. Top chefs taught virtual cooking classes and performed remote food-and-wine pairings. Bars and breweries started selling cocktails and six-packs to-go. Restaurant owners started retailing staples like sauces and spices and preparing meal kits for their customers to cook at home. All of this was done in an effort to keep the lights on and keep as many employees as possible. Hence, a lot has happened in the last year for the restaurant and bar industries. For most, it’s somewhat of a blur, and it’s hard for our minds to recall everything that’s happened. By reexamining the last year, we can remember the value that restaurants and bars bring to our daily lives. Take a look at this high-level, restaurant and bar industry timeline below, from January 2020 to now.

Restaurants and bars have had to adapt in order to survive this pandemic, and now that they have lived with these adaptations for some time now, this “new normal” potential is even more apparent.

Now, you might be wondering: What are restaurants and bars doing now, near post-pandemic, to help them adapt to this “new normal”? Below we outline 5 key changes many are employing.

Outdoor Dining is Here to Stay

One of the most notable changes has been the shift to outdoor dining. Every spring and summer, the desire for dining outdoors skyrockets as temps rise and the sun sets at a later hour. However, during COVID-19, finding a place to drink and dine outdoors where the virus is less likely to spread has become paramount – even in the colder months. Now, restaurants and bars are looking for spaces that can easily transition from indoors to outdoors using retractable doors, louvered windows, large windowpanes, and during the colder months, spaces where heaters can be utilized. They are also looking at ways to modify their current space to accommodate outdoor seating. One of these ways is through Outdoor Seating Pilot Programs implemented by city leaders. Back in August 2020, the city of Columbus, Ohio announced its Outdoor Seating Pilot Program, which ran until November 30, allowing restaurants to use the right of way for temporary, on-street dining areas or their parking lots to expand seating. Now in March 2021, it is being resumed as the weather continues to get nicer.

“The pilot program successfully allowed patrons to support local restaurants, with more socially distanced outdoor seating in place to help prevent COVID-19 transmission,” said Mayor Andrew J. Ginther. “Resuming the program as warm weather approaches will help these businesses and their employees continue to rebound from the pandemic’s impact.”

Permanent Takeout Areas

For so many restaurants and bars trying to survive the pandemic, takeout was one of the biggest pivots of the last year. Many had not considered or offered takeout prior to the pandemic. Now, they are offering pickup and delivery services and turning sections of their dining room into makeshift pickup locations. As we head into the future of restaurant and bar design, takeout areas may be factored into the design of the space, especially those restaurants trying to separate their takeout operations from their dining room.

According to a Zagat Future of Dining Study, 84 percent of people said they’d be less likely to dine at a restaurant when it reopens if it’s operating at full capacity. As such, restaurants need to be able to act quickly and create a separate takeout experience for customers. Merely based on the floor plan and overall space, they might not be able to build out a completely separate environment, but there should be something distinct in the customer journey when doing takeout or curbside.

Increased Emphasis on Sanitation, Health, and Safety

It's fair to say that restaurants and bars are amongst the most regularly cleaned public spaces around. During the pandemic, many restaurants and bars have started utilizing enhanced cleaning checklists as a way to ensure sanitation safety in their space. Take a look at an example cleaning checklist from Toast’s online publication On the Line. Such lists include cleaning supplies needed, front-of-house cleaning list, bar cleaning checklist, back of house cleaning checklist, and other restaurant and bar cleaning tips for employees. Restaurant cleanliness begins with great staff training. Using the front of house, bar, and back of house restaurant cleaning checklists can ensure that every area of your restaurant is clean and sanitary throughout meal service, upon closing, and when you open your doors the next morning. This type of emphasis on cleaning and sanitation will become second nature to all bars and restaurants as we enter a post-pandemic world.

Partitions and Flexible Space

While the changes that bars and restaurants have endured during the pandemic are countless, none are as apparent and visually present as the plexiglass partitions seen in most establishments today. These partitions create distance and separation between guests and are one of the simplest ways to make guests feel comfortable dining at your restaurant or bar. However, many might not be aware of the many options for partitions, as some may be better for your space than others. While the plexiglass partitions are the most popular options for creating separation, there are also alternatives like EverBlock Systems—a creator of modular building blocks, wall panels, and partition screens. Over the last year, they’ve found its products in high demand. Not only can the products be used as barriers, but they can also create an entirely new room/layout, which is ideal for bars setting up new outdoor areas. Then there is the option for using natural separations like large plants, trees, and other vegetation. It’s been shown that turning to the natural world for physical separations tend to reduce anxiety and stress when dining in.

