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Embracing flexibility: Tim McDougald on post-pandemic design

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The FCSI Associate and project manager with Clevenger Associates reflects on changes to the world of foodservice design as it emerges from the pandemic

I know it seems like a cliché, and we’ve been talking about this non-stop for months now, but as the world starts to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, being flexible with designs is probably the single most important topic of conversation taking place these days. From a design standpoint this has never had such a profound impact on our view of things, and its high time we start widening that vision.

Operators expect us to know the answers to questions they don’t, such as “what has Covid done to the industry?” Sometimes they look to us to discover what questions need to be asked in the first place.

Not the end of the salad bar

Having worked on several large B&I projects throughout the pandemic timeframe – I started the bulk of these in what I like to call the ‘before days’ – I’ve seen a massive shift to the lowly salad bar. Though there was a time where the general consensus was that the salad bar was dead, a remnant of an era of days past, I held firm to my belief that it would make a comeback, and I based that on a couple factors.

First, people want to serve themselves. The general public, at least those who frequent salad bars and buffets, do so because they want the freedom of their own choice, clear down to amounts. The need to tell a server what items you’d like removes that freedom, or at least the feeling of the freedom anyway. It’s simply not the same.

Second, from an operator perspective, it’s simply too costly to staff those venues. Some B&I serveries have very popular salad bars, in some cases accounting for 60% of all foodservice transactions. If you suddenly have to account for staffing for 60% of all transactions when those transactions were unstaffed before, that’s a massive impact on payroll budgets. In the end, something must give. So being flexible in designs that can “pivot” from operator service to self-service is paramount.

New design demands

Another thing I’m seeing on the ground level is a change in the concept designs. Operators are demanding some sort of outdoor space where they can serve customers. The closure of indoor dining and the impact that event had on many concepts was far too great to ignore.

I have one contact who owns a simple coffee shop and café and when they began designing their second location, they insisted that it include an outdoor dining space because, in their words, “We’re not doing that complete shutdown thing ever again”. Understanding the demands and the needs of the operator is where our value as foodservice consultants comes in.

The other thing that has had major lasting impacts is the off-premise dining program. So many concepts were simply caught off guard and unable to make that transition, while others implemented programs that were, at best, sub-par. I’m excluding fast-food and fast-casual from this conversation because those places were literally built for that kind of situation. Most of them had to make zero changes, while others made changes to accommodate the quickly growing percentage of transactions.

But the average restaurant struggled heavily with this, because off-premise dining wasn’t part of the original concept. So they rushed to implement programs that were met with varying degrees of success. As designers, we need to be thinking that through like never before, and asking, “What’s the off-premise program? How are we handling those orders? How are we holding those orders? How are we making sure the rest of the design accounts for the impact of those orders?”

Have you sat in a restaurant lately and watched order after order go out the door while you wait, and wait, and wait for your meal to arrive at your table? Frustrating, isn’t it? Making sure that we are accounting for both avenues in our design is paramount.

Planning for all these things during the design phase will ensure a better flowing operation come opening day. Being able to widen our vision beyond what we’ve always seen and known is what separates good design from average.

Tim McDougald