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What restaurants will actually be like in a post-COVID-19 world, according to CEOs and food experts

Here’s how Chipotle, Panera, street food vendors, and others envision the new food order, from mirrors on the ceiling to disposable menus.

What restaurants will actually be like in a post-COVID-19 world, according to CEOs and food experts
[Photo: Ljupco, JackF, Björn Forenius, Michele Ursi, ivanmollov/iStock; laurentvalentinjospi0/Pixabay; rawpixel]

For Fast Company’s Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.

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Nick Kokonas, co-owner and cofounder of the Alinea Group, which includes Chicago’s Alinea and Roister restaurants, and founder and CEO of Tock, a restaurant reservation and ordering platform

We’re definitely not going to be opening any of our restaurants before June 15—and when we do open, if we’re given a 25% occupancy mandate, it’s not going to make sense as a business to operate as we do normally. So we might open, but we may also do carry-out with a different, simpler, and cheaper menu. Right now, Alinea sells one [daily] dish for carry-out that is designed specifically so that it is easily packaged and able to be reheated. We may still do that if there is demand.

In terms of the physical dining experience in a restaurant, there will be a transparent and obvious emphasis on safety and hygiene. Restaurants can either decide that this is temporary, in which case they will just [incorporate] safety measures and it’ll just be really awkward for a while. Or they can lean into them and say to themselves, “Let’s get some designer masks going and think about how to make a restaurant feel busy, even though people are far apart from one another.” These are things that we’re just beginning to talk about.

What if there were mirrors on the ceiling? Mirrors could make it like a fun house: You could see the other tables and remain at a safe distance.”

Nick Kokonas, Alinea Group

We were looking at creating individual rooms within the restaurant, so that every single table gets its own, similar to some Japanese traditions. Then we were worried that if we did that, we would lose the vibe. So we’ve been thinking, what if there were mirrors on the ceiling? Mirrors could make it like a fun house: You could see the other tables and remain at a safe distance. You also want to hear the noise.

I think all this will be in the very short term, though. We are incredibly biased to thinking that this is going to permanently change the way that restaurants do business. [People] are reacting very quickly to something which has only existed for six weeks or eight weeks. We’ve had pandemics before. This will end. In the short term, we need to make people feel safe. In the long term, it will be safe, and [restaurants] will be packed again.


Brian Niccol, CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, which operates more than 2,600 fast-casual restaurants around the globe 

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We’re focused on how we continue to operate the business in a safe, healthy way, as parts of the country reopen retail and restaurants. But we’re also working on planning for the [other] side of this—to get back to our growth strategy—by looking into real-estate development opportunities and what those new restaurants will look like.

COVID-19 has sped up the consumer’s need or desire to have different access points. So we want to provide people more access to grab-and-go: Ordering ahead with our digital platforms, selecting that pickup time, and making it as fast as possible, whether it’s through our “Chipotlanes” pickup window or the pickup shelves. We’re still going to keep that experience where you can go down the line in-store. I don’t think the in-store experience is going away, but it will be more balanced.

We already had wellness checks in place, and we made sure to have incentives so that people who weren’t well weren’t working. We had paid sick leave. It was a few days. Now it’s a few weeks. We [already] had air purification systems and prep practices where we minimized the number of hands touching the food. The two biggest things that are new are the addition of masks and physical distancing. As we look at reopening dining room seating, there won’t be as many seats available.

One thing we’ve slowed down on is our experimentation with food, because we want to keep the supply chain steady. We decided we’ll invest more into digital systems in this time period, and be smart and opportunistic on the real estate side of things. Real estate deals will all the sudden open up because folks have backed out of them or because of pricing. And that will allow a company with a strong brand, like Chipotle, to come in low. They’d rather have a strong tenant than get the dollars per square foot. So I want our real estate folks to be aggressive.

Everyone talks about the last time something like this happened, in 1918, with the Spanish flu. What no one talks about is what happened after 1918: the roaring twenties, one of the best moments in business and mindset in the U.S.

[Photo: Björn Forenius/iStock; ivanmollov/iStock; rawpixel; laurentvalentinjospi0/Pixabay]

Mohamed Attia, director of the nonprofit Street Vendor Project, which helps New York City vendors know their legal rights and responsibilities and navigate legal challenges

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The impact of the coronavirus has been very bad: Anecdotally, only about 10% of our 2,300 members are operating right now.

