Updated April 28, 2020 - 9:31 am
Lotus of Siam co-owner Penny Chutima started planning for the coronavirus pandemic in January because her mother, chef and co-owner Saipin Chutima, pays attention to the news from Asia.
“So we were aware,” Penny Chutima said. “We were following it constantly: ‘Hey, this is pretty serious.’ ”
She recognized the virus’ potential for danger, knowing she’d have to adopt new practices to ensure the safety of her customers and staff.
“I probably ordered about 1,000 masks for my employees at that time,” as well as hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and other supplies, she said. She launched the new policies around the end of January. Employees were required to wear masks. They ramped up sanitizing practices, including wiping down each menu after every use.
If the Chutimas were in the minority of owners who recognized the severity of what was to come, the statewide shutdown has underscored the notion that, at least in the near term, their businesses will not be the same.
Penny Chutima plans to accelerate even more. She’s talking to a company about installing a thermal-imaging camera to screen anyone who enters the restaurant and planning pickup lockers for takeout orders. People on the waiting list will be able to wait in their cars, with a text telling them when a table is available.
“We can’t tell how the market will change,” she said. “We’re probably going to limit our menu and do a single-page printout.”
Tom Kaplan, senior managing partner of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, said the company will enact increased anti-virus practices, including the mandatory wearing of masks for both staff and customers.
“Between now and the time we open, I think we’re all going to start feeling more comfortable, or accepting that that’s the right thing to do,” he said. “As awkward as it seems, by the time we’re ready to open, it’ll be more commonplace.”
Restrooms are another issue, Kaplan said.
“We need to have a restroom monitor” in cases where the rooms aren’t scaled for one. “We might end up putting a lock on the door.”
The action in the dining room and the kitchen will be at a much less frenetic pace, he said, and much calmer, because of social distancing.
“Menus themselves will become more finite,” he said. “We will have the same-size kitchen, but with more space (between workers), we won’t have the same production. You can only prep so much food. People are going to be looking for the most dramatic food, and we have to be extraordinarily price-sensitive.”
They plan to offer meal kits, which dine-in customers will be able to take home.
Kaplan said he’s considering posting the restaurants’ protocols in view of both employees and guests to avoid any confusion.
Bryce Krausman, owner of DW Bistro at The Gramercy, is calling this period “The Great Restaurant Pivot of 2020.” In addition to having reduced capacity, which is likely to be a government mandate, he’ll limit parties to no more than eight to 10. He’s thinking of installing a sink off the dining room so customers can wash their hands without entering the restroom. Employees will wear masks, and he’s considering some DW Bistro-branded designs. He’s converting an area that was event space for the handling of grab-and-go food.
“A lot of friends I speak to who used to eat out a lot are going to limit the times they eat out,” he said, so branded meal kits, some complete with virtual classes, are in the works.
Ben Sabouri, owner of Founders Coffee at 6410 S. Durango Drive, said he’s monitoring the conventional wisdom.
“Cleanliness seems to be the No. 1 priority,” he said. “Touch points, surfaces — along those lines. The priority is making sure both our team members and our guests feel safe, with the most stringent level of cleaning we could possibly have.”
Some changes will be less obvious.
“Gone are the days that when you go to the restroom, somebody’s going to fold your napkin,” said Elizabeth Blau, whose restaurants include Andiron Steak & Sea in Downtown Summerlin, Honey Salt at 1031 S. Rampart Blvd. and Buddy V’s Ristorante in the Grand Canal Shoppes. “Some of those service standards may be gone forever. That might not be a bad thing.”
And Blau speculated on something that’s not a part of her restaurants.
“I think buffets will be forever changed,” she said. “I don’t think serving in its current form makes any sense; there’s too much risk for contamination. I think Wicked Spoon at The Cosmopolitan was already very clever, with pre-plated dishes. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that type of thing.”
Kaplan said it will be important for those in the industry to err on the side of caution.
“The sooner we show the community and the world we’re safe, even if it takes a little bit of a ramp-up,” he said, “we’ll be able to grow the business and put everybody back to work.”