Creative entrepreneurs in the hospitality and culinary industry are responding to what is becoming the new norm by designing alternative food experiences. While some entrepreneurs are responding with temporary solutions for the current regulations, others are testing new concepts towards a 1.5-meter economy. What could this social distance mitigation process mean for the way we cook, dine, and gather?

Eating in solitude in a one-table restaurant

The concept of eating alone, in a restaurant, may sound rather gloomy for many of us who associate eating out with eating together. However, one couple in Sweden, Rasmus Persson and Linda Karlsson, has decided to respond to COVID-19 with an eating experience of solitude. Next month they are opening a pop-up restaurant designed for these socially distant times – a one-table restaurant.

Bor för en, a table for one in the Swedish meadow

Bord för en, or table for one, is an outdoor restaurant located in Ransäter, Värmland, in west central Sweden. Persson and Karlsson came up with the idea after serving Karlsson’s at-risk parents, who came for a visit a few weeks ago, a meal in their garden to avoid any risk of containment. The restaurant will have one table and one chair set up in a meadow about 50 yards away from their house (where the food will be cooked), and only one guest will be accepted per day. There won’t be any servers, either. Instead, meals will be delivered via a rope-operated basket from the kitchen window.

The price for the menu will be voluntary, and something each guest decides for themselves. 

‘Serres Separees’ – separation and intimacy with a twist

Mediamatic, center for nature, biology and art in Amsterdam, has been reinspired by contamination precautions to redesign togetherness in its restaurant. Mediamatic is testing a new eating experience in small greenhouse dining rooms for two. This concept would protect customers from the outside and others while offering a unique experience of intimate dining.

Photo courtesy of Mediamatic/Willem Velthoven, Anne Lakeman

In restaurants and bars, a separate room is traditionally named in French a ‘chambre séparée’. This term suggests a kind of intimacy, here things can happen that should remain hidden from plain sight and not be heard by all. Mediamatic has decided to cast a new meaning to the idea of the ‘chambre séparée’. People coming to eat at Mediamatic will be seated in a greenhouse for two. While the separation aspect of the ‘serres séparées’ aligns perfectly with the current pandemic regulations, the intimacy aspect gets a twist. Diners can see and be seen while dining side by side with other couples in distance.

This eating experience plays with a few contrasting design elements which makes it exciting and attractive. The beautiful small greenhouses by the water portrait a tension between inside/outside, public/private, seen/unseen.

Reservations for a month were sold out within a day and the project got media attention all over the world. Is this going to be a new norm for dining out? 

Take-out —> Take-in

The concept of prepared meals to be eaten elsewhere dates back to antiquity. Market and roadside stalls selling food were common in Ancient Greece and Rome. In the ancient city Pompeii, archaeologists have found a number of thermopolia (from Greek, cook-shop), service counters opening onto the street which provided food to be taken away.

Since ancient times and up until today, take-out is typically known for purchasing fast, simple street-food and eating it somewhere outside, in the office or at home. However, during this pandemic period, more and more restaurants, cafes and pubs, who normally offer people to spend leisure time at their place, turn to take-out as a way to survive.

In many cities, anything one can think about is in the reach of one phone call or app. It could be a pub delivering beers to houses nearby, bakeries delivering fresh bread, or a 4-course meal to pick up from high cuisine restaurants.

Meal kit for inspiration and solidarity

Another option restaurants or other culinary entrepreneurs are turning to is to use their inventory and create custom restaurant meal kits. In that way their guests can make their favorite dishes at home.

Promo picture for Amsterdam based meal-kit delivery De Krat (The Crate)

While new craft, small scale meal-kits are appearing these days, the large global actors have been there for quite a while with services like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. With so many people spending most of their time at home, having to cook all their meals, many turn to meal-kit services for inspiration in the kitchen. Different articles report a rise of sales for services who seemed to be losing popularity prior to the crisis.

Local restaurants often have a different relationship with their audience than global service providers. Many people wish to support small, local or family businesses and choose to purchase a meal-kit or take-away from them. It is a two-sided relationship, as people want to see their favorite restaurant stay in town. In such period the relationship between a local business and its public proves to be extremely important, this could be the factor to determine if a business can make it through the pandemic crisis.

Design for distance while designing for inclusivity

Some of the discussed concepts mean that restaurants have to work as they used to before the crisis while serving for less people. This must come with economic consequences or completely new business models.

Will these new concepts, which are based on separation and distance, lead to a certain social exclusivity, making such experiences only available for the rich? It is hard to imagine otherwise. Therefore, beyond the creativity needed for spatial solutions, we need creativity for designing new service models and systems. A challenge would be to keep us from creating a society separated not only by space but more and more by class. The real creative challenge is to design for distance while designing for inclusivity.

Written bShay Raviv, social designer, and design researcher. In times of lockdown, Shay draws inspiration from stories around us that us to think about design challenges and opportunities.