Restaurants embrace social distancing

Keeping customers safe with fun and elegance, from Burger King’s giant crowns to revamped dining spaces

With the COVID-19 pandemic showing little sign of letting up, the need to social distance is likely to remain for a while. That creates challenges for many businesses, particularly restaurants. After all, part of the fun of eating out comes from soaking in the energy of the crowd and enjoying the ambiance.

Restaurant-goers might want to keep their distance, but not feel like they’re the only ones in a room. And while plexiglass dividers can keep people separated, they can also look sterile.

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Rethinking the space

Visitors to Lena’s Wood Fired Pizza & Tap in Alexandria, Va., might be forgiven for wondering if they’ve accidentally wandered into an elegant party. To keep patrons safe and comply with social distancing requirements, Lena’s worked with Katie Kirby of Baltimore-based Revolution Event Design and Production to create Lena’s Oasis, an outdoor dining area that exudes a sophisticated vibe.

“My job as event producer is to celebrate moments,” Kirby says. “Now, it’s how to do it safely.”

Kirby and her team erected a large tent on top of a parking deck, divided it with sheer fabric walls and added flooring, colorful chairs, glitzy lights and lots of greenery. “Customers can distance but still feel like they’re part of something,” she says. “You feel like you’re invited to best party in town.”

Some projects focus on both fun and safety. At Fish Tales Bar & Grill in Maryland, Revolution Events turned inflated inner tubes into single-person tables. Patrons stand in the middle of the inner tubes, automatically placing themselves several feet from everyone else. “The bumper tables are way to bring some joy back to the state of world,” Kirby says.

In the Netherlands, Mediamatic ETEN offers its patrons the chance to dine within a Serre Séparée, or a greenhouse that can accommodate about two diners. A row of the tiny structures has been placed along the Amsterdam waterfront. “The Serres Séparées are primarily an art project that's reinventing intimacy in times of social distancing,” says spokesperson Tobias Servaas. “You feel alone with your dining partner but can still see the world around you.

Mediamatic, an art center, had used the greenhouses for previous projects and had them in storage. “When the lockdown came, the idea to have our restaurant in them came very naturally,” Servaas says.

Netherlands dining
Mediamatic ETEN in the Netherlands

Finding the fun

Fast-food restaurant Burger King launched giant versions of its paper crowns in Germany, when restaurants reopened after several months of offering only take-out or drive-through. The crowns also are available in Malaysia, Thailand, and several other countries, says Diego Suarez, head of global brand marketing. “Guests have enjoyed and embraced the campaign,” he says, noting that customers filled social media feeds with pictures of them wearing the massive crowns.

When beer company Dos Equis offered “seis-foot” coolers as limited-edition promotional items, all were claimed within a few minutes, says Edith Llerena, senior brand manager with the company, a division of Heineken. To win one, consumers uploaded receipts showing a Dos Equis purchase. Winners were determined on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Despite the uncertain circumstances, summer is not cancelled,” Llerena says. The coolers “allow consumers to still enjoy an ice-cold Dos Equis with friends while still being responsible.”

Creative thinking

While it’s unlikely many restaurants have custom-built greenhouses languishing in their storerooms, it’s possible to facilitate social distancing in ways that don’t break the budget yet are inviting, Kirby says. Lena’s Oasis is “extravagant but not crazy,” she says: For instance, the dividers at Lena’s are made of fabric Kirby had on hand.

CG & Co Events social distancing venue
Lena’s Oasis in Alexandria, Va.

It’s possible to create a more modest but still welcoming environment on a smaller budget. “It’s about being creative and thinking outside the box, because no one knows where the box is anymore,” Kirby says.

Moreover, many event production companies are — like numerous other businesses — looking for ways to jumpstart their businesses. “Help is out there if you don’t what doing,” she says. And the payoff can be substantial: Since the launch of Lena’s Oasis, Kirby says, “you can’t get in.”

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