The future of dining out could look drastically different post-COVID

Toronto restaurateurs look to other countries for some kind of playbook

In Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei, restaurant hosts must now act as medical bouncers. Before a table is seated, every member of the party must have their temperature checked. Should one of the customers register a fever, the entire reservation is refused entry.

In areas of Asia that have lifted their lockdowns, restaurants have returned to dine-in service, but it’s not business as usual. Staff don gloves and masks, and compulsive disinfecting has become ubiquitous — surfaces are being constantly sprayed and wiped, and diners douse themselves in alcohol before entering.

In many cities, restaurant capacity has been capped at 50 per cent, with groups (max four to a table) spaced out. In restaurants where it is impossible to create a buffer of one and a half to two metres between tables, acrylic space dividers have been improvised.

Some restaurants have gone above and beyond state-mandated pandemic dine-in policies. A disinfectant machine that sprays a cloud of alcohol at all who enter (spotted in Shanghai by a Twitter user) does little to stop the spread of the pandemic, but it’s one restaurant’s way of assuaging its diners’ anxieties. Other performative hygiene practices include tableside disinfecting of cutlery and flatware and customer-facing screens that live stream kitchens so that guests can see the kitchen outfitted in masks and gloves.

Hong Kong hospitality group Black Sheep Restaurants is going further by asking its staff to pay extra attention to the tidiness of their hair, nails and uniforms because, according to their self-published COVID-19 playbook, “guests are very sensitive to hygiene and anything that even looks messy will translate to unclean in their mind.”


Dining pre-COVID at Arthur’s Restaurant in midtown

Mainland China is employing contact tracing (the government traces every place a COVID-19-positive person has been and tests everyone they could have potentially infected) to keep the virus in check. At every restaurant, diners must sign a sheet that details their name, state ID number, the time they entered the establishment and their temperature upon entry.

Hong Kong is taking a less techno-authoritarian approach to keeping COVID-19 under control, so some restaurants are stepping up. Yardbird and Black Sheep, for instance, are requesting guests sign a health declaration, before they dine, and they will refuse service to any guests who have travelled abroad in the past 14 days. Black Sheep also uses the information from these health declarations to alert their customers about any potential COVID-19 spreaders who dined at their properties.

Meanwhile, in South Korea — thanks to their extremely effective digital contact tracing efforts — it’s business as usual. In bustling Seoul, restaurants aren’t necessarily jammed with diners (anxiety still hangs in the air), but people are eating out unfettered by social distancing demands.

Although it seems Ontario is still weeks (if not months) away from being open for business, we spoke to a handful of Toronto hospitality industry leaders about what the future of dining in during COVID-19 looks like. Here are their thoughts.


Janet Zuccarini of Gusto 501 and Chubby’s Jamaican

JANET ZUCCARINI, CEO & Owner, Gusto 54 Restaurant Group

Our plan is to reduce seating (50 per cent restaurant capacity), space tables at least two metres apart and limit party sizes. Our team members will adhere to non- negotiable processes on top of our already strict practices — taking temperatures, wearing gloves and masks, using UV lights to ensure proper cleaning, no hugging or handshaking. We are looking into downloadable menus, and no-touch payment options. We have talked about having our team members tested for COVID-19 antibodies and issuing an “immunity passport” to let people know they can safely interact with guests and fellow team members. We’ll likely set up hand-sanitizing stations at all of our restaurant entrances.

ANDREW OLIVER, President, Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality

The worst thing we could possibly do as a country and an industry is rush a reopening. Not only would it be unsafe, but the costs would be high. A false start would be costly operationally if we had to shut down and do it all over again, and it would erode the public’s trust. In Canada, we have an advantage by being behind other countries with the onset of the virus, and reopening. This will allow us the opportunity to watch and review how their measures work, and then we can tailor a plan that works for us. I could see capacities being reduced by 25 per cent or even 50 per cent to start. One idea that could have traction on re-entry is having guests look at menus on their phones, reducing a contact point and allowing us to change our menus as business levels dictate. Some dining trends may change. Takeout might remain a larger segment than before. But ultimately, I think dining out together is going to be so important once we start to normalize.

