Answering Your Questions About Reopening Restaurants

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic and the issues that have arisen around it. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

Today as shelter-in-place orders continue to ease across the state we're taking a look at what the restaurant dining experience could look like when people are allowed to go back to dine-in. To learn more, spoke with Charles Hemminger and Seth Boor, both San Francisco-based Architects, who have written a new 40-page report titled "Our Shared Spaces — What Happens Next?"

What led you this lengthy piece that you put together? You talked to a lot of people before putting this out.

Seth Boor: For us, this started in a conversation that started about the clients we had and what they were facing, and really it started from just trying to get our heads around what was happening and what was going to happen. There was so little information out there and confusing information, so we started charting it out, in terms of the schedule, in order to have this conversation with out clients. That turned into a much more lengthy forum for everyone to express their concerns and ideas about what was going on.

You guys have been in this game for a while now, both of you have designed some restaurants we all know the names of and have been involved in some big name clients.

Charles Hemminger: Both Seth and I have been at it for a while, and yes, we probably work in a certain sector of the restaurant community that’s a little bit more neighborhood and chef owner type restaurants, but between the two of us, we’ve certainly been a part of a lot of restaurants in San Francisco and a few other places.

So when we hear reports, like this one from Open Table this morning, that figures a quarter of American restaurants won’t reopen. I think the Restaurant Association in San Francisco thinks it might be more like half. Are those numbers that resonate with the both of you?

SB: Definitely, I think we’re hearing a lot of concerns from restauranteurs about when or if they would be able to open— during what we’re looking at as the next 24 months of uncertainty—before there’s basically any cure or treatment for this pandemic. There’s a lot of people who just don’t know if they’ll be able to open with the guidelines in place that we’re looking at.

From where you sit, are the guidelines, at this point, specific enough that somebody could say, ‘Alright I’ll get started?’ Are we still in this moment where people have to kind of wait to see what’s going to roll out?

SB: I think we’re largely in a wait to see area. We’ve got some guidelines coming down from the state and we understand that locally they’ll be adding some specifics to that, as well.

CH: Last week, we know the governor came out with some state guidelines. They were general, and intentionally so, and the local department agencies will now start to refine them and resolve specific issues with specific counties.

What we’ve learned is probably how this is all going to play out is that the health department will set the overall guidelines. And then part of what Seth and I were trying to do was sort of work our way down through the specific departments that regulate restaurants, because in the end, a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish is to help restaurants figure out how to navigate their way as it works its way down through these individual departments. 

A big piece of the report you put out, has to do with the sometimes bewildering and often times expensive list of rules and regulations and permits that go with owning a restaurant. Can you talk to that a little bit?

SB: Yes, so our report was looking at a couple different timeline issues.

One is, when we get back to “normal”, attacking all of the sort of the complexities we see now to encourage revitalization. But the other thing is right now we’re in this emergency situation, you can imagine a restaurant owner would not have time or money to apply for a permit for some of these improvements they want to make.

For example, take out windows for some of our clients, which is something you would obviously want in this time period if you were trying to re-pivot your model to get food out of the door. Those can take a really long time if you go through the planning process and building process to get permitted for them. We’re definitely looking at the complexities of all those sorts of improvements and the permits that come with them.

How does the future for the celebrations of birthdays, reunions, graduations and family gatherings of more than 20 in restaurants? What should we expect in terms of eating together at big tables?

CH: At the onset, probably not good for these large groups. I think we’re starting to see other states and municipalities define their initial guidelines, at least. Sure, there’s a general idea that large groups should be discouraged. The number here—and it’s going to be county by county—hasn’t been define.  

What we can guess though is that there’s going to be sort of an overall occupancy limit to the overall restaurant. And then there will probably be some specific guidelines about groups.

So that’s kind of where it is right now. We’re all in a bit of waiting moment where we have to kind of let these guidelines come out. 

SB: As Charles was saying, we don’t have those numbers yet. The state guidelines—that are, again, very general at this point—don’t mention a limit on party size. They just mention the distancing between parties and parties that have chosen to be seated together. 

We see, in certain places like Hong Kong—where the guidelines have been in place for some time now—that they’ve limited to parties of four, and we can expect to see some limits on that certainly as they first opened, and hopefully relaxing it as things get better.

Do either of you see an environment where these larger gatherings will have socially distant component?

CH: I think that there’s probably another piece to come about this whole process. There might be some sort of online registration (and we’re seeing that idea floated) where you describe where you live, whether you’re a group or family, or there may be documents that define some kind of liability that you’re accepting. 

So these are all questions to start to refine. Our sense from learning a lot about this is that these guidelines will evolve over time and the big unknown is how long of a time this is in front of us.

But we’re pretty confident and pretty aware that it’s probably going to be a 12-18 month period. You can imagine that through that period there will be adaptions to address situations both in the medical level and as a functioning level learning from what has been done the month before and in the other locations around the country. It’s going to develop, no doubt about it. 

