'You've got to evolve': Restaurant owners deal with temporary changes that could become permanent due to COVID-19

COVID-19 has seen restaurant owners having to continually adapt to changes, from outdoor dining, to protective gear for staff and customers; take out or delivery.

Phillip Palmer Image
Saturday, September 19, 2020
Restaurants continue to adapt to changes due to COVID-19
COVID-19 has forced major changes for restaurants. But could those changes be permanent? One businessman says the key is to keep evolving.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Six months ago, COVID-19 forced the restaurant industry to change its very nature. The focus for now is outdoor dining and limited capacity; protective gear for staff and customers; take out or delivery and a number of new, ever-changing safety guidelines.

"I think some businesses are having a little bit of trouble adjusting, which is the reason why we go out there to the public and also to the businesses to help them deal with the guidelines," said Leticia Gonzalez, Los Angeles County Environmental Health Specialist.

The need for such a focus on restaurants can be seen in a June study by JP Morgan Chase that showed the level of spending in restaurants over three weeks was the strongest predictor of the rise in new virus cases over the following three weeks. Knowing the impact on dine-in restaurants, Cary Earle of Earle's on Crenshaw moved his tables and chairs outside months ago.

"You've got to evolve. Whenever they tell you to do whatever protocol comes into effect tomorrow, you got to make it happen and just keep evolving," said Earle.

In an effort to provide more testing for the community, Earle's arranged for a mobile COVID testing van outside the restaurant available for anyone who needs a test.

"We're a hotspot, its melting spot, our restaurant, a lot of people come here and what better way to do it," said Earle.

Restaurant owners and the health department can only do so much to slow the spread. Customers play a vital role. Even at a safe distance and following protocols, is it safe to remove a mask during dinner in public?

"We've taken into protocols and decided what's the best," said Gonzalez. "In fact, that's the reason why when you see waiters and waitresses coming to the tables, they have a face shield as well as the facemask so it makes sure that they're protected."

And what will restaurants look like in the future? It's possible cities will eventually widen sidewalks to accommodate more outdoor dining.

Retail designer V.J. Rodriguez says new restaurants will probably spend more design dollars outside.

"Tenants are rethinking how much space they actually need to lease," said Rodriguez.

While that was less common in the past because of the threat weather presents to business, COVID might have made that expense a necessity.

"They can get really pricey but especially with what we're going through now it makes more sense to focus on doing that rather than focusing on your energy on the interior," said Rodriguez.

Oddly enough, Whole Foods might be leading the way for the restaurant of the future. Outdoor dining is not new for the grocery chain, but the company's new construction on Ventura Boulevard shows they are investing heavily in dining al fresco. That's something that makes perfect sense to the Earle family.

"For some businesses that might be slow, all you need is two or three people sitting out front. That's enough to bring attention and business," said Earle.

The restaurant industry has been forced to adapt, but COVID still won't allow firm predictions for what's next.

"For me to tell you what's going to happen in two weeks from now I can't tell you," said Earle. "All I know is for the rest of this week we're good. That's as far as I can think right now."