Webinar Summary: Dining at a Distance

Author: Tom Tanner

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With physical distancing likely to be with us for at least the next few months we brought together a restaurant designer, the GM of an iconic London restaurant and the founders of a three-strong Hong Kong restaurant group already adapting to a new kind of hospitality. Here’s a summary of the expert advice insights and personal experience shared in the webinar.

HOST: Cameron McDonald, Community Manager, Sustainable Restaurant Association

David Chenery, Designer, Object Space Place

Alexis and Laura Offe, founders of Meraki Hospitality Group, operating three restaurants in Hong Kong

Nick Jarman, GM OXO Tower Restaurant, Bar & Brasserie

Dining at a Distance

David Chenery of Object Space Place said that the concept of distancing, whether we call it social or physical, creates a nightmarish vision of people not being to speak to each other and strikes at the heart of what most people see hospitality as being all about. His role is to help people find a way through.

To do this, he said, operators must consider three main points:

  1. Can distancing work?

Without Government support on rates, rent and staff pay, the likelihood is that it is not viable for the vast majority.

You have to compromise, David urged. One of the first steps in that process is looking at maximising a hybrid model if you have one, or pivoting to a model that includes delivery or meal kits or some other income stream. While this is not a silver bullet, there are some great examples of success and food to go operators are certainly better placed to take advantage of this than fine dining restaurants.

Businesses blessed with large interior spaces and/or outdoor space are well placed, said David, to accommodate more customers and make them feel safe. Operators should approach their landlords and local authorities to discuss use of outdoor space.

With the Government yet to finalise the distancing regulations, operators should plan for anything between 1m and 2m so that they’re ready for when the announcement comes. He said D&D’s modelling showed that at 1m distance between tables, they would lose 30-40% capacity while at 2m, that rose to 60-70%.

Design measures are not “one size fits all” and must be adapted over time, designing with flexibility will be crucial as restrictions might well expand and contract.

  1. Strategy before tactics

First strategic step is to review what your unique offer: what do your customers like and how best you can match that? So, if delivery works for you – do it.  Maybe cook at home kits suits your model better.

Consider how distancing is going to affect the experience of your customers from start to finish. Check out David’s advice for both fine dining and food to go on this.

Consider if those are just temporary changes or can be more permanent despite the rush to re-organize to reopen with as many covers as possible and make businesses survive.

  1. Sustainability and social distancing

In the scramble to re-open with maximum covers it would be easy to allow sustainability to take a back seat. David recommended some areas to consider for those with the capacity to think about it which could be a positive design opportunity if approached in the right mindset.

Signage (you will need lots) – avoid non-recyclable PVC and consider recyclable paper menus and/or easels or other reusable or permanent items.

Counters – If you need to temporary counters to manage queues look for upcycled or recycled materials and check it can be taken apart when no longer needed. David recommended this directory for reclaimed materials.

Screens – there are now recyclable Perspex screens or you could repurpose window frames or use mirrors creatively to enhance customers’ experience. Whatever you do, think about how you can make people feel safe and want to spend time in your site.

Bathrooms – Reduce contact for soap dispensers, taps and had dryer as these are an investment in terms of sustainability.

Menus – move things towards being digital – people don’t need to engage with menus or payment. It’s the future so maybe this could be the time to invest in coherent digital approach.

Deliveries – packaging is essential so look at pioneers in this field like – Pasta Evangelists – who use recyclable card or SpiceBox whose curries are delivered in tiffin tins.

Finally, for the brave, David suggested going all out and making a feature of distancing and turning it into an elegant concept – Alone Together

Laura and Alex Offe, founders of Meraki Hospitality Group.

Business profile: Three restaurants in Hong Kong: Brazilian/Japanese, Malaysian and Middle Eastern.

When Covid-19 first struck Hong Kong the government mandated restaurants could only be half full – that meant Meraki’s sites’ capacity reduced from 65 to 35, 42 to 20 and 42 to 15.

The restrictions also meant they couldn’t serve drinks to customers not dining and they had to separate tables by 1.5m

Alex said it didn’t take a genius to do the maths to work out that it’s been a “complicated” few months.

Meraki initiated the following measures:

  • Everyone entering the building – customer, staff or supplier has a temperature check and must sign a health declaration.
  • Staff wear masks at all times
  • Customers wear masks when not eating or drinking
  • Staff prepping food or drink wear gloves
  • Removed the lunchtime buffet offering in one of their restaurants and made it table service instead to reassure customers of safety
  • Hand sanitiser freely available across the restaurants

To counteract the fall in customer numbers Meraki has upped its delivery service, forgoing traditional expensive platforms, to do it themselves – including offering customers choice of items from all three restaurants together

The restrictions in restaurants are being relaxed, including an increase from four to eight in maximum group size. Alex said customer numbers are rising although they are still at only about 60%.

Laura said they designed their own table partitions which are branded. After a few weeks customers have become used to them and feel safe. “All these measures take time, but it makes people feel safe and that is our priority.”

Nick Jarman – OXO Tower Restaurant, Bar & Brasserie

Business description:

Approximately 1200sq with a 140 cover restaurant with full length terrace as well as a brasserie and bar.

Employ 180 staff

“In the last couple of weeks we have started to plan how we can re-open a brasserie that does 600 covers at the weekend and a restaurant, 300, especially when you have to access us via two lifts to the 8th floor.”


Nick has used a 2m stick to measure out the restaurant and is planning for different scenarios while keeping a close watch out for the Govt announcement on what measures he’ll have to abide by – adding that he doesn’t believe they will give businesses much notice – so be prepared!


The current plan is to re-open the main restaurant for dinner only except at weekend and for the brigade to work one shift instead of the normal three.

The brasseries will adopt an all day dining model and customers will be checked in on the ground floor using tablets and a one-way system with the lifts will be implemented.


As luck would have it, OXO was in the process of rolling out a new tech reservations platform in the weeks leading up to lockdown.


Nick and his team introduced the OXO Box concept to ‘keep the wheels moving’ keep in contact with customers, keep the brand alive and support suppliers. This has helped Nick maintain a relationship with suppliers which he says will be crucial for everyone as they plan their re-opening – everyone from the linen company to the people who maintain the kitchen extractors. He adds: “The food chain isn’t working as normal so you really need to speak to suppliers to see what have they got and then plan your menus with that in mind.”


From manning the reservations line too, Nick has begun to get a feel of customer attitudes but senses it won’t be one size fits all. While he’s taken orders for parties of 30 and 40 for the coming months, he’s aware that the guests at an adjacent table of two might not feel comfortable and urges people to be mindful of this twin-speed customer response.

Plans to open a community kitchen very soon will help with reacquainting staff with travelling in London and with managing use of the bath and changing rooms.

You can find more information to help you to re-open right, safely and sustainably, here.

Book your place at our next Re-open Right webinar Menu 2.0 here. 


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