Pandemics alter restaurants forever
Some places will do away with seats or automate the kitchen. Are they in danger of losing 'that human touch'?
By Janelle Nanos
For an example of how pandemics can permanently change consumer habits, consider the Dixie Cup.
At the turn of the 20th century, Americans were still beginning to understand how germ theory contributed to the spread of disease. Before then, it was not uncommon for people to use a communal cup for drinking water from a fountain or barrel. But in 1907, Boston lawyer and inventor Laurence Luellen was distressed that the practice spread sickness. As an alternative, he invented a small disposable paper cup that could be tossed after each use.
It was originally called the Health Kup; he renamed it the Dixie Cup five years later. But it wasn’t until the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that Dixie’s sales really took off. As one in three people on the planet were infected with the virus, the health benefits of disposability became a huge selling point.
The 1918 pandemic reshaped Americans’ relationship with sanitation and resulted in a host of changes to US food consumption patterns. Now something similar could happen as COVID-19 makes people think more carefully about which food establishments to visit. New payment technologies, restaurant standardization, and automation in kitchens could all play a larger role in helping us feel safe — even after the coronavirus outbreak subsides.
Unlike this year, restaurants and lunch rooms stayed open throughout the 1918 pandemic, in part because dining out at the time was less of a leisure activity, instead providing essential meals to workers who lived in rooming houses throughout the United States.
To weather the outbreak, restaurants had to adapt to new health department laws, says Jan Whitaker, a Northampton-based consumer historian who studies the American restaurant industry. For the first time, eateries were required to wash all dishes, glasses, and silverware in scalding water, Whitaker said, and use glass covers to protect food on display. In Corpus Christi, Texas, waiters underwent health inspections; in Harrisburg, Pa., headlines highlighted the Department of Health’s new protocols for using hot water and soap on dishes; and in Cleveland restaurants were scored based on their level of sanitation.
Customers appreciated this focus on sanitation, she said. Newspaper clippings from early 1920s show restaurants touting their cleanliness.
As part of the trend, the concept of a “sanitary” or “white” restaurant grew in popularity. Marble and porcelain countertops became the norm, and white tile walls and floors were a hygienic alternative to the sawdust floors and literal greasy spoons. Chain restaurants, which arose in the beginning of the 20th century, saw growth in part due to a sanitary uniformity that put customers at ease. “Chains put a bigger emphasis on cleanliness than a lot of the little lunchroom places,” Whitaker said. “That was their selling point in general.”
Ayr Muir, owner of local restaurant chain Clover Food Lab, stumbled on evidence of the outsized role sanitation played in the industry when he was building his Harvard Square restaurant. In 2016, his demolition team uncovered a white tile wall in the space with a Harvard University motif. Muir learned they were the original walls of the Waldorf Lunch cafeteria, a cafeteria chain that had occupied the same space nearly 100 years earlier. When Muir decided to preserve the tile and researched its history, he noticed that the Waldorf had used sanitation as a selling point: Instead of promoting its menu items in newspaper advertisements, Waldorf promoted the volume of cleaning products it used.
“Their advertisements in the teens were about how they’d used 400 pounds of Borax in the last year,” Muir said.
Christopher Muller, a professor of hospitality at Boston University, says a desire for the hygienic also boosted the popularity of the Horn & Hardart Automats in Philadelphia and New York. Automats were sleek establishments where customers selected menu items from coin-operated doors in the wall, keeping the kitchen out of sight.
“The gleaming stainless steel and self-service of Automats created an egalitarian dining environment that was perceived as both affordable and spotlessly clean,” Muller said.
The 1918 pandemic may offer some clues about how today’s restaurants will adapt to the COVID-19 outbreak. Muller believes the current pandemic will hasten restaurants’ adoption of technologies for automation and convenience.
As restaurants were forced to pivot to only take-out and delivery during the shutdown, delivery apps were suddenly essential. But the steep fees charged by companies like UberEats and Grubhub crippled restaurants. For Muir, it underscored the importance of owning and developing his own sales management system.
“Because we own it ourselves and we have our own developers, we’re literally able to stop and think about what the customer experience should be like and try to figure out how the tech can support that as we go back,” Muir said. For example, Clover’s customers now order take-out only on Clover’s mobile app. They can let the restaurant know when they’ve arrived for pick-up with the push of a button, telling the staff if they’re on foot or in a car.
Dine-in restaurants are moving toward contactless dining apps that let patrons order drinks and food and pay their tabs entirely on their phones.
Some also believe that technology will now play a larger role in the preparation of food, as a way to highlight health and safety.
Spyce, a quick-service restaurant in Downtown Crossing with a robotic kitchen, shut down before the pandemic, but the founders plan to reopen it and open a second location in Harvard Square this fall. “Automation adds an added level of peace of mind,” for consumers, said Michael Farid, one of the Spyce co-founders, who all met at MIT.
Farid and other restaurateurs say they’re also thinking about how to sell meals more efficiently, recognizing that lunch crowds will be less likely to wait in line if it means putting themselves at risk. The challenges they’re facing now, Farid said, are “how do you find the consumer where they are, and how do you serve meals at a high volume without having a large density of people?”
It may mean more deliveries, or having office “outposts” like the ones that Sweetgreen began placing in office lobbies prior to the pandemic so customers could simply come downstairs and pick up their salads.
Some restaurants may forgo seating entirely, says Michael Nestrud, a research and development consultant for the food industry. These “ghost kitchens” already had traction but are poised to take off “because if you can develop a decent consumer base for delivery,” you can avoid the high costs of restaurant space.
Many more restaurants may opt to invent new brands for delivery purposes. Forced to close during the pandemic, Chuck E. Cheese began selling pizza on delivery apps under the name “Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings.” It was a smart move on the company’s part, Nestrud said, “Because when is the next time you’re going to let your kids in a ball pit?”
Still, while the changes in the restaurant industry may seem stark now, they shouldn’t undermine the real reasons people eat out today, says Eric Papachristos, a co-owner of the Porto, Trade, and Saloniki Greek restaurants in Boston and Cambridge.
“When COVID hit, in the beginning I remember thinking it would be so nice to have a fully automated kitchen and the guests would feel a lot more comfortable,” he said. But instead, he’s planning major shifts to the design of his spaces, moving more of the preparations in the fast-casual Saloniki restaurants to the back of the house to cut down the threat of exposure, and upgrading the duct systems in the sit-down restaurants to help recirculate air more safely.
“As much as I love automation, and I think there’s a place for it in our industry,” he said, he doesn’t want to lose sight of the real reasons people decide to dine: connection and community.
“I think people do want that human touch,” he said.