From Michelin deliveries and power menus, to digital ordering and glass booths, restaurants are being forced to innovate their way out of crisis. Olivia Palamountain reports

Thanks to coronavirus, the hospitality industry is in a state of emergency. Precarious at the best of times, America’s National Restaurant Association predicts that the sector will lose US$240 billion by the end of 2020, and cost two thirds of bar and restaurant employees their livelihoods.

As we ride out the first wave of the pandemic, what will be left of the industry and how will the survivors rise from the ashes and thrive in a post-Covid 19 world?

With no “one size fits all” solution to the coronavirus crisis, restaurants and bars are fighting for their lives in what is proving to be the ultimate test of adaptability in the face of adversity. Either they pivot their business model – and fast – or risk losing everything.

The obvious answer lies in delivery. Co-founder of restaurant PR agency AKA Communications, Katrina Kutchinsky, says: “Even fine-dining establishments are delivering now – and it’s not just food. Peruvian restaurant Coya has created a playlist to accompany your meal, so you can have as close to an actual restaurant experience as possible.”

With so many more of us spending time at home, cooking meals from scratch is inevitable and restaurants are now competing with supermarkets and ready-meals.

“I think it will take the public a while to get over the fear of Covid-19, particularly while there is still no vaccine.”

Hot on the trend, restaurateurs such as the Gladwin Brothers are selling provisions boxes that include everything from homemade beef Wellington to fresh strawberries, herbs, vegetables and wine, while DIY meal packs – think burger kits from Mac & Wild – and finish-at-home dishes are more crowd-pleasing concepts helping restaurants stay afloat.

Enterprising start-ups are also capitalising on this strange time: Banquist partners with Michelin-starred chefs to sell hampers stuffed with signature dishes for punters to cook at home, while top-end restaurants such as Gymkhana in London are offering ready-to-eat, Michelin-starred meal deliveries.

According to Supper (the upmarket version of Deliveroo), it has experienced a 700 per cent surge in bookings over lockdown in London. Sending out takeaways hundreds of pounds from the likes of Nobu and Zuma, its founder Peter Georgiou told The Times: “I’ve had customers saying: ‘I don’t cook, I don’t know how’’. I have people ordering lunch and dinner every day.”

Jay Rayner ordered from Hakkasan and wrote about it in The Guardian: “There was prawn toast, the plump, sesame-crusted minced seafood a fabulously wealthy but distant relative of the dour high-street version. There was finely sliced rib-eye steak with lily bulb with punchy black beans, and a raucous dish of king prawns in a thick, spicy coconut sauce.

“It all survived the journey unharmed, mostly because it came via Supper, a new high-end, app-based delivery service using bikes with temperature-controlled compartments that has partnered with some of London’s fancier restaurants. Basically, my takeaway arrived by limo.”

In May, Bombay Bustle (sister restaurant to fine-dining Jamavar) launched a delivery service with boxes filled with masala pao, duck chettinad, Keralan fish curry and aloo mutter, as a step up from the average Indian takeaway. Bombay BustleSadly, casualties of the pandemic are already beginning to emerge. The demise of celebrity chef Mark Hix’s restaurant group is a stark reminder that no premises is safe, while in New York, a question mark looms over the doors of Eleven Madison Park (EMP). Chef and owner Daniel Humm recently told Bloomberg that it will cost millions of dollars to reopen and worries the original creativity may be lost.

Some restaurants, however, have chosen to weather the storm closed. Co-owner at Culpeper Group Sandy Jarvis is one the restaurateurs choosing to keep the doors of his four pubs shut.

He says: “We’re trying to reframe this as an exciting time for us to work on and improve the businesses in ways that would have been impossible while we were open. It’s an opportunity to make our pubs even better than they were before.”

Sandy also anticipates a power shift when it comes to recruitment. Staffing is traditionally an area in which many restaurants struggle, but with the current plunge in jobs, it’s now “a buyers market”.

Pivoting business models that focus on community and simplicity seem to be the way forward for now, but will the likes of upmarket restaurant deliveries remain after lockdown eases?