NICKI LABORIE, Owner, Bar Reyna and Reyna on King

Once we reopen, I expect that, like China, we will have our seating capacity cut in half for at least three to six months. This 50 per cent loss of revenue — on top of the three months of debts we incurred during our closure — will affect the bottom line. The heartbreaking reality is that many restaurants won’t survive. Numbers don’t lie and for most, “bums in seats” is necessary to cover fixed expenses. As an owner, my Reyna family is everything, and knowing that I won’t be able to bring back my full team is both stressful and gut wrenching. In this new climate, thousands of workers in the hospitality industry will continue to be unemployed. Those who will come back will have to deal with new rules like wearing masks and gloves. On our end, we’re creating a Reyna market that will offer DIY kits and other goodies for people to enjoy at home, which I pray will help the survival of our business.


Hanif Harji of Mira, Figo and Byblos to name a few

HANIF HARJI, Owner of Iconink (Byblos, Patria, Weslodge)

The challenge for the industry is being able to provide people an enjoyable experience without being overly invasive. We want to ensure we have the most significant protections, but we don’t want them to be so cumbersome that a night out loses its charm. We always have and will continue to leave no stone unturned in looking for the best ways to prevent communicable diseases of any nature in our restaurants. Some of the things that we are looking at run the gamut from using more disposable items such as menus and cutlery to looking for ways to eliminate high touch items such as card readers that go from hand to hand. I think payment processing will evolve as a result, and more people will be reliant on their own devices to complete transactions via apps.

ROBERT CARTER, Managing Partner at StratonHunter Group (an industry partner of Restaurants Canada)

I have studied consumer behavior at restaurants for over 15 years, so I have a unique and focused view on the dynamics of our industry. Of the $70 billion in restaurant industry sales during 2019, over 65 percent of those sales came from on-premise dining. So what does the future look like for our industry, if more than half of it is shut down? The main shift will be an overall change in operating models for restaurants. Relying heavily on a bricks-and-mortar location will become less relevant and more focus will be placed on multiple revenue streams such as expanding offerings beyond a core menu (think alcohol, groceries, meal kits). We will also see more off-premise dining (delivery, drive-through). Outsourcing core functions (marketing, finance, IT) will increase, innovation will accelerate and poor performing restaurants will close. We will be in a highly competitive industry, moving forward.

ARIEL COPLAN, Executive chef of Distrikt 461 (The Green Wood and Spin

When restaurants reopen we will need to shift in a variety of ways, our industry is ripe for change. For too long we’ve been investing in premium suppliers, decor and other distractions instead of putting our focus into the most important ingredient: people. Sick days don’t often exist in a lot of restaurants. Every kitchen is equipped with first aid kits but most kitchens have little to no tools to discuss mental health or emotions.  COVID-19 will have lasting implications overall but the consequences are dangerous with regards to mental health and substance use.  The food and beverage industry already had an epidemic on its hands before COVID-19, the pandemic has simply exacerbated it. There is more pressure on key factors that increase the rates of mental health crisis and suicide including job loss, financial insecurity, isolation and hopelessness.  We will need to be prepared for this with social connection, resources and a support network and plan. Even though we may still be practicing physical distancing, human connection is more important now than ever before.


Mark McEwan inside one of his gourmet grocery stores

MARK MCEWAN, Owner of McEwan’s grocery stores and Bymark, One and Fabbrica

I hope restaurants can get back in motion soon, but health and safety are most important. Very tight standards on the restaurant level are expected, for example usage of sealed menus that can be sanitized, proper distancing when seating guests, sanitizing tables between turns, sanitize all public spaces constantly (our service staff must sanitize every 20 minutes), available sanitizers for quests in obvious areas etc. No shared plates for guests and zero tolerance for any obvious signs of symptoms/illness. Good personal practice on the part of the client is imagined as well.

TREVOR LUI, Culinary curator at Stackt, and owner of Pop Kitchen Hospitality and Makan Noodle Bar

In terms of new hygiene mandates issued by public health, whatever they may be, implementing them shouldn’t be a problem for restaurants. We’re used to abiding by public health regulations. However, these new mandates, which will likely involve staff wearing PPE, will be costly and many restaurants are already struggling to stay afloat. The restaurants that survive this will need to re-create themselves — which we’re already seeing as restaurants pivot to offer meal kits and groceries — you can’t afford to stay in business paying full rent while operating at 50 per cent. The ability to pivot and create a dynamic online merchant service will be vital. I expect that there will be a big shift as small business owners move away from third-party delivery platforms, which take enormous commissions. Delivery, not dining-in, will continue to be a business driver for the coming months.

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