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COVID means restaurant designers also have to do things differently

Updated September 14, 2020 - 1:20 pm

Larry Ward remembers those halcyon pre-pandemic days when restaurant designers only had to worry about a specific set of guidelines.

“Prior to the whole COVID thing taking its grip, everything was pretty much mainstream, really based on what the building’s code occupancy required,” said Ward, one of the principal owners of WHL Design Group in Las Vegas.

But that was then; this is now.

“We’ve had to be cognizant of following what the new directive is carefully,” Ward said, “because it’s been a moving target as far as the restrictions.”

People of many walks of life are facing the challenges of the era, working to meet standards that help ensure restaurant customers and employees stay safe and healthy, and those who design the spots where we dine out are among them.

Vincent Celano said it’s all about remembering the mission of hospitality: making people comfortable.

“What’s changed is that people want to feel like they’re being taken care of, but also that they’re safe,” said Celano, founder and CEO of Celano Design Inc. of New York, who has Las Vegas projects including inside the future Resorts World. “Restaurants are doing things proactively to accommodate that in a way that doesn’t take away from the experience.”

Sometimes, that’s relatively straightforward. When Nora’s Italian Cuisine co-owner Marcello Mauro approached Kevin Kraft of By Dzign in Las Vegas, which plans and produces events, for a creative way of enforcing social distancing in the first days after reopening, Kraft had an idea. He produced mural-sized photos of the interior of the restaurant.

“We did printed dividers and wooden wall dividers so his occupancy could be higher,” Kraft said. “If they have dividers, they don’t have to be 6 feet apart.”

Ward said designers have to think about how things are and how things will be when the pandemic finally ends. He produced two designs for businesses such as Served Global Cuisine, which is expected to open in Henderson next month.

“We had to go back and look at the space plans and the bar capacity,” he said, “based on what would be allowed in normal times, and then go in and redesign that down to a 50 percent layout — strategically, so it doesn’t look like it’s missing part of the design. It’ll basically look as if it was designed that way intentionally.”

Ward said the owner can wait to purchase things he or she will need post-pandemic, like a sufficient number of tables and chairs, or acquire them now and put them in storage. That way the restaurant doesn’t have empty, roped-off tables. Things like plastic dividing screens for point-of-sale areas and hygienic menus are other considerations.

Sheldon Colen, leader of the architectural and design team at SCA Design in Las Vegas, said some restaurants, including the Sickies Garage Burgers & Brews at Town Square that his company recently designed, have acquired more space for al fresco dining for customers wary of eating indoors.

Celano said that’s the case on the East Coast as well.

“Specifically in New York it’s been really tough because the outdoor space is somewhat limited,” he said. “We’re in Madison Square Park in Manhattan; Broadway around the corner from us is closed and it’s just pedestrians. The level of creativity of some of these outdoor patio areas, it’s amazing. You’d think you’re in Italy.”

Celano said he thinks one thing that may outlast the pandemic is a trend toward more outdoor dining.

Colen said restaurants also are looking for ways to more effectively accommodate takeout and delivery.

“People who had no desire to do a drive-thru window in their design are now looking at drive-thru windows,” he said.

Another effect he’s seeing: Those with sufficient capital are looking for larger spaces so they can accommodate more people, taking into account capacity restrictions.

“You’re hearing that offices are downsizing,” Colen said. “Restaurants now are looking at how they’re going to accommodate more people. This isn’t going to last forever, but we don’t know how long it’s going to last, and these people have to survive.”

Celano said many restaurant owners have long had some flexibility, as in the case of private dining rooms that can be converted to regular dining.

“They’re trying to be smart,” he said. “It’s about responding to the now and accommodating the next few months/year, but also thinking long term.

“I always say good things come out of some of the bad. Things like sterilizing, being mindful of cleanliness, are so important. That’s something that’s going to change. We’re all thinking about 9/11. How did we change the way we live because of what happened? I think the same thing’s going to happen because of this pandemic. I think it’s going to be part of life.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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