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The global restaurant re-opening: Experiences from around the world

Published June 30, 2021

As a new normal emerges, is it also a new beginning for restaurants?

In March 2020, most of the world went into lockdown to combat the global pandemic. The massive, unprecedented impact on hospitality saw the industry scrambling to survive the lockdowns by finding new ways to serve their customers.

And, at the time, few could have predicted that over a year later, various levels of lockdown would still be imposing constraints on the re-opening of restaurants and other businesses—even though it’s become clear that COVID-19 is here for the long haul.

Restaurateurs around the world responded to the challenge by pivoting to new technologies and operational models, and for many, this changed their business forever. Emerging from lockdowns and assessing the long-term impact they may have on the restaurant industry, there’s a lot to learn from how the industry around the world is responding to gradual re-opening.

A look at how owners and operators are reopening in different parts of the world

Israel was one of the first countries to re-open following an aggressive approach to COVID-19 vaccinations—in Tel Aviv 80 percent of people over the age of 16 are vaccinated. Because of that, restaurants were allowed to re-open in early March 2021 and their experiences can provide valuable lessons and insights—including how quickly things can change making the need for quick pivots an ongoing operational need.

In February, Israel’s Health Ministry introduced a “green pass” program that allowed residents who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 to begin enjoying public events and services.

Initially those with green passes could enjoy limited outdoor public activities but by May restaurants were fully booked weeks in advance. Then in June, as COVID-19 cases dipped below 20 a day, Israel dropped the green pass program altogether—that’s a lot of change month to month. And back when the program was fairly new and strict distancing was in place, owners and operators faced some challenges.

Although they had gone to great lengths to place tables five feet apart, people, likely without thinking about it, gathered closer together. Also, servers’ masks would unintentionally slip down past their noses and staff members in charge of checking temperatures missed some guests—so in many restaurants it was chaotic at times and probably uncomfortable for people still concerned with safety.

The other restrictions in Israel that still applied in March included capacity limitations, distance between tables, disposable menus, disinfection of seats, temperature scans and sanitary practices among other things. Additionally, there was a designated staff member in every restaurant who was responsible to ensure the rules were being followed—and yet it was hard to implement them all the time. So, although these sort of practices and restrictions are now not new to many restaurants, they’re not necessarily easy to enforce.

And even though places like Tel Aviv are booming, consumers are still reluctant to go into crowded indoor locations, especially as mask mandates are lifted. It will take time for consumers to be fully confident in the relaxed measures, so it’s critical that restaurants assure customers their service and operations are providing a safe environment.

In the UK, restaurateurs have been facing a similar situation in regards to changing guidelines. In April, outdoor dining was allowed and then in May indoor services resume—both with restrictions. And as the U.K. prepares to lift those restrictions in late June, it’s still not clear exactly what restaurant owners and operators will expect—will their customers want a busy, social vibe, or a more intimate, personalised experience socially distanced?

Other countries in Europe, like France and Austria, have also been gradually re-opening with certain restrictions. Austria has implemented a “green pass” system similar to Israel’s which applies to people who are either vaccinated, have a negative test or have recovered from an infection.

A labour and hiring shortage is another global challenge and European countries are seeing a decline in employees in the hospitality sector. Some have chosen not to return until furlough ends; while some started their own business. Others made a career change and secured jobs with companies offering higher salaries and flexible work hours. Learn more about the recruitment challenge that’s also happening in the U.S.

Related: Experiencing a labor shortage in your restaurant? Here's how technology can help

Between a labor shortage and lack of customer’s confidence, there’s also the question of re-imposed restrictions and lockdowns. Restaurants and cafes in Bahrain opened to limited capacity, contact tracing and restricted to only those who’ve been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19. But just a few weeks later, there was an unprecedented surge in cases and restaurants and stores closed again for two weeks.

Israel lifted more of their restrictions, including the requirement of the “green pass,” but only if the government continues to monitor the situation and imposes restrictions again if there’s a surge in cases.

Hope that was on the horizon has arrived, with a caveat

The industry has already taken huge steps in adapting to the pandemic and now to a re- emerging world, so it’s well-positioned to welcome customers back as restaurants continue to forge their way in the “new normal.” But in this next phase, there are bound to be challenges as everyone adjusts—and with some extra planning and learning from others’ examples, this could be the restaurant industry’s biggest fresh start in decades.

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