How has the Covid pandemic changed the way we eat out?

From mask-wearing to QR codes, the restaurant experience will be different for the foreseeable future

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The Covid-19 pandemic brought about a massive change in the ways we live, work, play – and dine.

The virus and its fallout resulted in changes to every aspect of our lives, not least our social lives. Among the biggest shifts was how we eat.

As global lockdowns ensued, popping into a local cafe for lunch or dinner with friends was put on hold. Dining out, if allowed, became a lonelier and less sociable experience. Instead, 2020 became the year of carry-outs and cooking.

With social distancing still in place and health and hygiene standards under the spotlight as never before, there is no doubt Covid-19 will have a lasting effect on dining. But as countries gradually reopen, restaurant tables are being booked and chefs are back doing what they do best.

Here’s a look at some of the trends that arose from the pandemic.

Delivery apps and QR codes

A heavy reliance on technology was one of the biggest themes to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As people working from home shifted to Zoom and Microsoft Teams for business meetings, the dining world took advantage of the digital approach to life.

Cash was discouraged and contactless payment took hold.

Necip Camcigil, who founded One Life Kitchen in Dubai Design District, said the radical change in consumer preference towards online ordering had persisted, even when restaurants opened again for dine-in custom.

Dining in the UAE:

“In terms of changes to the dining space, legally we have had to spread out tables for social distancing reasons, so from that perspective there is more space inside,” he said.

“We also introduced QR codes on the tabletops, where customers can place their order through a mobile application without speaking to a staff member.”

In most cases, ordering went online. Customers browsed dishes on their phones instead of passing menus from person to person.

Safety comes first for diners

The pandemic has greatly changed the perspective of the diners about their eating experiences.

Rohith Muralya is a director at SFC Group, which owns a number of restaurants in Dubai including 49ers, Manhattan Cafe and Just Dosa.

He said diners now seek restaurants that are “extremely transparent about their cleanliness procedures”.

Disinfectant at entrance and exit points are now commonplace across the emirate.

Staff members also don masks and, in some establishments gloves, to limit the spread of Covid-19.

“Restaurants have had to invest in more single-use menus, disposable cutlery, hand-sanitising stations and masks and gloves to the staff uniform,” he said.

“All the above have been done to ensure the diners’ safety and make them feel at peace as they dine out with their friends and family.”

Mr Camcigil said customers are now “inspecting restaurants in terms of standards of hygiene” and are more inclined to give feedback if they don’t feel comfortable with the way masks are worn or tables wiped down.

Dining al fresco more in demand than ever

When lockdowns lifted and the hospitality sector had the green light reopen, in some parts of the world dining outside was the only option.

As such, restaurants invested in refurbishing or introducing outside eating areas.

The move made people feel more comfortable as being in the open air reduced the risk of coronavirus transmission.

In some cities, planning rules were waived to allow restaurants to place chairs and tables on pavements and pedestrianised roads, to give diners more space.

Panchali Mahendra is the general manager of Atelier House, a hospitality consultancy in the US and UAE.

“Whether NYC or Dubai, outside seating and investing in the look and feel became more important,” she said.

“Many times, owners ignore horticulture but the pandemic taught me [to have] an eye for detail and we wanted our guests to feel the value for money and service and ambience, even whilst seated outside.”

Customer interaction has taken a hit

While most of the changes to come from the pandemic have had a positive impact on the dining out experience – with cleanliness and convenience top of the list – face-to-face interaction has taken a hit.

Restaurateurs and managers said communication between staff and guests had become strained at times by social distancing etiquette and face masks.

Mr Camcigil, from One Life Kitchen, said that when restaurants reopened, he noticed an increase in mistakes being made during the order process.

“It would be simple things like mishearing what a customer asked for and bringing them something different,” he said.

“People were understanding because it was a new experience for us all, communicating via masks, but now we have learnt to triple-check orders with guests.

“It’s not fun having to shout through a mask and it has taken away a bit of that personal customer service experience.”

Updated: August 05, 2021, 11:54 AM