“As a rule, I’d say yes,” says Kutchinsky. “I think it will take the public a while to get over the fear of Covid-19, particularly while there is still no vaccine. Additionally, social distancing guidelines could mean diners continue to stay at home so delivery will remain a popular choice.”

”There’s nothing that interests me about the hospitality industry when you take away human interaction.”

Pre-pandemic, it was recommended that restaurants give each seated dinner 1.4 square metres of space. Today, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended this be increased to 2.5 square metres per diner.

This means no more jostling in a rowdy pub, rubbing shoulders with the next table or up-close-and personal flirtations at the bar.

With social distancing the antithesis of much of what the hospitality industry stands for – will independent joints want to operate at all if they have to sacrifice their DNA for a clinical world of distance, masks and gloves?

“I don’t want to envisage that world. There’s nothing that interests me about the hospitality industry when you take away the human interaction,” says Sandy, in a sentiment echoed by many of his peers.

On the plus side for punters, however, is that with decreased revenue and limited places comes the possibility of increased – and more affordable – opportunities for private hire. “Come hire one of our pubs for your birthday instead of just booking a table!”

Places such as Taipei, Hong Kong, South Korea and China have already begun to reopen their bars and restaurants with social distancing measures in place. Here’s what we can learn from them. In the first instance, dining out will not be the same again. Venues are attempting to regain trust by following new safety guidelines, sometimes with their own twists on the theme.

Tape across tables, plastic sheets between diners, plexiglass or even cardboard dividers are becoming the new norm, with customers welcomed in small groups and surfaces sanitised every 30 minutes, as seen at Yardbird Hong Kong and Bangkok’s Penguin Eat Shabu.

Amsterdam’s Mediamatic is going a step further with the launch of its bespoke ​Serres Séparées​, individual greenhouses set along the waterfront that turn the cold concept of social distancing into a warm, intimate, dining experience.Mediamatic, AmsterdamFine-dining establishments are having to pivot their business models too, since many rely on gastro-tourism to fill tables.

At Michelin-starred Ekstedt in Stockholm, covers have shrunk from 60 diners per service to just 30-38. To compensate, chef-owner Niklas Ekstedt has cut his tasting menu down to three courses (plus amuse-bouches) and adjusted the price from circa £80 per person to about £55, and in doing so transformed an international fine-dining restaurant into a “local power-diner restaurant”, he tells Vanity Fair.

“What we’re experiencing now is that we have a brand-new clientele that have never been to the restaurant, a lot of whom actually live in the neighborhood.”

While eating out is unrecognisable at the moment, looking to the future, things could get even more alien. Physical menus, cash payments and buffets are off the menu, with contactless dining the next big thing.

From check-in and seating, to ordering and online payment, interaction with staff will be as limited as possible.

While meals could be pre-booked through apps, Zomato intimates that its users might be able to scan a QR code at a restaurant to browse the menu, as well as access new features such as recommended dish pairings, and beverage suggestions. The app would also allow diners to pay selectively or for the whole table, via any contactless payment method.

Post-pandemic, fewer people will be dining out than ever before so it’s imperative restaurateurs create unique dining experiences worth venturing out for.

A rise in original restaurant interiors is predicted, which will come hand-in-hand with surreal design and boundary-pushing dining concepts. Transparency will also become key: venues will embrace open kitchens to demonstrate hygiene and distancing practice, and surfaces clad in anti-microbial materials will become the norm.

Tables will be stripped of shareable condiments in favour of individual sachets (bad news for the environment) and access to hand sanitiser or wipes will be readily available.

High-touch areas in bathrooms – door handles, hand dryers, taps – will be banished in favour of wireless sensors, and lavatories might even enjoy a Japanese makeover (think self-cleaning Toto robot WCs that wash and flush automatically).

Fingers crossed our favourite restaurant, bars, bistros and brasseries manage to hang on in there for what’s to come. In the meantime, keep calm and carry on baking banana bread.

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