From picnic tables in parking lots to dining on strips of shopping center landscaping, restaurants returning after pandemic shutdowns are looking for room to spread out for social distancing. And no one knows how long that will last.

Or how long it can last. Can restaurants survive with the lower capacity as they spread tables apart until the pandemic is contained or a vaccine is found? How long will neighbors and city inspectors have patience for seating snatched from parking spaces and sidewalks?

Experts and local restaurateurs say the pandemic could push the industry to a trend of building in more outdoor dining and drive-thrus.

“As a longer-term trend, I think ‘alfresco’ and outdoor seating has always been a popular component to any restaurant location,” said Scott Amoson, the director of research at the Atlanta office of the real estate firm Colliers International. “I would think going forward, however, this will be an even more important aspect to incorporate into a restaurant’s location.”

Outdoor dining in the pandemic on May 23 at Louisiana Bistreaux Seafood Kitchen on Piedmont Road in Buckhead meant tables spaced apart and a server in a mask and face shield. (Phil Mosier)

But another long-term social distancing trend could hit restaurants hard, and it’s completely out of their control over their square-footage and chairs. The lower attendance in offices as employees shift to teleworking will be “real hurt” if it becomes a new normal that eats into the lunch-catering business, said Richmond Green, director of operations at the Atlanta-based quick-casual chain Gusto.

“That’s one area where we’re not sure things are going to return to normal,” said Green. “A lot of businesses have discovered that working remote is not just some futuristic thing that only Google does. … There may never be a time where people gather in offices for hundred-person lunches. And it may be a long time before businesses take the risk of bringing people back to the office when they can safely work from home.”

Moving outdoors

Gov. Brian Kemp allowed dine-in restaurant service to return in late April. Under the current language of his emergency order, which was scheduled to run at least through June 12, restaurants are limited to 10 patrons per 300 square feet and 10 patrons per table.

Michael Starling, the economic development director for the city of Dunwoody, said those rules boiled down to one message: “you have to find more space.” That’s because even 50% occupancy would not be enough for most restaurants to survive. Outdoor seating is a popular solution both to increase the footprint and because the open air is considered generally lower-risk for coronavirus transmission than indoor spaces.

The cities of Dunwoody and Brookhaven quickly offered temporary permits to allow certain forms of outdoor dining. But restaurants and customers locally and around the metro area were already adapting on their own with ad hoc solutions.

Amoson said he saw many examples in his home area in Atlanta’s southern suburbs, where standalone locations of chains like Outback used strips of land outside their stores for tables with umbrellas.“

Residents make their own picnic area in a strip of grass in front of Village Orthdontics at the otherwise car-oriented Shops of Dunwoody shopping center in Dunwoody on May 22. (Phil Mosier)

“I’ve also noticed people in general (including my family) have purchased their food to-go and then gone to sit on walls, or throw a blanket out on public spaces nearby,” said Amoson in an email. “Earlier on, my family would purchase to-go and then have a picnic in the back of my truck in the parking lot. It was at least something different than eating at home and got us out.”

Verde Taqueria in Brookhaven Village was among those that quickly moved outside. The restaurant has a patio, but already had converted it into a pickup spot for takeout orders. So to make outdoor seating, the restaurant put three picnic tables in parking spaces marked off with traffic cones.

“We just got parts of our parking lot blocked off. And we’re letting people order food and sit out there as they please,” said Manuel Gonzalez, general manager of the restaurant.

Amanda Champion tends bar in the personal protective equipment era at Louisiana Bistreaux on May 23. (Phil Mosier)

Verde is in a mixed-use building that shares parking with other businesses and residents. Gonzalez said the restaurant owners were in discussions with the tenant association about the temporary setup.

Amoson said jerryrigged seating solutions likely can continue, with any rule-bending overlooked, while the pandemic comeback continues and restaurants attract potential customers for neighboring businesses. But, Starling said, some friction eventually will take hold, as other businesses will eventually want to use parking spaces, too, among other possible conflicts.

A distanced future?

Will the pandemic mean long-term changes to the way restaurants operate? While uncertainty is the pandemic’s main trait, flexibility in design seems to be the main answer.

For Darren Benda, the new owner of El Azteca in Dunwoody Village, it’s not an abstract question. He took advantage of the pandemic closures to speed up interior renovations of the restaurant. He says that the interior will not be changed specifically to prepare for any prolonged pandemic fallout, but that flexibility remains a design principle.

“The beauty of our space is that 95% of the seating and tables can be rearranged for various patterns and occasions. So we will adjust whenever the rules and regulations allow for that,” he said.

Indoor dining has changed as well. Red X’s of tape mark tables as off-limits to maintain social distancing at the HOBNOB Neighborhood Tavern in Town Brookhaven on May 24. (Phil Mosier)

For Gusto, the pandemic is a test of the old normal, as the chain had the unfortunate timing to open its new “Chastain” location in Buckhead’s Roswell Wieuca Shopping Center on May 8. The restaurant opened as scheduled, but in a low-key fashion to avoid drawing crowds and with its roughly 50-seat dining room still unused.

Green, Gusto’s director of operations, said that the quick-casual business model allowed the opening to do decent business, since it already had takeout and delivery built in — though delivery takes a bigger cut of the revenue — and the Chastain location has patio seating. After an initial hit, the chain’s counter business is back to near normal, said Green, with customers including nurses from nearby Piedmont Hospital flocking to the original location on Peachtree Road in Brookwood Hills.

But seating is an important part of the business and its intent to be a “destination” for customers. And that loss of office catering is a significant one that has the chain strategizing. And social distancing may have some long-term impacts on the way the chain does business.

“I don’t think we’re going to do away with dining rooms when we’re looking at space in the future. I think we will look for more drive-thrus,” said Green, adding that the Chamblee location has done the most consistent pandemic business because it has one.

At Louisiana Bistreaux on May 23, indoor diners also were spaced far apart. (Phil Mosier)

Gusto is also thinking about increasing the size of patios, as well as working with shopping center landlords to create “community spaces to eat outdoors” that could be used by a number of restaurants.

Then there’s the biggest X factor of all: customer demands. Green said Gusto is already seeing customers without masks and hearing demands to open the in-store seating. Public tolerance for new ways of doing business may wane.

“We’ve been telling our guys… that for a couple of months, the restaurant industry earned a lot of grace and earned a lot of sympathy,” said Green. But after that period with “zero customer complaints,” he said, “as people are starting to feel safer, we’re going to get less grace.”

–Bob Pepalis contributed

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.