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How the pandemic will change the restaurant industry for the better

Article-How the pandemic will change the restaurant industry for the better

PAllavi Dean
Restaurants will never be the same after COVID-19, and that, according to Pallavi Dean, Founder & Creative Director of Roar, a Dubai-based interior design studio, is not a bad thing. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the mindsets of restauranteurs and retail investors in order to remain relevant and adaptable, says Dean.

June 2020- Speaking candidly to Cityscape Intelligence, Dean outlines how restaurants will have to innovate – not only their space – but also their business models if they want to survive

What impact will we see in our F&B space in the UAE?

It’s important to separate the short-term from the long-term, because they’re two very different stories. Short-term, it’s dramatic – removing 50% of the tables and PPE for staff. As designers, we can support this by playing with the spacing in clever ways, with cute graphics, imaginative buffering and so on.

The big long-term change will be what we’re calling contact light dining – not fully contactless, but with contact much reduced. Digital menus, contactless payment, and you can say goodbye to that grubby, three-week old bottle of ketchup in the middle of the table. Buffets may never fully recover – just think about how many people have touched the tongs at the sushi counter by the end of your long brunch. The biggest investment will need to be in restrooms, where designers are going to have to really think hard about creating a touchless experience. Personally, I never want to touch another toilet door handle again, so we’re prototyping foot handles.

 With social distancing a new normal for us – how will we see the physical space of restaurants change?

Although it will be implemented in the short term, social distancing in restaurants is not sustainable: it’s grim economics for the owner and a grim experience for the customer and the staff. Long-term, spacing will go back to 2019 levels and servers will remove their scary-looking masks and gloves.

That said, If I could point to one enduring change in dining room design, it may be an end to the restaurants that cram you in like sardines – some of the most expensive restaurants in Dubai have been guilty of this, but the rents have been so high they’ve had no choice. Going forward, landlords will have to be a lot more flexible with rents. Ultimately, practical factors like economics and operational efficiency will drive a lot of the design decisions in restaurants.

What new innovations or trends will we begin to see in the UAE’s restaurant industry? What of the emergence of cloud kitchens?

Things like increased automation through robots and apps, for example, may be things we will see popping up more frequently in restaurants. These technologies were already being utilised in this sector, but this situation will certainly accelerate the process. Touchless technology already exists – it is just a case of using it. If Siri or Alexa can turn on the TV and open the curtains at home, he/she/it can replace most of the physical touchpoints in a public building. Call an elevator; open a door; flush a toilet; write your name; show your ID. The main reason these things aren’t commonplace in building interiors is that some clients, contractors and suppliers have been stuck in an old mindset. This could be the jolt they need.

In your opinion how will business models for F&B outlets change over the next year?

Like all businesses, restaurants will need to innovate to survive.  We can already see a lot happening in this sector, from simple things like increasing home delivery and take away options, to developing cook at home meal kits and selling retail items.  While the social distancing guidelines are in place, revenue from dine in customers will be hard hit as table numbers are reduced, so finding additional revenue streams will be crucial.

What lessons can we learn from China as they slowly ease restrictions?

What we can learn is that things are certainly not just going to snap back to what they were like pre-COVID.  In general people will have less disposable income so eating out will become more of a luxury than an every-day activity, and the restaurant experience will be quite different.  In China, people are spending more on home food and less on eating out and I’m sure we will see this trend around the globe.

Around the world, there are pockets of quick and inspired thinking. For example, in Melbourne, Theodore’s has morphed into Ted’s Grocer, selling bread, coffee and deli goods, as well as take-home meals, in London, the healthy meal delivery company and deli chain Detox Kitchen is working alongside its produce supplier to create food boxes for consumers – will we see or are we seeing these innovative concepts in the UAE from popular restaurants?

Absolutely – as mentioned above, restaurants must innovate or die.  We have seen many UAE restaurants, including high end establishments, enter the delivery space and also develop things like food kits that people can put together or cook at home.  Even with restrictions easing it may take some time before people feel confident to eat out again, and when they do, they will want the experience to be special and restaurateurs will be pushing for more originality.  Escapism will be increasingly important in restaurant design – creating worlds that have a slightly surreal or special experience is a must.


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