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Tabletops Get Makeovers Courtesy of COVID-19

Often dubbed the most important three feet of the house, in normal times, the tabletop communicates the restaurant’s brand promise and it starts establishing guest expectations even before customers take their seats. While much has changed in restaurants and foodservice operations thanks to steps aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, the role of the tabletop has not. It just looks a lot different for the time being.

When asked to rank the top considerations for choosing a restaurant, consumers ranked making sure the restaurant is clean and sanitary as the most important consideration by far, according to Chicago-based research firm Datassential. Cleanliness ranked ahead of how well the food tastes, value paid and even the restaurant’s ability to provide good service. Further, 76% of consumers said a restaurant’s cleanliness and food safety procedures will always matter more now than before.

It’s no coincidence, then, that some operators will walk guests past their empty tables. “They want you to see them wiping the table and sanitizing them,” says Doug Farenholz, vice president for The Wasserstrom Company, a Columbus, Ohio-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealer.

Customer safety and sanitation remain top of mind as operators continue to rethink their tabletops. Instead of encountering a tabletop that features a well thought out collection of flatware, glassware, and accessories when they first get seated, consumers now see the absolute bare minimum. “Right now, I am seeing very little on the tabletop as customers sit down,” says Julie Pandl, sales and tabletop specialist, for The Boelter Companies, a Wisconsin-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealer.

Once guests take their seats, staff hand them prewrapped flatware, Farenholz adds. The exact approach the operator takes will vary by segment. For example, fine dining will likely wrap the flatware in a cloth napkin, where causal dining might use a paper napkin. Quick-serve restaurants may opt to source plastic flatware sets that come prewrapped and include a fork, knife, paper napkin and possibly small salt and pepper packets. Farenholz even visited one operator that presented its flatware in sealed plastic bag.

But make no mistake, for the foreseeable future flatware will continue to arrive at the table wrapped once the guest is seated. “If something’s sitting there at this point and it’s not wrapped, I am kind of wondering. It’s just less things for people to touch. I have not seen one set table as of yet. I see wrapped flatware, either in a napkin or in plastic. And it’s become more of an on-demand situation. Anything that’s being touched is being looked at critically.”

Cutlery gets a critical look for a variety of reasons, including safety and sanitation. “It’s something everyone puts in their mouth,” Pandl says. “I am advising people to trust their dishmachines and let them do what they were designed to do.” In other words, let the warewashers clean and sanitize not only the cutlery but all other tabletop elements and be sure to train staff on how to properly accomplish these important tasks.

Not setting the table until the guests take their seats may offer a few benefits. For example, doing so may send a message to customers the operation takes cleaning and sanitizing seriously. It may also save on labor. “You have everything in the wait aisle, and you set the table when people take their seats,” Pandl says. “But you have to look at this on a case by case basis.”

Another standard tabletop element going through a makeover are condiments. For example, in some casual dining operations it was common to see ketchup, mustard or even barbecue sauce on the table when a guest was seated. That’s no longer the case, both Farenholz and Pandl report. Instead, staff will typically provide these items, upon request, using stainless-steel ramekins or other vessels. In some cases, operators have provided staff with salt and pepper mills and they can add them to guests’ food upon request.

One item that’s become an endangered species, at least for the time being, is the physical menu typically handed out tableside. “It seems like people are trying to figure out a balance between what used to be and what’s required now,” Pandl says. “Right now, people don’t want to have single-use menus because you spend a lot of money on them throwing them away. It just drives up cost. Operators want to find better ways around that.”

In an attempt to limit physical touch points and the number of items that require sanitization, a growing number of operators across all segments encourage guests to order via the restaurant’s app or now have QR codes at the table or touchless ordering. Customers simply use their personal devices to scan the QR codes and the menu will appear. “The places I have been are using a QR code. They ask if you would like a menu or you can scan the QR code and the menu shows up,” Farenholz says. “To me, that’s a positive.”

The trend toward QR codes even opened the door to some innovation and customization on the part of the supply chain. “One napkin manufacturer will custom decorate a napkin with the restaurant’s QR code,” Pandl says. “This feels like an opportunity once people start to understand it.”

Farenholz agrees and adds, “And I’ve been wondering why we have not been doing this before. I’ve been enjoying that. Some restaurateurs may not have gone that way but it’s the future. You can update your menu and pricing daily because it is electronic.”

Indeed, further digitizing and automating the ordering process may offer a variety of benefits. For example, it can streamline the process and allow operators to focus their labor on safely delivering a quality product and enhancing the organization’s commitment to hospitality. It also helps operators to collect and potentially mine customer data to assist with business planning, menu analysis and various other factors that will enable to provide value on the customers’ terms.

“It’s a way to elevate service and using technology in this manner won’t be an issue for younger generations. This could be a good thing that comes from all of this,” adds Pandl, who also notes that digital ordering may not be right for every type of operation long term. “I don’t see a country club doing this long term. But for a time period, maybe?

Once guests are seated and they have placed their orders, the tabletop experience and how they interact with those elements reverts to a somewhat familiar pattern. For example, customers dining indoors still tend to receive their meals on the restaurant’s china, as was the case before. The same applies to beverage service. “There are still certain functions in a restaurant that have to happen in a certain way,” Pandl says. “You are still going to get a tap beer in a glass. As far as the trends that were in place six months ago, they are still in place.”

Will the minimalist approach to tabletops last long term? “When mid-September or October comes around and people feel it is too cold to sit outside, is when people will start to look at dining inside,” Farenholz says. “That’s when we will start to have a better idea of how it will impact indoor tabletops.”

Pandl adds, “I don’t think a bare tabletop is going to last. It’s an OK impression for now. It’s just a little cold. People are still engaging with it. So, it has to be part of your experience. You may be wrapping it, but you still need the right flatware for your experience. And you need the right china to reflect your menu.”