Throughout the recent pandemic, restaurateurs have been fighting for the survival of their businesses. But Americans love to dine out, and ingenuity has uncovered strategies for staying open when government restrictions have permitted. Remarkably, according to CNN, openings for new restaurants and food service businesses was down only 16 percent in 2020 from the 2019 data, and straight comparisons of the fourth quarter of 2019 to 2020 showed a drop of only 4 percent. Although many of these new venues are likely focused on takeout or service counters, it is apparent that the appetite of consumers for restaurant experiences has not diminished and is likely to recover robustly in 2021 and 2022.
Yet it’s hard to imagine that the food-service industry will ever be the same. Certain lessons learned will be with us for years to come, and these will have a significant impact on which venues restaurateurs are likely to lease and how those spaces are renovated, updated and designed. But at the same time the basic premise has not changed: People want pleasant and memorable dining experiences, and restaurant environments will still need to be functional and appealing. For those who will be leasing existing spaces and venues, what follows is a look at some emerging trends in renovation and design for this industry as it gets ready to stage a comeback.
RETHINKING MATERIALS AND SURFACES
The most common and impactful renovations we are likely to see in the months and years to come will be simple replacements of existing finishes with those that are more durable or have natural antimicrobial properties—or both. In early 2020, our designers at Dyer Brown, working from home suddenly, began to think about the next wave of materials and finish choices and how the pandemic would shape those decisions for restaurants, bars and hotels, as well as workplaces, schools and universities. We applied some of those ideas in conceptual designs for a global competition, NEWH Beyond, focused on designs for restaurants with the pandemic in mind. Our concepts included copper and brass for plumbing and lighting fixtures, as well as tabletops, because of the natural antimicrobial properties of those metals. The conceptual designs also utilized solid-surface technology, which is easy to clean and stands up to a frequent cleaning schedule.
For seating materials choices, the designs specified state-of-the-art vinyl with non-migrating nanotechnology, which neutralizes microbes on contact. Embedded within the vinyl finish, the potent technology does not wear away over time from use and cleaning, as typical antimicrobial coatings do. Materials, finish and surface choices like these represent a cost-effective renovation strategy for owners who want to be more careful about sanitation going forward and are thinking about more aggressive and frequent cleanings.
CONNECTING INDOORS AND OUTDOORS
Restrictions on indoor dining capacity led to a renaissance in outdoor seating, as owners worked with local authorities to maximize space for tables—and with builders of temporary shelters to address the realities of weather. The result is that diners often feel more comfortable and secure under a tent on a sidewalk, park or patio—or even in a street-parking space— than they do at a table inside. In all likelihood, diners will continue to appreciate access to plentiful fresh air and a feeling of being connected to the outside even as restrictions are eased or lifted completely.
General contractors we work with say they are fielding an increasing number of requests to open up restaurant exterior walls. Some solutions include replacing fixed windows in exterior walls adjacent to patios or sidewalks, as well as installing garage doors, floor-to-ceiling bifold sliders or swinging doors they can simply prop open as needed. Projects here in the Northeast will likely start to take cues from designs in southern coastal areas, where dining tables and often the bar edge closer to the building exterior, some spilling out into outdoor spaces covered by a built-in soffit, ceiling or awning. Seamless transitions between interior and exterior will be especially important as existing restaurants come out of “hibernation,” try to expand seating capacity and simultaneously project an image that makes diners feel safe.
RETHINKING THE BAR
Bars are poised to make an even bigger comeback as people look to socialize and be out with their friends and family once again. Bar design is likely to evolve as seating becomes more commonly grouped in pods or clusters. Recently we’ve seen a few examples of owners putting a two- or four-top table up against the bar to give groups the hybrid experience of sitting at the bar and at a table. This strategy was a popular one among restaurant owners looking for creative ways to maximize capacity and get value from the bar when restrictions limited or prohibited bar seating—and this new style of seating arrangement is already evolving into a new type of permanent built-in table.
With the new premium being placed on privacy and separation, it’s also likely that we will see more restaurants and bars out- fitted with cozy alcoves, nooks and private areas for couples. Combining a carved-out booth design with a bar seating application, this idea essentially replaces temporary solutions for separation, like plexiglass dividers, with a built-up niche occupying the same space. Solid walls between tables could provide an intimate space that retains a bar seating feel. Owners who prefer a more open vibe around the bar could limit this use to the ends of the bar.
VARIED SEATING TYPES
Most restaurants operate with some combination of booths, banquettes, built-ins, and loose tables and chairs spread out through the space—a recipe that turned out to be less flexible than needed. Renovations should focus on strategic placement of any built-in seating, so that the venue can quickly adapt to evolving conditions. One of the NEWH Beyond design concepts mentioned earlier focused on making sure fixed seating areas were properly distanced from each other and configured to create privacy between neighboring patrons. By placing banquettes on one side and fixed booths in the middle, the layout allows the management to use loose tables and chairs to make easy adjustments when restaurant-capacity requirements fluctuate. Also, the booths used more decorative and aesthetically designed elements to separate diners instead of using the plexiglass barriers that were the quick fix for restaurants.
On a final note, the evolution of technology will also be on the minds of restaurateurs considering renovations and redesigns. For example, the touchless environment made possible by QR-coded online menus is here to stay, in part because of the flexibility it offers with respect to specials and menu changes. Other technological advances will have their own impacts, too: From the low-tech (foot-operated door openers) to the more modern (hand-wave-operated door openers, touchless plumbing fixtures), guests will be enjoying dining experiences that feel safer and cleaner.
PHOTOS: Jared Kuzia, courtesy Dyer Brown