The hospitality industry has taken a massive hit with hotels and restaurants seeing sudden declines due to COVID-19, forcing some to close their doors for good. While some restaurants have remained open for takeout and delivery, providing literal comfort food for anyone hungry for some semblance of normalcy, we’re wondering what comes next as statewide measures to “reopen” are explored?

Predicting the long-term effects of this pandemic on building codes and safety regulations is a challenge, especially in states like California where the Building Standards Code was newly published in January and isn’t due for another update until 2023. Owners are seeking professionals to help them optimize or update properties to meet programmatic goals. For architects, our primary task from a design perspective is working within the confines of the laws protecting the health, safety, and welfare of occupants in built environments.

While we’re leading the charge by adjusting to newly prioritized considerations—adequate circulation space for social distancing, contactless fixtures, advanced HVAC filtration systems, etc.—we’re also waiting for the dust to settle before the new “normal” for our industry is defined. Barring off-year amendments to building codes, or special legislation, new “standards” around pandemic design requiring immediate, costly changes are not on the horizon. However, when your business depends on a customer’s comfort with face-to-face interaction, a “wait-and-see” approach could mean risking it all.

The main driver will be short-term pivots focused on safety and sanitation. The industry-wide obsession with guest experience will shape responses in coming months as managing perception and boosting confidence remains a top priority. Besides the operational changes, like stricter cleaning regimens, social distance markers, uniform updates to include face masks and gloves, tamper-sealed food delivery containers, and a return to favor for disposable products, design changes may also take shape as restaurants plan for the return of sit-down guests.

More Room, and More Air to Breathe

One thing to remember is the safety and comfort of employees, in addition to guests. For quick-service restaurants, the risk seems relatively low for customers making short visits to pick-up food. Even if guests spend approximately 30 minutes eating on-site, their exposure is considerably smaller than employees working an eight-hour shift. Bathrooms and kitchens are the only areas required to have 100 percent exhausted air, however, incorporating advanced HVAC systems supporting entire facilities could limit the amount of shared air among occupants.

Restaurants must also provide adequate space for customers to socially distance. While occupancy limits have always existed, staying profitable while breaking away from maximum density models may be challenging. Limiting back-of-house footprints to allow for more front of house programming, as well as limiting employee headcount could make up for smaller crowds. Incorporating takeout spaces and reconfiguring outdoor or open-air seating will also be  priorities. Municipal programs supporting flexibility in sidewalk and street encroachment, as seen in Oakland and Berkeley, could provide businesses some relief.

Distanced by Design

Gone are the days of reaching over the bar to grab a napkin. As restaurants adapt in response to COVID-19, physical distancing can be achieved not just by adding new elements like plexiglass guards at ordering counters, but by extending barriers that already exist. Bar tops may become deeper, sneeze guards may become taller (if salad and hot food bars aren’t eliminated altogether), and queuing spaces may become wider.

We may also see partitions added between booths and tables and a shift away from benched communal seating found in food halls, beer gardens, and cafeteria-style environments.

Back of House Design, Front of House Application

For the restaurant industry, safety and sanitation standards have long been in place for back-of-house spaces. An anticipated shift would be to see these standards implemented in guest-facing areas. For sit-down restaurants, this includes moving away from soft surfaces like cushions, drapes and carpeting, or porous hard surfaces like wood, granite, and certain plastics and tiles, in favor of nonporous choices like stainless steel, porcelain, laminate, and solid surface. Quick-service establishments will continue to specify easy to clean, plastic-based fabrics.

The trend of open kitchen design, which has typically been used to create a connection between a diner and their food or to leverage the entertainment factor of watching food be prepared might take on new meaning as customers seek greater visibility into back of house cleanliness. In quick-service restaurants, we may see a greater adoption of the line approach with meals prepared directly in front of guests.

Innovating the Approach

Beyond visual markers to promote social distancing, restaurants might consider large-scale operational changes requiring design consideration. For example, new walk-up windows for takeout, pass-through stations to limit travel time from kitchen to table, and digital menus at parking stalls for carside service. We’ll see more deliberate consideration of traffic flow, including specific doors for entry or exit, reconfiguring how guests queue and wait for their orders, the proximity of restroom facilities, and how guests access dining areas.

Restaurants may adopt app-based technologies allowing for easier preordering, contactless pick-up, claiming a place in line, or limiting guests’ time in dining rooms. We could see a greater reliance on one-time use materials, or a larger variety, such as cardboard trays for eating in your car or at a nearby park. We may even see more widespread or permanent adoption of relaxed laws for to-go alcohol orders.

Restaurant options might become more segmented, resulting in both higher and lower cost options to offset fewer guests and less dense dining rooms. While this could have great impact on mid-price “mom and pop” establishments, brands of all sizes will have to work towards flexibility in both design prototypes and business models to be agile in response to changing needs.

Where are we Heading?

Design is ultimately an ever-changing response to the needs of our society. Our collective response to post-pandemic life may seem clumsy, but we are experiencing the same growing pains we always have when faced with a new challenge. While the global scale and urgency may be unprecedented when stacked up against recent memory, in time public spaces will return to normal function—expertly curated to go totally unnoticed by the end user.

Richard Layugan, Senior Job Captain at Lowney Architecture, works on tenant improvement, interior design, and new construction design projects for restaurant, hospitality, retail, and commercial office clients. He can be reached at To evaluate solutions for an existing property, or discuss plans for your new space, please contact Richard or another member of the Lowney Architecture team at 510-836-5400.

Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story