What Kimbal Musk Thinks The New Normal Will Be For Restaurants Post-Pandemic
It's a strange time amid the global pandemic: With the spread of COVID-19 cases (hopefully) starting to slow, some places with particularly low rates of infection have taken the first steps of what will soon become our new normal: salons, malls, movie theaters, and restaurants opening their doors to the face-masked public.
The latter becomes especially tricky, as restaurants tend to be places to gather and socially connect, emphasis on the gathering. But how can we possibly return to our favorite culinary gold mines while practicing safe social distancing? Kimbal Musk, known for his entrepreneurial expertise in the restaurant space and for being brother to Elon, may just have the answer.
"I don't think it's a good idea for us to keep our restaurants closed, but I worry about irresponsible reopening," he tells me in this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. "We should enable them to be open safely, and we can build that over time."
So, what will the restaurant scene look like post COVID-19? Musk has some thoughts, plus what he hopes to accomplish with his own spaces. While there's no sure way to predict the future, relying on one of the Musk brothers (especially one who owns three restaurants, a food learning nonprofit, and an urban farming company) is perhaps a safe bet for now.
More technology will make its way into the restaurant space.
Musk says restaurants (perhaps those mom-and-pop shops, too) should embrace technology, as it will yield a safer experience for staff, in particular. In fact, staff members interact with so many people during a shift, that going to a restaurant may actually be more dangerous for a waiter than a customer, says Musk. That's where the technology comes in: He wants to implement an online ordering system in his restaurants to limit those interactions. This way, the guests and staff can practice safe social distancing—with the use of face masks, of course.
Aside from limiting interaction with staff, Musk says an influx of technology in the restaurant space can allow you to focus more on your companions. While you might think technology may sabotage human connection, Musk actually thinks it'll do quite the opposite: Implementing technology, he says, can foster more hospitality and connection.
"We've all been in a restaurant where you just want to order another round of drinks, or you're waiting a long time for the check," he says. "Those are easy things technology can solve." Meaning, if you could order (and pay) from your phone, it could take away those long waiting times at the bar, leaving room for more social interaction with friends.
Additionally, Musk explains that the ease of online ordering can increase social connection (and sales, for that matter). Perhaps you want to order another round of drinks because you're spending more time than you thought you would with your friends. If it's difficult to grab the waiter or squeeze your way up to the bar, you might be deterred from spending those extra minutes with friends. If you can order another round at the tap of a button, you may feel more inclined to stay and socialize.
Technology entering the food space may sound a little unnerving, sure, but Musk reminds us that we implement technology into restaurants all the time: "A plate is technology—we invented it at one point," he says. Consider online ordering the next necessary step for the hospitality space.
Musk's (hopeful) plan of action.
It's no secret there's a bit of a discrepancy in the United States right now; some states are allowing restaurants to open at a certain capacity, while other places have stricter shelter-in-place regulations. But at some point, all states will ultimately adhere to the oft-mentioned "new normal," even if it might take a while for it to happen. But what does that new normal look like, exactly?
As for Musk's restaurants, "We're going to do it super safely," he says. First, once it's deemed safe, he plans to open at 50% capacity with online ordering technology (again, for the safety of the staff since they see so many guests in a day). "Within a few weeks, we should be able to see if it causes a spike in infections. It doesn't take long to see the impact," he continues.
If there is no significant impact, he'll slowly move to 75% occupancy, then to full capacity. However, he realizes he's not in the clear once he reaches 100%: "At any point we may need to drop back to 75% or 50%," he says, assuming the rates of infection go back up. "We need this thoughtful reopening strategy, so we aren't forced to close again. That would be absolutely the nail in the coffin." The process itself won't be as easy as it sounds outlined here, but the benefits of safely gathering again will be well worth it.
Whether you own a restaurant yourself or are simply aching to treat your partner to dinner once again, you may expect the space to look a little different than it did pre-pandemic. Strange, sure, but hey—that's our new normal.