A lot is being said about fewer dining tables and more space, but what about the heart of the restaurant: the line? How is that going to look in the future?

SB: That’s a great point, it’s very difficult to get the spacing that we’re looking for in kitchens, so that’s something everybody is struggling with in the guidelines and how to get the correct distancing in the kitchen. 

All we can imagine is that the distancing in the dining room is going to significantly reduce the occupancy in the restaurants. From the plans we were looking at in our report, it seems to reduce most restaurants in San Francisco to about 30% of their typical occupancy. So you would assume to have the kitchen staff reduced as well. Obviously it’s still very difficult to have correct distancing when you’ve got people working in such close space. 

Do you think most smaller restaurants are going to be able to make that math work out?

SB: That’s definitely the biggest hurdle, and the reason you’re hearing the concern about how many of these places will be able to reopen, is even on a good day, when we talk to these very popular and busy restaurants, the margins are really slim in this business. 

It’s all about getting enough people in there to pay for food, pay for staff, and to pay the rent. And if you’re talking about a 30% reduction of tables you can service, the math absolutely does not work out. So there needs to be some additional ways to get service to more people.

Some restaurants—as you’ve already seen—have introduced some amount of takeout, and that market is obviously getting pretty saturated already. A lot of fine dining restaurants just wouldn’t want to do that, it’s not a part of what they do. 

There’s been some ideas about taking over sidewalk and outdoor space, which is great, but it’s probably not enough. 

I think what we’re learning is that all of these ideas are great, and we kind of need all of them. We need pretty much everything on the table as options for individual restaurateurs to pick from, depending on what they’re good at, and be able to implement quickly and without much cost at all. 

I assume a lot of what we’re talking about here focuses on restaurants, but you can imagine barber shops, hair salons, retails spaces having the same issues, just slightly different details. 

CH: Absolutely, and I can’t say I’m an expert on some of those. I’m only watching what everyone else is watching in the news as barber shops are opening in Georgia and Texas and we kind of see what they are: a person cutting hair in a mask, and you’re in a mask, and so there’s not a 100% situation of 6-foot separations that is sustainable to personal services particularly. 

Those are all kind of part of the puzzle in front of everyone, and I think what Seth and I were really trying to do was sort of provide a bit of a roadmap, but really it was also to create a forum of ideas that we’ve all got to participate in the success of these small businesses and restaurants and retail outlets. It’s really going to take that, because what we’re really imagining is that we’ve got to get these businesses through this next 12-18 month period. And that is an issue of how many people will show up, of course, and that’s a big if. 

It’s an issue of the regulatory agencies supporting and accommodating this transitional period, and it probably brings up a bit of controversy sometimes, but participations of landlords in the city.

So it’s a group effort. I think the goal, at least for the first phase, is to help these businesses survive because the long term consequences of them not surviving could be a whole other radio show, but they kind of spiral out. It’s not always easy to see the consequences that show up when you let well established businesses in a city, in a town, on a main street go under.

There’s a lot to accomplish. I think if everyone focused on the goal, which is survival—at least that’s how it’s looking right now—then of course after that we hope we sort of return to normal and we’ve had conversations about it being a different normal.

Is it good or bad to pay with a gift card right not?

SB: I know a lot of restaurants have upped their sale of gift cards as a way to get income that will be used in the future. I don’t know if it’s good to use gift cards bought previously but that’s all I have on it.

CH: Follow the restaurants you care about and be ready to be a part of that team effort to keep them going. There may be many opportunities to do that. I think there’s going to be a lot of creativity from restauranteurs and businesses to make this interesting. They’re going to need to do that.

We now know more about the transmission of this virus in closed spaces, what about airflow in restaurants?

SB: That’s a great point. It’s something the people we were talking to were asking. We haven’t seen that in the guidelines yet, but it seems like something that should be considered in terms of: Are your typical air conditioning systems basically recirculating a large amount of air in a space? 

So they draw it in through what’s called a return, and then they cool or heat the air, and then dump it out in registers over the tables. So you can see how that would a concern for possibly mixing up contaminants in the air and redistributing them.

We expect that there would be some guidelines for introducing more fresh air into the space and reducing the amount of recirculation, which takes more energy and costs more money, but can be done with most air conditioning systems to try to prevent that recirculation.

Will restaurants we required to take additional actions on dish cleaning beyond regular washing? Maybe required use of disposables?

CH: These guidelines are yet to be seen. You can imagine what some of them will be, and you’ve heard some of them already.  

So probably, that’s true it’s going to be things like throwaway menus. We’re concerned for the restaurants because the  math that’s challenging is limited revenues, and yet many of these things require greater expenses. This will be part of the greater puzzle: How, under these limited revenue conditions, will you then take on non-typical restaurant expenses?

SB: From the state guidelines we’ve seen, some increased disinfecting requirements around the customer areas, you’d certainly change between parties, menus and other things that you’d touch. The dishwashing itself doesn’t seem to be affected much other than kitchen staff needs to be wearing masks and everything.