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COVID-19 has forever changed indoor dining. Less interaction with restaurant staff, more cleaning likely to persist

COVID-19 has forever changed indoor dining. Less interaction with restaurant staff, more cleaning likely to persist

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COVID-19 has forever changed indoor dining. Less interaction with restaurant staff, more cleaning likely to persist

Larry Olmsted
 |  Special to USA TODAYAfter restaurant service indoors was shuttered in many parts of the U.S. amid COVID-19 lockdowns, in-person, inside dining is back.While the the highly contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates in some areas are fueling a surge in COVID-19 infections that may lead to more closures, at some point indoor dining will be back to stay, but it may not be exactly the same as we remember it.Chefs, restaurant owners and industry experts have suggested that many of the coronavirus-inspired industry changes will be lasting, such as increased interest and availability of outdoor dining, more technology and more takeout options. But what about changes to the old-fashioned, in-person, indoor restaurant experience?►Outdoor dining surged amid COVID: But is eating al fresco at restaurants here to stay?►Some restaurants have nixed takeout: But that doesn’t mean to-go food and booze are gone for goodRestaurant cleaning practices developed amid COVID should stayOne lasting change that should benefit the public is improved sanitation. Diners can expect some public availability of hand sanitizer, either bottles at the host stand or more permanent dispensers, to remain in plain sight.Cleaning increased during the pandemic, and many experts predict that as customers return, they will continue to favor eateries that put cleanliness front and center.”I would say that customers’ expectations for cleanliness and sanitation will continue to be at the forefront of the post-COVID dining experience,” says Mark Montoya, general manager of Sawmill Market, an artisanal food hall in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that opened just before COVID shutdowns began last March. “It has always been a priority for the restaurant industry, but in the last year, the entire world has revolved around Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. At Sawmill, we will continue to train our staff to constantly wash hands and wipe down commonly touched areas.”Steve Haigh agrees. Haigh is the co-founder of Scotch + Bacon Group, which operates four restaurant concepts in Miami (Chikin, Būya, Kyu and Laid Fresh) plus spinoffs in Montreal, Toronto and Mexico City. “I predict that as guests return to the dining scene, they will be more conscious of their surroundings. They will want more space, visible sanitation practices and the introduction of more private rooms for smaller groups.”Fewer interactions with servers likely to continue as restaurants invest in touchless techChef Peter Merriman has been at the forefront of the Hawaiian restaurant scene for 30 years, and has seen many changes in that time. He has outposts of his fine dining signature Merriman’s on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the big island of Hawaii, and during the pandemic, he invested in multiple safety technologies.“Last year we invested in carbon dioxide monitors and ultraviolet disinfection light for our Oahu restaurant’s HVAC system. We also added HEPA filters and carbon dioxide monitors at our flagship Waimea location, Merriman’s Waimea. We will continue to use this equipment for the foreseeable future.”Touchless transactions reduce interpersonal contact but also the need for so much staff.“Expect to see a lot more ordering kiosks,” says Dallas- and Los Angeles-based food critic and restaurant blogger Mike Hiller. “They have been in airports for years for just this reason, less staffing. … Now they have moved into McDonald’s, and a lot more automation is coming to low- and mid-tier restaurants and fast-casual sit-down place,” he says, adding,”There will always be a place for fine dining and full service, but at the local fast-casual chain, your interaction with the waiter does not add anything to the dining experience.”Likewise, the use of QR codes to replace physical menus was brought about by the fear of spreading germs but seems to be here to stay.►Which restaurant innovations are here to stay? The future of QR code menus, touchless curbside pickup and online waitlistsHiller estimated about 50% of restaurants are using QR codes. “And they love it,” he said. “It allows them to use flexible demand pricing, just like hotels and Uber do, something that has long been desired by savvy operators. … They can delete dishes they have run out and move things they need to push to the top of the list.”The paperless alternative may be missed by some diners though.“People love menus. So better restaurateurs now are hiring graphic designers to make their digital offerings better. … People love pictures of food, so expect to see more elaborate digital menus with more pictures.”What’s back to ‘normal’?While addition outdoors, like igloos and greenhouses for private dining, remain at many restaurants, similar indoor changes brought on my social distancing, from plastic dividers to fewer tables further apart, have largely vanished.As restaurants started reopening, many pundits predicted that more communal dining elements, from all-you-can-eat buffets to tableside preparations (hand-tossed Caesar salad, bananas foster, etc.) would be the last to return, but that’s not the case. Even Merriman, who invested heavily in new sanitizing equipment, says, “Our guests are dying to get back to normal, and bringing back dishes like our Tableside Poke is a step into that direction.”In Las Vegas, where buffets have always been a dining highlight for visitors at breakfast, lunch and dinner in near every casino resort, some have come back without restrictions. After a short-term movement toward more staff-served dishes, the help yourself approach has returned, though with more oversight.Caesars Place has doubled down, and after 14 months of closure and a multi-million renovation, reopened its flagship Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace in May with nearly 100 new offerings. Dim sum-style food carts now roam the dining room serving tableside.Spokesperson Chelsea Ryder said new health and safety protocols include more frequent cleaning and sanitization. Hand sanitizer is at each buffet station; staff change out of serving utensils at least every hour; reservations minimize wait times and long lines; and people who aren’t vaccinated are required to wear masks.MGM Grand, Excalibur, Bellagio, South Point, Wynn Resort, and the Cosmopolitan have also reopened buffets with pre-pandemic levels of self-service or a mix of servers and self-service. A sense of normalcy is important to the indoor dining experience.  “Why do we eat out? Because it’s a social experience,” Hiller said. “Some people eat out just to have a meal, but most eat out to enjoy an experience.”


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