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Mind the gap: practical ways of creating social distance

06 May 2020 by

Restaurateurs have been told that social distancing will be a condition of reopening, but how are they going to apply that practically? And will it kill the buzz that a group of happy guests can bring? Jennie Milsom gets some tips from front of house, designers and chefs

The hospitality industry is built around socialising and conviviality, so creating environments that bring reassurance as well as enjoyment to guests while maintaining physical distancing is going to require changes to both front and back of house. The government announced last week to expect social distancing "in every single work area" when the lockdown ends, so how will restaurants look when the shutters are lifted? As the industry waits for guidelines that will determine its future, we ask the experts what the next few months might look like.

Interiors and layouts

Matt Hulme of Dynargh Design, which specialises in interiors for restaurants and hotels, says social distancing is going to be a "huge, huge challenge", because stripping out 50% of covers will dramatically change the feel of a space.

"The challenge will be to keep the ethos of that restaurant and to do it in a clever way, by bringing in regulations and restrictions – whatever they may be – so that as a guest you're aware of them but they're not screaming at you," he says.

He cautions that stripping out excess furniture and upholstery would drastically change the feel of a room and alter acoustics, so coming up with "clever, cost-effective solutions without having to spend a fortune" would likely be the best solution. He is advising clients to leave tables in place and dress them with lanterns or art pieces, thereby creating natural divisions between guests while softening the space.

"The danger is people will change their kitchens to how we need them to be for the next six to nine months instead of the longer term"

With people potentially nervous about returning to bars and restaurants, any "austere or strict" measures could put people off. He advises operators to guide guests in a "subtle but informative and friendly manner" and says that while signage and wayfinding are going to be crucial, those who successfully incorporate it into existing designs would be most successful. "This should not be too dictatorial, with lists of ‘dos and don'ts', otherwise people are going to walk away and not risk it."

A better way to encourage social distancing, he says, is to use existing interior features or motifs that are in-keeping with a brand. "Look at the logo, look at original features – for example, a pattern in a wallpaper – and try to incorporate an element of that into it."

Spacing on wooden floors could very simply be measured out by counting the planks of wood and marking them up in a style that matches the existing design. "As a customer you'll understand why those lines are there, but it's not a big feature saying, ‘do not stand next to this person'. You might use a nice brass strip or tape in a contrasting colour. Look at what you've got in the rest of the space. If you're quite bold, use that, so it looks like a design intent, rather than going to B&Q and getting the first thing to stick on the floor. We've got time – let's not panic."

Darbys
Darbys

Maximising plants and foliage to create interest and natural barriers is also high on Hulme's list: "What's huge at the moment, and has been for a number of years, is greenery, and it's very cost effective. So arrange a cluster of palms and succulents on an empty table and that helps to keep tables apart in a nice, subtle way."

Similarly he suggests removing waiter stations and replacing them with palm plants on the floor – a cost-effective way of creating a practical and interesting divide between people. Screens could also be used if they were in keeping with the existing design, he says, for example, upholstered with matching fabrics to act as attractive barriers. He also favours drapery, such as display curtains, saying they will both improve acoustics and divide the space, creating intimate seating areas, which guests tend to like.

Hulme says signage will be key at entry and meet and greet areas and should be done so in the brand's visual language: "Use existing artwork and your brand's tone of language."

For smaller restaurants, removing covers will make it feel more intimate and cosy, whereas larger restaurants are more likely to feel empty and cavernous with echoey acoustics instead of a welcoming hubbub. Hulme's advice to address these could be by changing the style and volume of music played, either by upping the tempo or playing more chilled tunes to help guests feel relaxed.

And if space feels tight already, explore every corner and decide what you can sacrifice. "Clear some dead space to create new areas," he says. For those lucky enough to have outside space, make it look as inviting as possible – definitely give the furniture a jet-wash. Guests are more likely to feel comfortable being outside, but for those without that luxury, even opening doors and windows to let fresh air flow through could psychologically help people to feel reassured. Summer is on the horizon, after all.

Kitchen and foodservice design

Ed Bircham, director at professional kitchen design consultancy Humble Arnold, says that speculation among operators and chefs concerning the impact of social distancing was "very lively" and that recent weeks had been "as intense as it's ever been for us".

