Grab a drink! Let’s peruse Architecture’s PPP Data!

The federal PPP bailout program’s loan data from the first round of stimulus has been made public by the SBA and conveniently compiled into a searchable database by ProPublica here.

In my nerdy opinion, this is as much (if not more) fun during these boring times when everything is shut down as a good Netflix binge. I started late one night and stayed up way too late because it was so fascinating. Here’s some quick highlights:

  • The great news is that our beloved profession was likely able to preserve thousands of jobs because of PPP 👏🏻
  • I’m guessing there’s a lot of paperwork errors in this data — there was a rush to get applications filed and you can see some stuff that just has to be wrong like big firms with hundreds of staff saying zero jobs retained or roofing companies categorized as “architectural services”

Juicy Tidbits

Here’s a link to ProPublica’s database that takes you straight to all of the architecture firms who took more than $150K in PPP moolah.

The Restaurant Dining Room Design Dilemma – Part 2

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.

The Restaurant Dining Room Design Dilemma – Part 1

I’ve resisted writing on how restaurant design could be modified during the COVID-19 pandemic even though I’ve been keeping myself up-to-date on all of the latest science and design trends out there. The science of how this disease spreads and case examples are fascinating to me. But this science also reveals a harsh new reality when it comes to the restaurant dining room.

The Bad News

It’s not that I haven’t tried writing about designing restaurants for safety in a pandemic — I have — multiple times even. It’s just that I come to the same conclusion each time: a restaurant dining room is no place for anyone to be during a pandemic, period.

That’s the depressing truth and unless some new scientific discoveries are made around how COVID-19 spreads, it will remain the cold, hard truth. Few spaces that architects design are as ideally suited to aid in the transmission of a wildly contagious disease that spreads though airborne respiratory droplets that people naturally expel (and inhale) like a restaurant dining room. Everything about dining rooms are ideal for COVID-19 transmission: lots of people packed into a room for a few hours at a time, lots of talking or even shouting over the din of background noise and music, and no way to use face masks. We shouldn’t be using dining rooms in the time of coronavirus.

I didn’t always feel this way, but as I dug into the science and tried to apply it to design, I quickly changed my mind. Spending time rejiggering dining rooms with shields and spread-out tables and whatever else is a waste of time.

Based on the current understanding of how the virus spreads, outdoor dining is a workable idea in theory, but it could quickly devolve into a situation almost as dangerous as the indoor dining rooms. Some of the ways outdoor dining becomes unsafe include:

  • Lax discipline in seating layouts. Spacing groups is super important, even outdoors. Restaurant operators have always had a tendency to pack people in to maximize seating — that’s a tough habit to break.
  • Restroom facilities can quickly become virus spreaders. Restrooms are always the weakest link in outdoor dining and poor management of the movement of people in and out of them can make it even worse.
  • Restrictive tent structures. It’s important to understand how tents, canopies and even large umbrellas impact natural air circulation around a patio dining area. The most aggressive approaches use tents with side walls which is no better than an indoor dining room.
  • The longtime trend of opening up dining rooms to the outdoors using articulated wall products like NanaWall does not make those spaces “outdoor dining.” But if you try to tell that to any operator who dropped change on these designs, you’ll get shot down faster than you can say respiratory droplets.

The Good News

We’ll be able to use restaurant dining rooms again someday, hopefully sooner than later. In the meantime, we need to combine the energy and resiliency of the restaurant world with the creativity of restaurant architects. Pour all of this energy and effort into everything BUT dining room modifications!

When considering how architecture can help restaurants get through the pandemic without using their dining rooms, it’s important to keep in mind what we understand about how long this outbreak will last. No one can say for certain when it will be over, but all of the informed guesses out there suggest it’s not going to be over in 2020 or 2021. Even if a vaccine is developed, that will take considerable time to deploy and then for populations to then develop herd immunity. My point is, we should be considering design interventions and investment in those interventions that reflect longer terms than just a few months. Whatever we design will be a solution that we need to live with for a while. Avoiding coronagrifting must be our top priority when brainstorming alternative ways for restaurants to make up for the lack of on-premises dining. Otherwise, everything’s on the table.

The reality is that unless restaurant dining rooms are banned outright by some level of government, some restauranteurs will continue to be tempted to make a go of it, despite safety concerns. This too is a design opportunity, because everything we come up with as an alternative to the dining room should be evaluated against the way that dining room worked under the original business plan minus whatever impact from operating at a reduced capacity. Those that work within or even exceed in-place business plans are the alternatives we need to start rolling out.

Part of the good news here is that the kitchens are generally safe places to work during the pandemic — they have all the necessary infrastructure for avoiding the virus since they were designed to be well ventilated and sanitary from the start. Add in some specific protocols for COVID-19 and you can still crank out food for take-out or delivery quite safely. So, with these parameters in mind, we can explore alternate uses for those dining rooms that still drive income or relieve expenses.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a look at one possibility that I keep coming back to as I reflect on alternate uses for the dining room.