Eating out by the pandemic’s edge: what will the COVID restaurant look like?

COVID-19 will transform the restaurant experience. Try eavesdropping on dinner-table conversations with tables two metres apart…

Great food is served here... but Claudienne Harb says Ali Baba’s 44-cover restaurant would have to be reduced to 16 if 2m social distancing guidelines are implemented to re-open restaurants
Great food is served here... but Claudienne Harb says Ali Baba’s 44-cover restaurant would have to be reduced to 16 if 2m social distancing guidelines are implemented to re-open restaurants

A booming restaurant scene in Malta was killed by the COVID-19 pandemic: where once patrons could be hard-pressed to find a table in popular eateries, shut doors now have chefs thinking… what will the restaurant of the future look like?

In countries like the Netherlands where softer lockdown measures are in force, al fresco establishments have placed their clients two metres apart on a quayside, in their own personal IKEA-type greenhouse. Innovative, but is this the new normal for the catering industry?

Claudienne Harb’s restaurant in Gzira, the Lebanese eatery Ali Baba, had to shut the doors to the public but husband and chef-patron Hany Harb had also just opened a self-managed delivery arm, which helped the couple retain their employees despite the COVID lockdown.

“Hany was initially unsure of whether the restaurant should opt to start delivering. His concern was that because the food would not be served in the restaurant, and would have to travel, it might not be presented to the 100% level of perfection he would want,” Claudienne Harb, who manages operations, says.

She eventually convinced him… the food would still be delivered with 99.9% the degree of quality, and, at the same time, Ali Baba’s product would be still out there, and their staff – who have been loyal to the restaurant for years – would be kept on. “We spent three weeks until the end of March, formulating a new menu by choosing which of our food items are best for delivery. We consulted clients about which of the food choices they would most like to have delivered... the response was strong.”

And, luckily, Harb notes, Lebanese food is inherently more suited to deliveries than some other types of cuisine, such as pasta. The restaurant has meticulously followed WHO food safety guidelines for restaurants, which go beyond normal procedures in place prior to the pandemic. “Our customers could appreciate just how strictly we have been following these guidelines thoughout.”

Now running their in-house operation, the Harbs opted against engaging the services of any of the popular food delivery services, in order to retain their own staff and save cash on hefty commissions charged by third-party providers. Their website, which is currently still a work in progress, will allow users to place their orders online. Even though the service is gearing up, the Harbs strongly that home delivery is set to become a permanent fixture of the restaurant experience across the board.

Claudienne Harb gazes into the crystal ball: “It will cause restaurants to adapt their operations, and force customers to change their own preferences, perhaps even in the long-term”
Claudienne Harb gazes into the crystal ball: “It will cause restaurants to adapt their operations, and force customers to change their own preferences, perhaps even in the long-term”

“There’s still no definitive information on which restrictions will be put in place once restaurants do reopen, but a clear indication of what measures eateries will have to follow can be gleaned from looking at the situation abroad. If you see the guidelines being issued by the WHO, HOTREC (the European equivalent of the MHRA), and by countries such as Australia or China, tables in restaurants will likely have to be placed two metres apart,” she says.

“We’ve already calculated what this would mean for Ali Baba. We currently have 15 tables and can seat a maximum of 44 patrons. Placing tables two metres away would mean the number of customers we can accommodate would be reduced to 16 – foreign guidelines say you can only seat four people per table.”

That is a hefty cut for restaurant revenues which operate on small footprints in Malta.

There will also be other rules: for instance, customers’ temperatures might have to be measured on arrival, necessitating the creation of a small reception area. All frequently-touched surfaces will have to be cleaned as specific time intervals, over and above the normal cleaning routine.

And the maximum time clients can stay at their tables might also be limited, which could prove a challenge for locals who famously like to enjoy a relaxed meal, spilling over to a heady sobramesa. This is not just tweaking the restaurant experience. It modifies the way we dine out, Harb says. “It will cause restaurants to adapt their operations, and force customers to change their own preferences, perhaps even in the long-term.”

That is why for Ali Baba, its delivery service will remain available, even when it reopens. “If you follow what is happening globally, deliveries are the in-thing – restaurants are investing heavily in their online presence and offering gourmet meals at home,” she says.

It also doesn’t make sense to stop deliveries after investing heavily in your own platform. “Investing without seeing a return isn’t wise, so you need to take this into strong consideration when formulating your business plan. Once we reopen, I’m quite positive we will keep up the delivery service. We’ll fix the timing to ensure deliveries stop at a certain time before patrons start coming in, to ensure customers are not disrupted,” she says.

And while many restaurants have indeed jumped onto the delivery bandwagon, Harb says many more have chosen to be remain shut for the time being.

“I’ve spoken to many restaurant owners. Many are offering online deliveries, take-outs and so on. But others have temporarily halted all their operations – because delivering requires a strong investment, especially if you want to have you own separate platform. It costs thousands on thousands to set up and get it running.

“And there are other costs too, such as giving employees additional training and purchasing special equipment which food is delivered in. So, if you do invest, you do so with the intent of keeping it for a while.”

Harb is unequivocal: COVID-19 has brought a fundamental change to the restaurant business. “It’s a new business model,” she says. And as restaurants will gradually find their feet again in the coming months, Harb’s drive remain clear. “It will take some time, but we have to continue doing our utmost to feed our customers in the best way we can.”

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