While it may take months to gauge consumer confidence levels, Bircham is convinced the industry is adaptable, that customers will be flexible and that we would see a return to a "very buoyant stance of hospitality".

The key concerns he is hearing from the industry are around self-service – for example, sharing utensils and condiment containers – and he predicts a return to installing sneeze-screens as a confidence-boosting measure in front of house operations and across corporate dining, cafés and anywhere displaying food on counters or self-service bars.

"It's a complete unknown and I worry for the industry. I understand that there have to be mitigating factors now and in the future, but at what cost?"

For Bircham, design efficiency is about striving to "create more compact kitchens, reduce unnecessary circulation and find ways of tightening up work spaces, partly through design, partly through technology".

In terms of kitchen layouts, he anticipates individual workspaces for chefs, achieved by measuring up how many people can be positioned along a workbench, but not necessarily going as far as separate rooms or cubicles. Safe designs could even become a commercial driver for operators.

"People will want to prove to environmental health officers that they're able to operate safely. Staff may be more selective in looking at back of house facilities in terms of what is in place. We need the design to be attractive to staff. It's a balance for us at the moment, because those spaces are tighter, but there is a drive to maintain good staff retention because it costs money otherwise."

But, Bircham warns: "There's a danger we'll be too reactive." For example, designs that were already under way pre-Covid now risk being redesigned to comply with new – albeit potentially temporary – measures. He believes designing for beyond the next few months is a better way to approach any projects: "We should be designing for 20 years. The danger is people will change their kitchens to how we need them to be for the next six to nine months instead of the longer term."

Beadnell Towers
Beadnell Towers

Kitchen hygiene and ease of cleaning could become more pertinent, too, and those with measures already in place – a "good proliferation of handwashing basins", for example – are likely to transition more easily.

He also believes there will be "a real focus on staff changing facilities", driven by environmental health, that would hail the end of changing in customer toilets.

In terms of emerging products, Bircham anticipates more sterilising equipment and task-minder systems – monitoring staff handwashing, for example – and a desire for people to demonstrate they are following good practice rather than just telling people they are.

The bottom line is that if a kitchen has been well-designed and invested in properly at the start, it should be adaptable. "There may be some changes that will initially need to be put in place, but I think confidence will return very quickly," he says.

"People are frustrated by not being able to be together. The nature of hospitality is that it's the place for people to come together, and human nature is such that some good weather and confidence-building from the media and the government will, I think, reasonably quickly, see people get back to their levels of business.

"There will be new, embryonic ideas coming out of this. Some will see this as opportunity and there will some exciting ventures."

Gareth Sefton, managing director of SHW Design, a foodservice design consultancy for kitchens, bars and back-of-house services, says that until the industry is given some social distancing guidance from the government, it's hard to speculate about kitchen design requirements. "It's real crystal ball stuff as to if they're going to say whether this [social distancing] has to be adopted in kitchens.

"Social distancing can only be a temporary measure because there's so much infrastructure," he says, but for the F&B industry he says the knock-on effect will be "immense and unfathomable". He explains: "We're very much trying to sweat the most out of every element of space we can get, to where it will almost be the opposite. The efficiency will come with being able to provide the optimum for distancing but using the least amount of space possible."

Commercial restaurant premises, such as high-street brasseries, generally work on 40%-50% space dedicated to back of house, 50%-60% front of house. The relationship between the two would probably have to change to allow for larger kitchens and housekeeping areas. "If we have to increase the space at back of house, that's going to put pressure on revenue-generating space at front of house, which will have similar pressure to put distance between diners."

With chefs having been used to working "almost shoulder-to-shoulder", complying with any new distancing measures would halve production capacity, he says. But for kitchens where space wasn't an issue, one solution could be to create individual rooms or boxes, each dedicated to a specific task, much as they are on the continent, where there is a requirement for segregated cold kitchens and washing areas to avoid cross-contamination.

"You could use the same method of segregation of rooms to perform your degree of separation and then your only limiting factors are trying to ensure that nothing is passed through the plate, through the dish, and through the box to the diner."

