While every restaurant had to change up operations or close down completely during the pandemic, the shift for the fine-dining segment was extreme. Operators of upscale spots had to quickly adapt to takeout and/or delivery—which very few had done before—and figure out how to provide a comparable experience to customers stuck at home.
With reopenings accelerating across the U.S., now these restaurateurs have to figure out how to deliver a topnotch experience at 50% capacity while enforcing safety protocols. Bruno Serato, chef-owner of the Anaheim White House, a Northern Italian steakhouse in Anaheim, Calif., is meeting the challenge with stylish solutions that fit with his restaurant’s design.
The 180-seat fine-dining venue is housed in a landmark 1909 mansion that’s lavishly decorated with Versace-inspired tables and chairs and hand-painted frescos. “I didn’t want to ruin guests’ view of the frescos, so I worked with a company to create freestanding plastic dividers that can be moved between the tables,” he says. The plexiglass sheets are hung on gilt-edged stands throughout the dining room and fixed in place around the bar.
Serato also worked with public health specialist Carol Winner to post branded signage around the restaurant. Winner launched a “give space” social distancing movement pre-COVID in 2017, designed to help those with compromised immune systems and emotional disorders communicate their need to maintain personal space. Now she is licensing the program to restaurants at no cost and providing premade signage templates; operators simply drop in their logo and have the signs printed up.
"My goal is for the ‘give space’ logo to become ubiquitous so that restaurant patrons can simply glance at it and it reminds them to maintain social distancing. If every restaurant is creating its own signage, there's no consistency,” says Winner.
Serato finds the signage particularly helpful in the hallways near the rest rooms and restaurant entry. “You can constantly ask people to stand six feet apart, but they don’t listen,” he says, adding that the branded visuals also impart a sense of trust. “It gives guests confidence that I’m doing all I can to keep them safe.”
During the shutdown, he also installed UV lights in every dining room through vents in the ceiling—a move that adds an extra level of sanitation. Silverware is washed and then sterilized in a UV lighted box and valets wipe down the car door handles and the ignition key in full view of customers when they reclaim their vehicles.
All these extra precautions erase fears and make customers feel secure, says Serato. But they don’t come cheap—he spent about $15,000 in total on design and sanitation upgrades, a sum many cash-strapped independent operators can’t afford right now.
However, it’s paying off for Serato, who says business at the restaurant is back to 75% of pre-COVID levels. California is currently allowing outdoor dining and parties of 10 to dine together, a big advantage for Anaheim White House with its 12 private dining rooms and large patio and garden.
“Local residents are supporting us,” he says, “but Anaheim is a big tourist destination and we’re not seeing any travelers right now.” Serato also is eager for another big part of his business to come back: Weddings.
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.