Last week we dined at a fine restaurant on a covered terrace. Even though we were outside and the staff wore masks, several things struck us as less than ideal. First, there was essentially no social distancing between servers and patrons. Multiple, masked servers approached our table several times, within ten inches of our faces, to offer water, bread, butter, wine, and take our orders.  It felt like business as usual in terms of visits to the table and the friendly small talk, which made us uncomfortable. 

Although my area of expertise lies in advising large corporations on decision-making amid uncertainty, it occurred to us while dining out at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic that restaurants can greatly improve their risk management. They should learn from big business how to control risk better and from hospitals how to manage infection exposures. Here are some ideas for restaurants and guests to rethink their own risk management. 

Having It Your Way

Deadly risk is now on the menu along with the risotto. Restaurants should offer a risk management menu as well. For instance, a restaurant could offer diners three levels of service to more fully respect their risk tolerances. The first, full service, is what we did in the past. Many restaurants still seem to consider this de rigueur for a complete dining experience. Restaurants could also offer a second level: partial service, which would permit contact with a table only when requested by a guest. The third level would entail no close contact at all. The staff would strictly maintain at least six feet of distance from the table, with foods or drinks placed on a separate counter or side table for pick-up by guests themselves. 

You could communicate your preference ahead of time when making a reservation or when entering. To make it clear to all, including diners at other tables who may otherwise come over to say hello, a simple traffic system could be added by posting one of three flags at each table. A green flag for full service as of old, with all being welcome. Yellow says that staff should approach a table only when requested, without any chit chat. A red flag stands for zero contact.

In each case, tables should be prepared with water, butter, bread, olive oil, salt/pepper etc just before guests arrive. Also, disposable paper menus with room for written requests should be used (as quite common now) or orders could be conveyed via cell phones or other apps. Guests opting for a red table approach could also remain low-tech by one of them walking all menu choices over to a nearby service counter.

Instituting this kind of signaling system would honor diners’ risk preferences and make them more willing to chance an evening out. Levels two (yellow) and three (red) also imply that the host or hostess, as well as the restaurant manager, need to resist the temptation to be extra friendly or hospitable. During our meal last week, for instance, we experienced several superfluous table interruptions by well-meaning staff to ask if we wanted to try special wines, French cheeses, and some unusual desserts. Such culinary digressions are unwise in our Covid-19 world where social distancing is critical, especially in crowded indoor settings where patrons sit close for hours without wearing masks. 

Managing Risk Better

For customers who opt for levels one (green) and two (yellow), the question of risk reduction is still important and perhaps counterintuitive.  If you could choose, would you rather have one server handle all of your table’s needs or multiple servers sharing the load equally? At first glance, having more people serving your table may seem riskier, since you are more likely to be in touch with a Covid-19 carrier. But if one single server does all the work at your table, you will have much more exposure if that person is infected.  This issue is akin to deciding whether to keep all your valuables with one person in the group while travelling on vacation vs. spreading them around. With eggs in multiple baskets, your chance of having some loss goes up but the chance that you lose all your eggs goes down.  Infectious diseases are more complex, however, since your vulnerability depends on many factors other than exposure time and physical proximity.

 Another issue to consider is that many servers are younger, more carefree and may unknowingly be infected without showing symptoms. Further, when diners remove their own masks once seated, they become like sitting ducks themselves while placing their fellow diners and servers at greater risk as well. Foremost, diners should exercise whatever limited control they have by remaining vigilant. Try to keep your group small, avoid laud laughter (too many air droplets flying), and keep your distance.  The main challenge is not to let your guard down, which is especially hard after drinking some alcohol since you will become overly relaxed and much less attentive.

 How carefully the restaurant screens its staff is crucial also, including those working in the kitchen. Ideally the restaurant would disclose to patrons how often the staff is checked for Covid-19 symptoms--and what happens if they have them. Like airlines, restaurants could also publicize their cleaning protocols. Being reminded of these precautions could be an appetite killer for some, but will probably put most guests at ease.  

 In the midst of a raging pandemic, many people might welcome more structured risk management--or may not risk dining out at all. This is especially true for the elderly and those with preexisting conditions that increase their vulnerability to the virus. Giving diners the final choice about the level of safety they want is the crux of being customer-oriented amid a pandemic. 

 Considering the economic hardships Covid-19 has inflicted on restaurants, they all need to think outside the box more and institute rigorous distancing between staff and customers. The old norms of lavishing highly-personalized services are misplaced at a time when patrons desire friendly distancing above all. Restaurants going the extra mile in reducing virus exposures can tap into a market segment that otherwise will just continue to eat at home. There are other benefits as well, such as developing customer loyalty, avoiding reputational damage, and becoming more adroit in adapting to other disruption scenarios lurking around the corner.


Co-authored with Joyce A. Schoemaker, PhD with whom I also wrote Chips, Clones and Living Beyond 100, FT Press Science, part of Pearson Education