"It's a complete unknown and I worry for the industry," he says. "I understand that there have to be mitigating factors [in order to prevent the virus] now and in the future, but at what cost? This will affect so many businesses."

Front of house: Emma Underwood, Darby's

Emma Underwood is general manager of Darby's, a 140-cover oyster bar, bakery and grill in Vauxhall in south London which, since the shutdown, has been temporarily converted to a shop selling bread and takeaway meals.

The main challenges she anticipates when the restaurant is able to reopen are around the safety of guests and staff, but she says that regulars visiting the shop have been asking "non-stop" about when Darby's might reopen as a restaurant and have been less concerned about the intricacies of how social distancing measures might work on a practical level.

She says that she, chef-patron Robin Gill and head chef Dean Parker have been speculating about what might happen, with her priority being to ensure guests feel "comfortable, welcome and safe", but "nothing is concrete at all at the moment". Underwood recently respaced tables in the restaurant to comply with the potential two-metre rule and found that, because Darby's occupies a huge space, it would mean losing only a couple of tables and a few bar stools.

Despite the restaurant boasting a wide bar, Underwood believes serving food and wine while maintaining social distancing would be "nigh-on impossible", even if staff take precautions, such as wearing gloves. Other niceties, such as cloakrooms, would have to go, and toilets would have to be monitored continually and thoroughly cleaned after every use, creating a "whole job in itself".

Staff training would also be crucial and she anticipates complying with social distancing measures may become a whole new chapter in environmental health officer inspections. She is also interested to see which way the responsibility around social distancing in restaurant premises would fall – whether solely to operators or shared with individuals.

Front of house: Hannah Bamford, Heritage

In rural West Sussex, Hannah Bamford, general manager of 46-cover fine-dining restaurant Heritage, says that future interaction with guests is at the forefront of her mind.

"The biggest thing for us is to make sure the staff are healthy because, with a tasting menu, there is naturally a lot of interaction. The important thing is that we keep everyone safe, and if that means the business has to operate at a lower capacity, that's what we will do. We can only really go on guidelines from the government and our own moral compass."

Bamford will be re-evaluating service details to keep interaction at a safe level, saying they would probably not continue refolding napkins or topping up wine for guests, and that they would set tables with cutlery before guests arrive. She believes restaurants will lean towards more self-service and menu simplification, saying at Heritage the cocktail offering would be reduced because it was "an extra step of interaction" with the bartender.

Reducing the length of menus and the number of wine pairings with each course were also options, but she is wary of making drastic changes. "We don't want to fundamentally change what we do as a business, but we need to make sure we're adapting and the starting point of that is ensuring that staff are well. If we totally changed what we did and became self-service, it would move our business model so far away from what we are known for. That would have a detrimental effect."

She says bringing in temperature checks for staff would positively address the industry-wide issue of working while sick: "The hospitality industry is known for people working when they should perhaps be at home, and it will be really good to take that sort of pressure off." In terms of respacing tables, she said that they had never relied on having to fill the restaurant and have a huge amount of space across a number of rooms. "We are quite fortunate that we do have the space. We also have a number of private areas, so we can keep large parties separate, which is useful."

She says that staggering guests' booking times had also been mooted: "Previously, we had 10-15 guests arriving every half an hour. If we opened up every 15 minutes for a table to arrive, it might give people peace of mind that they're not congregating in the host station. We will spread things out, perhaps offer a later sitting, so not too many people are here at once." Customers' expectations would have to adjust to a different atmosphere and service style. "It's about reassuring guests that we're doing everything we can to make sure Heritage is a safe space. We'd hate for people to come out after this and not enjoy themselves because they're so worried, so everything we can do to alleviate that stress, we will do."

Restoring customer confidence

Provide guests with hand sanitiser and cleaning wipes on tables so they can clean the table or the cutlery themselves.

Move furniture around to create intimate nooks or niches – embrace the idea of a more intimate and private dining experience.

Install hygiene screens. Clear acrylic plexiglass can be suspended from ceilings and over counters to protect serving staff and food displays.

Go green – bring in plants to create interest and create natural divisions between guests on neighbouring tables.

Stagger booking times so guests don't arrive in clusters and to limit queueing. Consider opening earlier and running later.

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