by Jay Kitterman, consultant, Culinary Institute, Lincoln Land Community College
What is the new normal for restaurants? Will our favorite locally owned restaurant still be in existence? Will entering a restaurant look the same as being in a surgical center with your favorite service person now wearing gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment?
According to the Illinois Restaurant Association, in March there were 25,851 restaurants operating in the state. It estimates 20% — nearly 5,200 restaurants — will go out of business in the coming months because of COVID-19. Recently, Governor Pritzker announced restaurants will be allowed to have outdoor service. The Illinois Restaurant Association will be assisting restaurants by calling on all local municipalities to encourage them to close down streets, expand sidewalk cafes, use parking lots and public ways, to allow for creative dining options for Illinois residents and visitors alike.
Under the current Restore Illinois plan, restaurants and bars statewide cannot resume complete dine-in operations until June 26. Restaurants are still requesting that Governor Pritzker collaborate with the industry to modify the Restore Illinois plan to allow restaurants and bars to resume dine-in service in a limited capacity during Phase 3.
It seems clear that most bars and restaurants won’t be reopening anytime soon, and even when they finally do, they may not resemble the frenetic, fun-filled public spaces we knew and loved before the pandemic.
The National Restaurant Association has published a 10 page guide for reopening. One advantage for restaurants in reopening is that they have always has been a very regulated business in regard to food safety. Illinois, similar to most states, requires that employees are trained via a full day program called ServSafe. Whenever the restaurant is open, a staff person that has completed a food safety manager program must be present. The new emphasis will be on eliminating anything that more than one person touches as well as cleanliness. Some guidelines from the National Restaurant Association study are:
1. More emphasis on technology. Contactless payment systems and self-ordering at the table. It will still be important to have communications between staff and guests while maintaining social distancing.
2. Employees: All employees will be required to wear masks, ensuring staff is healthy, taking temperatures, strict handwashing procedures, and all surfaces cleaned and sanitized. If there is an employee break room, to stagger use. Eliminate break room microwaves, refrigerators and beverage machines.
3. Tables will be stark. No condiment bottles; salt and pepper shakers only upon request.
4. Salad bars and buffets. More emphasis on grab and go. The future of salad bars is in question. Many health departments are recommending they be eliminated. If they do remain, they will need sneeze guards in place, tongs and utensils only handled by a staff person with gloves.
5. Between seatings, all tables cleaned and sanitized. Use of rolled silverware and eliminating table “presets.” All items brought to the table when guests are seated.
6. Floor plans to reflect redesigned seating arrangements to ensure six feet of separation between tables. Limit party size to local regulations. Discouraging walk-in customers and to recommend reservations only. Remind guests to maintain social distancing.
7. Signage-Listing the restaurant and local health code regulations regarding use of face masks and requesting that if anyone is not feeling well, to stay home.
8. Providing hand sanitizer for guests.
9. Traffic patterns and waiting areas. Eliminate if possible guests congregating. Markings on the floor with suggested traffic pattern and possibly asking guests to wait in their cars until their table is ready. Separate area for picking up curb side/takeout orders.
I spoke with a few area restaurateurs and industry people on what we will see locally.
MJ Kellner Foodservice, located on West Wabash, has been in business for 75 years, and is now under the leadership of third generation owner Bill Kellner. The company provides everything a restaurant needs to many of our local establishments. Think Sam’s Club, only what seems to be two or three times larger with massive warehouse space and temperature controlled walk in refrigerators and freezers. Dave Rikas is Vice President/ COO and responsible for their 24 hours a day operations. I asked Dave what has changed over the past two months. He was quick to reply what has not changed, “Our philosophy of being committed to serving the community, keeping in mind the safety of our employees and providing superior service.” They have seen a major increase in orders for “to go” items and sanitation supplies. When the shutdown came, restaurants were forced to either donate or throw out date sensitive items. Now they are facing the challenge of reopening. It will be very similar to starting up a new restaurant with the expense of large initial offers. For that reason, Kellner’s is working with their customers to start planning on what that initial order will be so Kellner’s is ready. Many of the restaurants with whom I spoke were very thankful for all the assistance they have received from Kellner’s.
Even McDonalds has been impacted by the virus. Mike Mcgraw, of McGraw Enterprises, is the operator of many Springfield area McDonalds. He feels fortunate that the McDonald’s business plan has helped in weathering the crisis. They have shifted to almost totally drive through and delivery. They have not laid off any of their employees and have provided them “thank you” meals and other perks. They are implementing employee wellness checks and requiring gloves and masks. When they do open for dine in, drink stations and condiment areas will be closed plus you will see adjusted dining room seating,
I spoke with Karen Conn, CEO of Conn’s Hospitality Group, the day after Governor Pritzker announced the opening of limited outdoor seating and she was “ecstatic.” For Obed & Isaacs’s, at least initially, they will be using single use disposables. She is not “excited” to be doing this, but feels it is best for the safety of staff and customers. Tables will be at least six feet from each other, new traffic patterns are being planned, and there will be a separate area for take out to eliminate crowding. Their goal is the “highest regard for health and safety of customers and staff.” Karen said they have always prided themselves for their sanitation and now “taking it one more step further.” Employees will be wearing all the “PPE” and washing hands after every transaction. They are investigating a system where guests will use their phone or other device to order.
Veteran Springfield restaurant owner, Joe Rupnik, operates the Pasta House and Dublin Pub. He has been providing curbside service, planning for reopening, and truly concerned about the future for local restaurants. His restaurants will feature many of the changes that others have indicated. Expect to see one staff person designated to oversee sanitation whenever the restaurant is open, and there will be separate food “runners” bringing food to your table.
Is this the new normal? It’s an unprecedented time for restaurants. Are we ready to return to our favorite restaurants? According to a recent “Morning Consult poll,” only 22% of Americans said they would feel comfortable eating out at a restaurant in the next month based on what they know today about the coronavirus pandemic. While this figure is an increase from the 9% who said the same thing in early April, it still indicates that food-service establishments will face significant challenges as states begin to gradually ease their lockdown restrictions. During this time, I once again ask that you support local restaurants by ordering curbside and consider purchasing gift certificates (hint to Carol for Father’s Day). Finally, remember to check out the new Lincoln Land Community College culinary classes/camps for all the bored kids (www.llcc.edu/youth-programs) and even adults (www.llcc.edu/culinary-institute) that are planned for this summer and fall.