As restaurants reopen for on-premises business, they’re introducing diners to a new normal. Customers are craving the restaurant experience, to sit at a table to enjoy great food and great service, but they might be a little surprised at how different their favorite spots look and operate these days. It’s the price for keeping customers and employees as safe as possible during the pandemic.

Managers find they need to train their employees to have patience and be ready to repeat themselves as they walk returning guests through the safety protocols they’re required by law — and common sense — to implement.

The National Restaurant Association aggregates official “return to work” guidelines for foodservice establishments in every state. According to the document, most states are permitting on-premises dining at between 50% to 60% of capacity and limiting parties to groups of five to eight. Almost all states require six feet between tables, and customers are not permitted to congregate in lounges, bars or lobbies in most venues.

These restrictions alone alter the traditional restaurant experience, but customers may find many more changes as well.

New rules while waiting for a table

Social distancing is one of the best methods to prevent transmission of the virus, and restaurants are finding ways to prevent guests from congregating and waiting in groups.

Customer might be asked to:

  • Make reservations and text the restaurant when they arrive. They can wait outside or perhaps in their cars until they get a text their table is ready.
  • Wait in an area outside the restaurant if they’re walk-ins. They’ll likely see clear markings in six-ft. intervals wherever they’re waiting.
  • Wear masks while they’re waiting.

Greetings…and instructions

Employees are being trained on how to walk dine-in customers through the safety measures to reduce the risk of exposure.

For example, they might:

  • Offer customers a face mask if they’re not wearing one and encourage them to wear masks when not eating — that means when waiting for a table, when visiting the restroom and when traveling to and from their tables. The laws on mask wearing vary across the country, but asking everyone to be mindful of fellow diners and employees can be compelling.
  • Clarify party-size limits up front.
  • Point out safety measures, such as directional and distance markings on the floor, social distancing requirements, hand sanitizing stations, and bathroom occupancy recommendations.  
  • Explain payment methods. Many restaurants are only taking credit cards; some prefer customers use payment apps to make the transaction touchless.
  • Explain menu handling, whether menus are disposable, written on public menu boards, or accessible from one’s phone.
  • Be ready to answer any questions customers have about the restaurant’s safety procedures.

Many states require employees to wear masks throughout their shift, and many require them to wear gloves, as well. Restaurants also are ramping up cleaning and sanitizing routines, especially in high-touch areas such as tabletops, chair backs and arms, door handles and railings and menus.

Customers might need to get used this “clinical” side of service.

The dining room will look different

For the near future, customers will see half-full dining rooms and an assortment of physical separators.

Restaurants around the world have come up with innovative social distancing solutions, from removing tables, to hanging clear shower curtains or plexiglass shields between tables, to putting stuffed animals in seats to block them off.

Throughout the dining room, customers might see well-marked hand-sanitizing stations and signs for hand washing stations that are open to all.

Many restaurants are unable to open their bars because they can’t socially distance the space. They often use these areas for staging takeout and delivery orders, which continue to comprise a lion’s share of revenue.

Dining outdoors is a growing option

Many municipalities and local health departments are making accommodations to allow expanded outdoor dining.

They’re permitting restaurants to set up tables on sidewalks and streets closed to traffic, into parking lots or adjacent alleys, and on rooftops.

For restaurants, adding outdoor dining can increase capacity significantly. Some customers love outdoor dining, some prefer the air-conditioned comfort of a dining room. Either way, patrons might find they need to be flexible about how long it takes to get a table.

Hopefully, customers will find all concessions are worth it to enjoy the restaurant experience again.