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How Restaurant Hospitality Has Changed in the COVID-19 Era

What is it like to stay open, protect guests, and fight uncertainty?

BY RSVP November 05,2020

Restaurateur Danny Meyer defines hospitality as a “dialogue” in his book Setting the Table, which is what differentiates it from service. “Service is the technical delivery of our product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel,” he writes. Pre-pandemic restaurants would do this through verbal cues. This includes constant conversation between staff and guests, extras like tableside presentation of dishes, and anticipating the needs of customers by doing things like offering to refill a water glass. Now, restaurants have had to shift to a more visual approach to hospitality, turning to physical cues and gestures to make diners feel taken care of. 

In many ways, the newest measure of hospitality is safety. “These days it is all about alleviating fears,” said Bobby Stuckey, a co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado to F&W magazine. “I tell my team that every person is on a different point on the bell curve of COVID-19 stress levels and they need to adjust to those.” To show diners that their health and wellbeing is the top priority, restaurants across the world are engaging in strict safety measures like placing hand sanitizer bottles on every table, creating large distances between tables, requiring staff to wear masks and gloves, and regularly spraying down dining room surfaces, and offering disposable menus. Going no-contact, which includes having customers order and pay ahead, has also been key in making sure people feel safe whether they are dining outside or taking food to-go. (Just have a look at what RSVP has put together for restaurants here).

Other operators have hired extra staff for their dine-in operations. Many now have multiple hosts to greet customers. One host checks in the guest and walks them through what the experience is going to be like, and then a second host will guide the diner to their table, point out the different features of the dining room — such as where the bathrooms are, and where the hand sanitizer is located — to make them feel secure in the space. 

Masks, a necessary safety precaution, are now as common in as knives and aprons. They also make communication challenging. How do you know if someone is smiling from behind a mask? How do you convey feelings? At Wayla, a Thai restaurant in New York, servers wear masks that are printed with a photo of the server’s smile. 

The team at Wayla has found that personalization is a really nice display of hospitality. Not only does the team personally do food drop-offs way beyond their delivery zone to regular customers, in each of their to-go meals, they include a handwritten thank you note that is funny, quirky, or inspirational. 

For Atomix, New York, there was always an organic, warm atmosphere, created not by their cuisine or their curation of wines, but by the people who graced their space. "When guests would come to Atomix, there were often handshakes, hugs, sharing of wine," said Ellia Park, the co-founder of Atomix. "The joy we derived from these moments and our dedication to them was the foundation of our hospitality and it created the connections between the guests and our team."

Hospitality in today’s context is considering the guests’ safety and wellbeing, and this includes how we conduct ourselves, from wearing masks to implementing the best practices around sanitation and hygiene, both in and out of service.

"The foundation of hospitality is care and compassion. When all our guests can enjoy a meal in comfort and peace, despite the lack of visible or close contact as before, is when we have established hospitality that will allow us to carry through these times," concludes Park.