Many vendors have not been able to access government programs that support small businesses because they don’t have the complicated documentation the government asks for. Their corporations are not an LLC, and they don’t have a payroll or W2 for their employees. They often also don’t have a business bank account or things that will prove their loss of business over the past eight weeks. They pay taxes and file their tax returns just like any other business, but it’s been hard for them to access SBS grants. We have been asking the city and the state to step up and provide small business grants and loans to street vendors. Many of them are immigrants and some of them are undocumented, so they need to be protected.

Some vendors, like those near the Brooklyn Bridge, have customers that are 100% tourists. I don’t know if they will come back.”

Mohamed Attia, Street Vendor Project

A lot of [our members] will come out of the coronavirus in a dire situation. They will already have a lot of debt from paying their bills without working, and it will be tough for them to restart because they may not have the money to pay suppliers. It’s also hard for people to get supplies when they have no idea how much foot traffic there will be. Some vendors, like those near the Brooklyn Bridge, have customers that are 100% tourists. I don’t know if they will come back.

[New York City] is opening up some streets only to pedestrians, and that’s a big opportunity for street vendors. I hope they’ll be able to set up shop without police harassment, which has been a problem for them. Street vendors can add a lot of vitality to these areas. And selling [food and drinks] outside is safer than selling inside. I also think that a lot of people with small restaurants—many of them immigrants—might have trouble sustaining their businesses. They might become street vendors as a plan B.


Niren Chaudhary, CEO of Panera Bread Company, which has more than 2,100 bakery-cafes in 48 states and Canada.

As states begin to lift their lockdowns, we need to ensure that our customers are safe—but also visibly safe so that they feel safe. We’re installing wellness stations in every café, where an associate will take your temperature before you enter. We’re also installing plexiglass sheets for the protection of our associates and customers. We’re making sure our kiosks are configured to follow social distancing norms and staggering the number of people allowed into restaurants. We’re following guidelines, which vary by state, but I think it’s going to be dramatically lower than 50% [capacity]. We also have frequent hand-sanitization protocols, and our menus are disposable.

The emotional state of customers is going to be quite different. Keeping items at an accessible price point will be important.”

Niren Chaudhary, Panera Bread Company

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Looking further into the future, we anticipate that there is going to be a recessionary environment [with] a new level of unemployment. So the emotional state of customers is going to be quite different. Keeping items at an accessible price point will be important.

We [recently] introduced Panera Grocery, which lets us deliver grocery staples to people. We may continue it depending on customer demand. We also now have curbside pickup, and drive-through will be of significant importance. Dining at home might become more important, so we’re exploring adjacencies like meal kits. Pre-coronavirus, we were looking at dark kitchens to fulfill off-premise dining orders: We might look at a model where we put up our own. We’ve successfully brought back some of the staff we furloughed. We hope to bring many—if not all—of them back, but they may be in different roles.


Chris Stang, cofounder and CEO of restaurant review websites The Infatuation and Zagat and the Eeeeeatscon food and music festival.

Things are not going back to normal any time soon, and we had to adapt. When states and cities started to change rules about booze takeout and delivery, we started covering that. We need to do a good job of making people know the options available to them as things open up. And where we usually have a big event like Eeeeeatscon, we are moving to host more virtual events.

It’s too early to say how successful some restaurants [will be] at reopening. Some cities are talking about closing down streets to allow for more outdoor dining, so tables can be spaced more effectively. All restaurants are going to have to think more creatively about how they serve their customers, and we’ll be there to write about that.

I don’t even want to think about what a city like New York would look like without independent restaurants. So much of the experience of living in a large city revolves around the ability to go to restaurants. That doesn’t just mean famous, fine-dining establishments. There’s so many places that we take for granted that are world-class. I hope there is a reset in terms of the cost of commercial real estate: The cost for a restaurant to operate is becoming untenable, even if they are at 100% capacity.

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This crisis has shown how much people miss restaurants, and also how restaurants can show up for their community, since many of them are out there serving front-line healthcare workers. I don’t think that there are many people in the world who would be enthusiastic about an environment in which local, independently owned restaurants don’t exist. But the experience might be different, and we will keep covering the delivery and take-out experience as more people eat at home.


More from Fast Company’s Shape of Tomorrow series:

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