Restaurants come up with novel ideas to deal with novel virus

The COVID-19 pandemic is scaring customers away, but some operators are trying to drum up business with a little creativity.

The latest warning to avoid crowds and practice social distancing is keeping customers away from restaurants and meal events in droves. Business is already taking a severe hit, with temporary and permanent restaurant closings across the country. As Union Square Hospitality’s Danny Meyer relayed in a video posted on Twitter, “There’s no existing playbook for how a restaurant should respond to COVID-19,” but he advocates balancing reality with hope.

Toward that end, some operators are trying to stem the economic slide as much as possible with a little creativity. Admittedly, these ideas can’t stop the financial losses the whole industry is no doubt suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But they do offer insight—and perhaps, inspiration—into adapting to the new normal.

• On Thursday, New York City ordered restaurants with 500 seats to reduce capacity to no more than 250 seats. But smaller restaurants in other parts of the country have put social distancing into action without a government mandate. Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in California’s Silicon Valley halved the number of guests it could accommodate by placing tables 6 feet apart. The fine-dining restaurant’s 36 tables were decreased to 18, and front-of-house staff now wears black protective gloves that are replaced after every dish is served in a move toward “black glove service.”

Word. A Cafe, a more casual venue in San Francisco, rearranged its dining room to keep tables 5 feet apart whenever possible. The restaurant is also encouraging customers to order ahead, and staff will deliver the food curbside.

• Bungalow by Middle Brow, a local favorite for pizza and beer in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, posted a sign with new rules, including: “No more menus! No more cash! No more water bottles! And no more self-service!” On Instagram, the owners told followers to “be proactive, pro-science and preventative, but never panicky. We’ll do our part, but please do yours too!”


• To reassure guests and employees, Sichuan Impression, a three-restaurant concept in California, uses an infrared thermometer to check every customer who comes through the door. Those with a fever are turned away, but the restaurant says it will help those individuals seek medical attention, if they desire. Sushi Katsuei in New York City is also doing a temperature check on everyone who enters the operator’s two restaurants. That includes diners, vendors, delivery workers and staff.

• On the government side, Jersey City, N.J., enacted a 10 p.m. curfew on all bars and restaurants with liquor licenses to limit large gatherings. And all venues that hold more than 25 people are required to take attendance at the door.

• At a James Beard pop-up dinner held in Portland, Ore., local chef Jenn Lewis played around with her vegetable dish to make it “safer” for the guests. She had planned to serve whole roasted cauliflower heads for the table, which diners could cut themselves. But because sharing is discouraged, she changed course, cutting the roasted heads into little wedges to “make it more hospitable.”

• Delivery is taking a creative spin, too, with cautious customers ordering in more often from both third-party companies and directly from restaurants. To stem the spread of COVID-19, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit rolled out contactless doorstep drop-off delivery on Thursday. Customers have to order through or the Dickey’s app to get this option, and each order comes presealed upon arrival. Jimmy John’s also offers contact-free delivery, along with several other chain and independent operators.

• Consumers are being encouraged to purchase restaurant gift cards to use in the future. One Boston marketing company created the hashtag #buyagiftcard to increase the influx of cash to restaurants and other small businesses during the coronavirus slowdown.


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