Globally, foodservice has taken a hit as consumers are forced to stay indoors due to Covid-19. While some have shifted to increased delivery and collect models, foodservice operators are now up for the next challenge – long-term social distancing. And if they gain social media notoriety (and curious customers in the door) in the meantime, then it is a win-win as this evolving business looks to innovate to stay afloat.

Many of these unique and creative social distancing measures are first coming out of Asia as it has reopened industries ahead of Europe and North America.

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In Bangkok, patrons have started eating next to panda toys and cardboard dragons. Restaurant’s place the creatures in chairs diagonally from each other so customers do not sit too close. In China, customers are disinfected upon entry and utensils are sanitised at the table for full transparency so they know they are safe.

In the US, makeshift plastic sheets at a bar and mannequins seated at nearby tables make for a spooky environment but also ensures customers follow the rules.

These examples are ways to ‘nudge’ – in a not-so-subtle way – customers to take extra care and keep a distance from their dinner dates. This also limits time speaking closely to the wait staff or miscommunication that can lead to dangerous contagious situations. Moreover, of course, it can be a playful way to remind people the pandemic is still happening, but life can go on semi-normally.

While these examples still stick with the traditional restaurant model, a few restaurants in Europe are building an experience around social distancing.

In Amsterdam, Mediamatic ETEM offers a four-course vegetarian menu in personal quarantine greenhouses. Customers are fully protected in glass enclosures looking out at the canal with wait staff serving with gloves and facemasks. The restaurant has done such a good job that patrons actually find the ambience to be a romantic and memorable experience.

In Sweden, pop-up restaurant Bord Ford En (‘table for one’) took isolation to the next level. Located in the region of Wermland, the ‘restaurant’ is a single table and chair in the middle of a field. The guest does not interact with the staff and the three-course Swedish meal is delivered in a basket by a rope attached to the kitchen. Launched in May and expected to stay open until August, reservations are full – only one guest per day.

While the Swedish example might have been more about an experience than a real solution to social distancing in the restaurant business, it brings up the new and relevant consumer behaviour as a result of lockdown. As consumers are cooped up all day, there has been more value placed on self-care, slower lifestyle and looking inward. A restaurant for one could allow people to have a more introspective experience, away from the hustle and bustle of standard restaurants. It also shows that thanks to the current conditions, consumers are open to new and novel experiences that keep them safe but also allow them to experiment.

Foodservice operators must understand that the ‘new normal’ does not just mean adjusting the status quo, it also means evolving and challenging norms and pushing boundaries of what the foodservice consumer is post-Covid-19.