In Part 1 I explained why I think using restaurant dining rooms for their intended purpose during a pandemic is a bad idea. For restaurant operators stuck without a dining room full of customers, making up for all of that lost revenue is an unbelievably tough challenge. Some restaurants just won’t be able to find an alternate revenue stream. Others will eke out a meager existence on reduced revenues from take-out and delivery.
The idea we’ll look at today requires an investment of capital up front to make it a reality, and I know that’s not going to be a good fit for every operator out there, but for those with access to capital, or who can team up with others in the business to pull together funding on a partnership, this might be worth considering.
💡I’ve Got an Idea…
Food kiosks of the kind you find at malls, airports, and campuses make a good hack for our purposes here because they’re like tiny kitchens for churning out food and/or beverages. Sometimes the items being served are prepared in a commissary and shipped to the kiosk to be finished and served, while other times very simple meals can be prepared entirely within the kiosk. Kiosks are designed to be safe and sanitary food prep areas that drop into larger spaces which may or may not have been originally intended to be safe and sanitary food prep spaces.
I think an emptied out dining room makes a great host for one or more food kiosks. The alterations needed for the kiosk can be done while the existing kitchen is still up and running. These kiosks can expand an existing menu or take off in entirely new directions with different cuisines and offerings for customers. The kiosks could be rented out to chefs for doing pop-up take-out or delivery shops, or even act as in-house ghost kitchens for delivery concepts that exist only online (and only during the pandemic). For spaces that can accommodate more than one kiosk, there’s even the possibility of dressing up the kiosks with branding and creating miniature food halls where customers could schedule a visit (to control distancing) and peruse the different offerings at each kiosk. The restaurant’s existing kitchen keeps pumping out food too, or it could shift to act as a commissary for the kiosk(s).
The existing kitchen can also handle ware washing for the kiosk(s), or, depending on the food and/or beverage that the kiosks would be churning out, act as additional storage space.
I think that the dining room offers an opportunity to provide storage space too with rolling shelving units and refrigerator units. If the local health officials require it, a smaller, empty kiosk could be provided to house the added storage and provide sanitary surrounding surfaces for the stored goods.
Keeping it Cheap
Obviously, this needs to be quick and cheap to ROI for a restaurant that’s lost some/all of its revenue. As discussed in Part 1, we should be looking at a minimum of two years in this setup. Here’s how I see it working on the cheap:
- Plan, Plan, Plan: The less money you have to spend, the more carefully you must plan. The restauranteur and architect get together to map out what fits in the dining room and what kinds of food and beverage that would support. This planning informs the scope of work for the dining room (what needs to be moved, changed, etc.). Placement of the kiosk(s) in the dining room has significant impact on their final cost (see utilities section below). Also, everything that goes into this effort needs to be able to fit through the front door, so no large equipment or parts either.
- Get Your AHJ to Work with You: This is the one time in recent history that building and health officials are going to be extra flexible and understanding, which is a great incentive to meet with them early and often about your kiosk ideas and use their flexibility to make these temporary arrangements an affordable reality for your restaurant.
- (Very) Selective Demolition: It’s time to pull crap out of the dining room so we can start making it into a revenue generator.
- Freestanding furniture is easy, just move it out. It can come back when the pandemic is over.
- Fixed furniture and low walls can be removed by a finish carpenter or even a GC’s laborer quick and easy. It took can go right back where it was after all this is done.
- Hanging light fixtures can be taken down with their wiring capped so that they can go back up when the dining room is a dining room again.
- Do You Want a Pickup Window? These can be a good way to make pickup easy for the general public and the delivery services. It also helps reduce the number of people in your space, which can reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Restaurants with storefront systems can easily modify an existing pane with an operable window for not too much moolah. If the restaurant has a vestibule, that could be repurposed during business hours as a sort of pickup window too. A third option is to tack on a temporary vestibule of aluminum and canvas outside of the front door and handle pickups there.
- Get Utilities Ready: Part of planning your kiosk concept needs to be keeping its equipment lineup as simple as possible. Not only does this save money on the cost of the equipment, but it saves on modifying your existing utilities (water, sewer, natural gas, electricity, and telecom). Keep the focus on small, countertop appliances that run on 120V electricity if you can.
- Electricity is quick and easy to extend into the dining room overhead (you may even be able to use an abandoned light fixture’s junction box in some cases.
- The most challenging part for the utilities is going to be hand sink coverage for your kiosk(s). In some layouts, it may be possible to share a nearby hand sink with the existing kitchen. But when you have to add one, be smart about placement (this alone should drive placement of the kiosk to help save money). Water can be brought in overhead easily. The sewer will likely need to be trenched in the floor (unless there’s a floor below the restaurant) from a nearby sewer line to the kiosk — this is why it’s important to place the kiosk in the dining room based on proximity to the existing sewer line. Patching floor finishes (tile, carpet, etc.) can be dealt with now if budget permits or later when the dining room goes back to normal.
- Bring in the Kiosk(s): Depending on where you are in the country, it may be cheaper to build the kiosk on site or it may cost less to have it prefabricated in a millwork shop and then brought onto the site, so investigate early in your planning for the cheapest option. Another consideration is whether it’s cheaper for the kiosk to have its own ceiling supported by posts in the kiosk walls or to suspend a ceiling over it from the existing dining room’s ceiling. The kiosk will need its own floor, which can be simple plywood decking with foodservice-grade sheet vinyl flooring adhered to the top. If you brace the kiosk’s side walls properly, you’ll need minimal anchorage into the existing floor. If you’re not going the food hall route mentioned above, the kiosk construction can be really simple and cheap, it doesn’t have to be anything pretty, this is about adding foodservice preparation areas to expand menu offerings.
There’s my two cents on rejiggering restaurant dining rooms during the pandemic. If people are interested, I’ll model this solution in a mocked up dining room so we can visualize the madness.