How Sustainable Is Socially Distant Dining?

While eating out during the pandemic go the distance? One writer has been thinking about that a lot.
socially distant dining
What will socially distant dining look like in the months to come?

As a food writer, I eat out a lot. And I talk a lot when I eat out, too, especially to chefs and servers. I do this because food is my portal: Food is how I understand people, culture, and cities. But sometimes, a meal is so good, and the energy is so overwhelming in a restaurant, that I forget about my reporting and disappear into my plate.

This happened to me a few days before the pandemic hit in mid-March when I dined at Selden Standard for the first time. I ordered the lamb kafta, which was perfect, but what I loved about that evening was the way I felt inside the restaurant. My wife is a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, and I spend part of the year there. Maine is arguably the whitest state in America, and when I eat out in Portland, where she lives, I often feel unwelcome. Sometimes I try to make my body and voice smaller, so that, as a person of color, I don’t stick out as much, but it never works. At Selden Standard, though, I could forget about those anxieties, because most people in the room looked like me. I sat at the chef’s counter and spent most of the evening talking with one of the line cooks. I don’t remember his name — this pandemic has exhausted my memory — but I can’t forget the bond he and I shared, of us both being brown men navigating life in a changing America.

That’s sort of why I eat out — to find community. I kept trying to replicate this experience at the start of the pandemic. When Covid-19 first hit the state, I drove to Hamido, my favorite Lebanese spot in all of Michigan, to grab a chicken shawarma, but as I sat in the parking lot eating in my car, it just wasn’t the same. I missed sitting inside, watching Arabic TV, taking in the sights and sounds of Dearborn. Dining out, I came to realize, was changing and perhaps would never be the same. So I tried something new: I redefined my ideas about eating out, in much the same way that restaurants have had to redefine themselves.

In reaching out to restaurants to understand what they were going through, what struck me was how much restaurants are doing — and spending — to adapt. Evan Hansen, a partner at Selden Standard, told me the restaurant now has large French doors that open up to Second Avenue “effectively creating a second outdoor space.” This, coupled with an outdoor patio, allows for diners to sit 6 feet apart. Hansen says Selden Standard will “certainly invest in some measures like space heaters to extend the patio season a bit come fall.”

Before the pandemic and the need for socially distant dining, he says the restaurant could seat around 120 people. The outdoor patio allows it to keep that number about the same, but as soon as outdoor dining is closed, it will only be able to accommodate around 65 people. Most restaurant owners say that if they’re lucky, they’re able to accommodate 50 percent of their usual capacity due to social distancing restrictions. And as soon as the weather turns, jackets and heating lamps won’t cut it for many diners. The number will drop even lower when patios shut down entirely. Less seating, inevitably, means less revenue.

Restaurants that have opened outdoor spaces have done so at a huge financial cost. Mike Ransom, the chef and owner of the popular noodle chain Ima, recently shared with Brenna Houck of Eater Detroit that adding outdoor seating, in addition to closing and reopening, has been financially taxing, almost matching the cost of opening a new restaurant from scratch.

For some restaurants, outdoor dining is simply not possible, either because of logistics or cost. In Hamtramck, several places, including Balkan House, have been offering indoor dining as long as diners observe social distance. But according to Razi Jafri, who’s making a documentary about Hamtramck, some restaurants are considering shutting down indoor dining because they’re worried that COVID-19 can spread through microscopic respiratory droplets in enclosed spaces. As a workaround, restaurant owners have come up with innovative approaches. The popular brunch eatery Folk added a charming walk-up window. The celebrated Moroccan spot Saffron De Twah is sticking to curbside pickup, at least for now.

Things will continue to be uncertain this fall, and some restaurants may not be able to survive. According to new data from Toast, a popular restaurant technology company, revenue at Detroit restaurants was down 64 percent this July compared to last year. In April, when the pandemic first hit, restaurants suffered an 80 percent drop. Detroit is also experiencing a slower recovery in the restaurant industry than many other cities, Toast reports.

If I’m being honest, I don’t think socially distant dining is sustainable. I wish I could say it is, but I look at the numbers — and the health risks — and I just don’t see it working. At the start of the pandemic, I kept thinking it was our responsibility as customers to keep restaurants alive. I bought gift certificates from restaurants, donated to Patreon campaigns for restaurant workers, and ordered a bunch of take-out meals. But now I realize that for restaurants to survive, the government needs to step in and offer relief. Until then, what we can do, I believe, is to change our expectations as diners and to be more empathetic about what restaurant owners and workers are having to endure in these surreal times.    

Zahir Janmohamed is a Zell writing fellow at the University of Michigan and co-founder of the James Beard-nominated podcast Racist Sandwich.   

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