How will the future of restaurant design look? For fast food, fast-casual, and even more upscale restaurants, answering that question right now inevitably means reckoning with the implications of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic has already had a profound effect on restaurants. According to a June report from MarketWatch, restaurants and bars took a 40 percent hit during the first three months of the pandemic. Only clothing stores were more negatively impacted. Many restaurants have tried to make the most of the limitations forced by this unprecedented challenge, pivoting to takeout/carryout or delivery even if they had never focused on those options in the past. Takeout undoubtedly kept some restaurants on life support throughout the first several months of the pandemic, as stay-at-home orders prohibited in-person dining. When dining rooms were allowed to open in the late spring or early summer, it was with requirements that restaurants had to observe for reduced capacities.
These factors, collectively, have pushed many restaurants to start envisioning a different future. With the pandemic entering its sixth month—and with the United States still tracking daily tallies in the six figures for new coronavirus cases—the prevailing feeling among restaurants is shifting. “What do we do to survive until things go back to normal?” and “What do we do if this is the new normal?” are only two of the prevailing questions. A focus on takeout and carryout is the obvious option—a factor that is also changing the game for restaurant design.
Fast food restaurants, which already had a big focus on takeout pre-pandemic, are leading the charge toward a more carryout-focused future. Where many sit-down restaurants reopened to table service this summer, fast food brands didn’t all follow suit. McDonald’s, for instance, has been very slow and cautious about reopening its dining rooms. Instead, fast food establishments seem to be doubling down on their drive-through business models. According to this article from FOX Business, SONIC, Burger King, and McDonald’s all have new restaurants in the works that will emphasize takeout, curbside pickup, or outdoor dining. The new SONIC design “will feature 18 docks, a covered outdoor patio with twinkle lights and lawn games, and a new drive-thru window.” The new Burger King design cuts the restaurant’s building footprint by 60 percent and incorporates more drive-through lanes, a walk-up window, and a conveyor belt system that delivers food to those waiting for their drive-through orders. Taco Bell is adding more drive-through lanes and curbside pickup space, as well.
In the immediate future, designs such as these will likely be a boon to the restaurants that incorporate them. For customers who want to get their food and go, without having to set foot in a restaurant and risk SARS-COV-2 exposure, will have more options to do so. The new design approach is also friendly to services such as Postmates: delivery drivers can pick up food and get it to their customers with fewer barriers or delays than ever before. The big question, though, is what happens with these restaurant designs when COVID-19 is a memory. If/when a vaccine arrives and things do start going back to normal, will drive-throughs and carryout still be in vogue? Or will customers be so eager to experience the dine-in experience again that restaurants which decided to de-emphasize it will see decreases in business as a result?
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