Hotels, Restaurants and Leisure

Robot waiters, mannequins and rooftop dining: How we'll start to go to restaurants again

Key Points
  • People can expect to be seated next to mannequins, served by robots and have their contact details shared with authorities, according to restaurant experts.
  • U.K. operators are negotiating with landlords to open up or expand outdoor dining.
  • The industry is likely to go through a "restricted recovery" phase from June until December, research suggests.
Mannequins show off local fashion designers' clothes at a restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania, in an initiative designed to maintain social distancing. Lithuania eased lockdown restrictions on May 18, 2020.

Masks, social distancing and empty spaces don't make for the best dining experience, but these are the measures restaurants may have to contend with when they tentatively start to reopen.

The hospitality industry has been shattered by the coronavirus pandemic. In the U.S., restaurants lost $80 billion through April, according to the National Restaurant Association, while the U.K. hospitality sector saw a 97% decline in revenues for the 6 weeks to April 22, according to trade body U.K. Hospitality.

And while those in the sector that focus on takeout might have an easier time of reopening, upscale restaurants that rely on their ambiance — as well as their food — are coming up with creative ways to reopen, which in the U.K. will be July 4, at the earliest. Research from PepsiCo Foodservice suggests that the industry will enter a "restricted recovery" phase, estimated to last from June to December.

Des Gunewardena runs D&D London, a company that operates more than 40 upmarket restaurants and venues in the U.K. capital, New York and Paris, including Quaglino's in London's St James's district and Queensyard in the new Hudson Yards development in Manhattan. He says the priority is to make staff and customers feel safe, and his team is working on table layouts to work around social-distancing rules, as well as looking at different styles of personal protective equipment. But it's the buzz of eateries that draws people, he states. "(Safety) is a massively important issue, but also we are working on how do we make these environments feel good," he told CNBC by phone.

The terrace of La Pont de la Tour restaurant in London. Outdoor spaces are likely to become popular as lockdowns ease.
D & D London

"We don't want people to, when they go to our restaurants, to feel as though they are going to a hospital, they are going there to eat and socialize," he stated.

"If you have a restaurant and you take away half the covers and there's just empty space in between, it looks pretty soulless. Our restaurants are not like that (anyway) because they are decorated … We will be looking at things like screens and planters and displays ... That's a very important part of how we open the restaurants —  to dress them in a way that people don't feel as if the buzz isn't there."

Other outlets might look to other ways to fill empty seats. "Restaurants owners are going to become creative … using mannequins or stuffed animals seated at selected distancing tables," according to Jim Balis, managing director of the strategic operations group at restaurant investment firm Capital Spring, in an email to CNBC.

One Amsterdam restaurant has set up individual greenhouses on its terrace to separate diners and this is something D&D London is looking at, along with some more unusual options. "We have been approached … about robots. They are about seven or eight thousand (pounds) and they are fairly limited in their communications, but they are extremely efficient … and they can serve people in restaurants. It's not long-term, it may be a bit of fun," Gunewardena stated.

At Novy's Brasserie in Hagen, Germany, guests are served at tables in small greenhouses, to maintain social distancing rules during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bernd Thissen | Picture Alliance via Getty Images

While D&D is also considering having diners order via their smartphones, Gunewardena wants to maintain human interaction, with service being key to its restaurants' success. He is also thinking about having staff put food on serving tables adjacent to diners' tables, so people can reach out for their meal and distance is maintained.   

Table spacing is of critical importance. World Health Organization guidelines state that in workplaces, people must stay at least one meter apart, although many countries are telling citizens to stay two meters apart, including the U.K. and U.S.

"When we looked at the layout of our restaurants, if you implement social distancing at two meters, in broad terms, we cut our capacity by 60, 65% and it is very difficult under any circumstances to open profitably," Gunewardena stated. "If you implement social distancing at one meter, then that's not a big problem. Your loss of capacity is only 30, 35%, and that's workable." One way to work around the capacity restrictions might be to open for longer, so a lunchtime service might start at 11am and continue beyond 3pm, he added.

Diners might also have to give their contact details — in some U.S. states, these are required for health tracing efforts, according to Balis.

Making use of outdoor space is another way of having people dine safely. There is a garden on the roof of D&D's 14 Hills restaurant, in London's financial City district, and Gunewardena is planning to negotiate access with the building's landlord to serve diners there.

At the Lighterman, a canalside restaurant in a redeveloped area of King's Cross, London, managing director Ankur Wishart also hopes to make more of the venue's outdoor spaces, extending their size if he can get temporary planning permission. It's a three-floor restaurant with three terraces, and Wishart is making plans for each space to work within social-distancing rules. The first floor might become a quieter room that people can book for special occasions, for example.

An interior shot of the Lighterman restaurant in London's Kings Cross. Tables are likely to be spaced further apart due to social distancing measures once lockdowns are eased.
The Lighterman | Open House London

"The outdoors, I think, will feel a bit like a beer garden, nice and safe, lots of space … it could lend itself well to an outdoor barbecue, possibly outdoor bars," he told CNBC by phone. He's thinking about the "winterization" of the outdoors too but doesn't expect the market to start recovering properly until early 2021.

Some restaurants hold tables for walk-ins but needing to control the number of diners inside a venue will likely open up the Lighterman to more bookings. But exactly how to open is still a moveable feast. "It's hard, and obviously my thoughts evolve daily on everything," Wishart said.

The Lighterman is part of restaurant group Open House London, which Wishart co-founded, and he also organized for staff to make meals for the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS), sending out about 10,000 food parcels in total so far. Wishart worked in its kitchens for three weeks solid, peeling potatoes and cleaning the trash room with other team members. "It's actually brought us all closer together. And it's far more useful than team (building) socials. You don't get that same amount of respect as you do doing this sort of thing. So that's been a side effect," he said.

What life after lockdown might look like
Life after lockdown