Although it may seem hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel now, we will eventually move past this current pandemic. We will emerge from our homes and quarantines ready and eager to revisit our favorite bars, restaurants, and cafes, who with open arms, will serve us our daily dose of delicious foods, beverages and camaraderie. While owners everywhere are focusing on how their businesses will survive today, we believe an important question is: How will they thrive tomorrow?
Health and safety practices are de rigueur for any good foodservice establishment, but will we think twice before we dip into the communal salad bar, pour our own soda at a crowded fountain drink station, or wait in line at a grill or deli station? Where will our comfort level be?
The bottom line is that change is coming. However, every crisis is an opportunity, one best seized by the forward thinking. So, the question in our collective Cini•Little minds is What does foodservice facility design look like post COVID-19? We’ve asked the Cini•Little family to share their predictions, ideas, and recommendations regarding current best practices, what innovative design measures we might see in the weeks and months to come, and how a smart operator might get ahead of them.
Let’s Get the Conversation Started…
“Take-out and delivery were already booming in the restaurant sector before COVID-19, states Kevin Banas, Project Manager in our Chicago design studio. Weeks of shuttered dining rooms might accelerate this trend, which could quite possibly change the foodservice landscape tremendously as operators move to a different business model.”
Barry Skown, Director of Management Advisory Services (MAS) division, also contributed, “Adding the capability to include mobile ordering and delivery into every commercial foodservice venue…whether it be employee, higher ed, healthcare, or public venue dining…was already in high demand before COVID-19. This was especially true for the college campuses. And employee and public venue segments are moving faster and faster toward incorporating more self-ordering and self-payment facilities and systems in their on-site cafes, to increase the potential number of orders an outlet can accept per hour while decreasing labor costs. In fact, air travelers have already seen examples of these in major airports with retail food outlets installing self- ordering and payment tablets at every table. We viewed these systems as the trend of the future anyway, even prior to the pandemic. But eliminating all person-to-person and person-to-surface contact may not be realistic. After all, we are a ‘service industry.’ For example, even with self-ordering tablets, you still need to touch the screen to be able to place an order, and someone has to deliver the completed order to your table.”
What about Design?
“Most coffee houses only allow ordering from their online app. Customers can come into the building to pick up their drinks, but they cannot stay, says Tracy Diaz, Senior Project Coordinator in our Germantown office. And many times, there is only a small designated space for mobile order pick-up. Pushing forward, this area may need to expand.” Tracy also suggests that “locker style” pick-up areas will become the wave of the future. “You would receive a code to open the locker door, which would prevent others from touching your beverage or food to see if it is theirs.”
Dick Eisenbarth, CEO and President adds, “We see remote ordering and order pick-up stations in virtually every foodservice sector. There are several food locker systems available that have both refrigerated and heated secure compartments for order pick-up to ensure food security and safety. This is especially important in corporate facility settings where there are thousands of employees using remote ordering to get their lunch in a short time frame. Not only will expanded and designated pick-up areas designed into the facility instead of re-allocating a spare counter or two curb the bottleneck that can occur, but it will allow for a smoother and safer operation all the way around.”
Flexibility is Key
“Flexibility in design takes on a new importance when we think about the need to change something based on what’s happening in our society, posits Eisenbarth. So, before COVID-19, flexibility was important for being able to easily incorporate changing menu trends into an existing operation. Now, flexibility will play a key role in an operator being able to quickly change the way things are done to squelch health issues before they start. One example are salad bars and open buffets you find in hotels and corporate dining settings as well as on college campuses. Sneeze guards/breath protectors are used for obvious reasons. But maybe now, conversion from self-service to attendant-service when there is a need to do this will become an important design element. It can be designed with either/or alternatives.”
Banas suggests, “Restaurants have a number of ways to passively and actively combat pathogens. Active measures usually rely on staff training – making sure staff wash their hands, use gloves during food prep and service, follow HACCP procedures and health codes, sneeze into their sleeves, etc. Stuff we can’t design for. But, he explains, there are ways we can design for passive measures to be built into the facility, and they come in so many forms these days. For example, for projects that involve large volume production, we incorporate blast chillers and rethermalizers into the facility design because they move food through temperature danger zones much faster than conventional chilling, thawing, and rethermalizing processes.”
Technology Adds to the Equation
Additionally, some measures demonstrate how technology has become an important part of the foodservice equation…and may yet become even more important. Three such examples are automated temperature logging software in coolers to ensure everything is kept at proper holding temperatures, and chefs are automatically alerted night or day to power outages that cause foods to remain at dangerous holding temperatures. Grab-and-go kiosks can automatically lock during power outages as a prevention against customers purchasing food that has possibly spoiled. Finally, though no one wants to think about it, but every operator needs to be diligent if they wish to remain open, electronic insect traps located strategically in the back-of-house reduce pests and the illnesses they carry.
Other measures include incorporating anti-microbial agents into surface materials on hand sinks, shelves, ice bins, and the like to keep germs from colonizing surfaces. UV lights can be used in HVAC systems to kill pathogens and can also be incorporated into systems such as ice makers and exhaust hoods for the same purpose. Ozone can be added to water to make a chemical-free sanitizing solution. Ozonated water can also be supplied to hand washing sinks and 3-compartment sinks to add an extra layer of germ killing to the usual washing process. It is also used in some ice makers, particularly where water-borne illness that aren’t slowed down at low temperatures (think Legionnaire’s disease) are a prevalent risk.
Foodservice Manufacturers Take it to the Next Level
“It’s important for our consultants to develop a design with safety in mind, but we can’t do it without every aspect of our industry getting into the act and partnering together to make safety a priority. Foodservice manufacturers are constantly developing innovative equipment that allows our designs to go to the next level in the interest of safety,” suggests Eisenbarth. One manufacturer offers an antimicrobial fruit and vegetable treatment with small batch produce washing in mind. It is pre-measured, requiring no physical contact with the concentrate, which allows worker safety while cleaning the food. Another manufacturer offers an automated sealing machine that applies a film seal to either a paper or plastic cup, thereby eliminating the need for disposable cold drink lids that everyone touches in an effort to take just one and ensuring that drinks are tamper- and spill-resistant and germ-protected.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Cini•Little started the conversation…but we, as an industry, need to keep it going. We also need to make sure our fears surrounding the current pandemic don’t create a mountain of safety measures that will ultimately do no good in the big picture. Skown adds, “We all know that throughout history, humans have relatively short memories in terms of how a major situation affects their long-term behaviors. The question remains, how much of a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction do we want to incorporate into our service industry that the public will not embrace later, once the pandemic has passed? And what changes benefit both the industry and the public for the long-term?” We need to weigh new ideas and solutions through the lens of public safety and hygiene as well as through the lens of sustainability for our environment. There are loads of ideas out there just waiting to be explored. Let’s take this time to dream, investigate, create together.
Richard Eisenbarth, FCSI | CEO & President
Barry Skown | Director of Management Advisory Services
Kevin Banas | Project Manager
Tracy Diaz | Senior Project Coordinator