Another sleek option is Elite Modern’s Smart Partition Systems. The idea behind SPS was to create a response to the pandemic that felt more personal than typical plexiglass by incorporating details like graphics, signage, photography, upholstery, planters, metal, wood finishes, and company branding.

SPS’s flexible design allows for mobile or stationary bases as well as easily changeable, add-on components such as chalkboards, magnet boards, trays with hooks, planter boxes, and booth extensions.

QR Codes and Mobile Menus

As the pandemic was just starting out in 2020, people wondered about the coronavirus’s ability to live on surfaces and spread between individuals who have touched the same object, like a restaurant or bar menu. While this was proven to be much less of a risk than spreading through air droplets, restaurants and bars still took extreme measures to ensure the utmost sanitary safety of their customers. Enter QR codes and mobile menus. Establishments started putting these little black and white patterned squares at each table for customers to scan and access an online menu. These small innovations, which were driven by customer demand, are expected to stick around for a while, even after the pandemic ends. In a recent study, 44% of restaurant and bar patrons found that convenience was the top reason to order food via a QR code, and 19% stating that “ease of use” was their first choice. You can infer from these stats that a majority of restaurant and bargoers are looking for the simplest possible way to order food and drinks, and QR may be the answer we’re looking for.

Smash Park, one of SHFYT’s eatertainment clients, has utilized QR codes since the start of the pandemic. Patrons can scan the codes to sign up for their rewards program, view all menus, and even reserve a table. In the future, they plan to have short videos of each reservable space that will be viewable via QR codes! Eatertainment typology is built to facilitate large numbers of people in heavily social situations, engaging in games, enjoying performances, and being in relatively close proximity for sustained durations of time. At face value, potentially all the ingredients for a dangerously transmissible environment, but the reality is more nuanced and resilient to such a situation. With some carefully crafted adaptations in space/operation, such venues can not only survive a pandemic but thrive.

HVAC Ventilation

While no mechanical system can truly eliminate the spread of viruses like COVID-19, the American Society of Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has stated that mechanical systems can help alleviate the risks. As we move into the future, better HVAC systems and equipment must be considered. One of SHYFT’s Project Designers, Asa Plum, chatted with KCL Engineering, an MEP engineering firm, about some of their considerations for HVAC as we enter the post-pandemic era. Here’s what KCL had to say:

  • Increase the amount of clean outdoor air that is brought into the building, or as its most commonly known, fresh air exchanges. This reduces the recirculated air which passes through air filters, making them more efficient and limiting the contact time for people in the space of “shared air.” This is a general health benefit but does come at some cost because the exterior air will need to be heated and cooled to mix with the air temperature of the building.

  • Change your filters more frequently and use higher quality filters overall. The ideal scenario is that the filtration systems are changed more frequently, depending on the number of people in the building and not based on a calendar replacement period. The addition of occupancy sensors and load tracking in the building via BMS (Building Management Systems) gives maintenance teams the information needed to change filters as needed and manage clean air recirculation. These kinds of systems can also provide insight as to the timing and degree of cleaning that should be undertaken in common spaces and high contact points.

  • Consider adding supplemental air cleaning systems, depending on the type of building usage. One of the more common applications that have gained momentum is referred to as Ionic Air Purification (without producing Ozone) and works well to be a supplement to existing air handling systems. Devices such as those produced by Global Plasma Solutions (an industry leader) can often be installed at the return air point of an HVAC System and actively neutralize pathogens as the systems work under normal load, with minimal cost to upgrade. (

  • Points of potential contamination should be addressed through adjusting equipment that is installed, such as touchless faucets, plumbing fixtures, light switches, and door operators. In general, the ability to reduce the number of contact points has been a greatly increased trend in all areas of construction.

For places like Smash Park that has indoor sport and games areas, it is important to consider HVAC safety and sanitation. Eatertainment establishments should implement air conditioning systems with more fresh air exchanges and large volume filtration to accommodate athletic activities, which will effectively mitigate lesser airflow conditions that are common in restaurant/gathering spaces of more conventional design.

Final Thoughts

It’s no secret that the restaurant and bar industries, and many eatertainment establishments, need to adapt. But we must remember that these spaces don’t have to be unwelcoming, apocalyptic, and full of six-foot markers and plexiglass. As designers, constructors, and project managers, we need to feel excited by the challenges and demands of creating a safe and beautiful space for diners, not discouraged. At SHYFT, we are truly looking forward to the creativity that will surely arise from these challenges. We also must be mindful that the pandemic will soon be in our rear-view mirror and we’ll return to “the new normal."

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