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5 Newfangled Strategies NYC Restaurants Are Testing to Ease Into Dining

Restaurant owners are turning to new, relatively untested technology as they prepare for an eventual return to dining-in

The interior of a restaurant with the focus on a glass and wood screen separate tables
A rendering of a glass and wood screen designed for Per Se
Tihany Design [Official]

More NYC restaurants are reopening for takeout and delivery on a weekly basis — and some are adopting more creative, relatively untested strategies in the hopes of easing diners’ fears about returning to their favorite establishments.

A return to dining-in during the ongoing novel coronavirus crisis is at least a month away, if not more, and that too could be at a limited capacity. There is also not yet a surefire cure for the novel coronavirus, and there’s no set timeline for a vaccine, either. But that hasn’t stopped restaurant owners from betting on new technology like a 21st century version of automats or UV lights that supposedly kill viruses, to prepare for both more takeout customers and an eventual return to dining-in.

Here, Eater has rounded up some of the off-the-beaten path strategies that restaurants are employing as they plot their return.

UV Light

Daily Life In New York City Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
Magnolia Bakery’s Upper West Side location
Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Conventional UV light is known for killing viruses, but it is also harmful to humans. However, scientists are now experimenting with different wavelengths of ultraviolet light that seemingly destroy viruses without the harmful side effects, potentially making it viable for indoor spaces like restaurants.

While a few restaurants across the country are experimenting with UV light, in New York, hit bakery chain Magnolia may be the first to try it out at a couple of its locations. The Upper West Side location of the chain has installed a “cleanse portal,” where customers stand and turn under a metal detector-like structure fitted with far UV light that’s meant to destroy airborne viruses. In addition, Magnolia plans to use recessed UV lights at its Bleecker Street flagship, in addition to the UWS outpost. Plans to install the lights at the other four NYC locations are also in the works.

It’s based on technology that’s currently being researched by Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research. The research team there is still testing how effective these lights are in killing the strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, but the research center’s head, David Brenner, says the results have been “encouraging” so far.

While the lights don’t guarantee protection — Brenner told the New York Post that they are only an effective measure in addition to all other existing safety precautions including regular sanitization of surfaces, and social distancing — other restaurants are getting on board as well. Lower East Side sushi omakase spot Kissaki has installed UV lights in its air-conditioning vents, owner Garry Kanfer tells Eater. The light reportedly helps kill bacteria, and Kanfer hopes it will make customers feel safer when the are able to return to dine-in at restaurants.


A rendering of a row of glass boxes that are meant to contain food
The automat system at Brooklyn Dumpling Shop
Eye Catch

Automats — where customers can order and get food without interacting with anyone — fell out of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, yet one NYC restaurateur is banking on their return with his soon-to-open East Village fast food spot, Brooklyn Dumpling Shop.

At the restaurant, which is located at the corner of First Avenue and St. Marks Place, customers will scan their smartphones to unlock the glass locker that contains their food. Restaurateur Stratis Morfogen is encouraging diners to order on their phone, but those who want to order in person will use a screen that requires customers to hover their fingers above their selections.

Diners will receive a text message when their order is ready to be picked up, but for those waiting inside the store, the glass lockers flash different colors during the stages of production: red when an order is placed, yellow when the order is two minutes from coming out, and green when it’s ready to be picked up.

NYC restaurants have tried to repopularize the Horn and Hardart automats in the past, and have failed. Morfogen says safety concerns due to the ongoing pandemic present a perfect time for their return. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is set to open in July.

“With fast food, people already know what they want and there’s no need to engage with anyone,” Morfogen tells Eater. “I think this will be the model going forward.”

Temperature Scanners in Metal Detectors

Morfogen has also repurposed metal detectors from nightclubs he owned in the past, fitted them with temperature detectors, and plans to install them at the entrances to the dumpling shop and his FiDi Asian steakhouse, Brooklyn Chop House.

At the dumpling spot, customers will first pass through this scanner. If their temperature registers above 99.6 degrees F, they will be motioned by a staffer to move to a different wall-mounted scanner in the restaurant that measures temperatures at the wrist. If this too gives a high reading, the diner will then be asked to leave the establishment.

Temperature checks are slowly becoming the norm across cities across the country where restaurants have reopened to customers, yet the practice isn’t yet widespread in New York with the shutdown in dining-in. Mayor Bill de Blasio previously hinted that temperature checks will likely be required before businesses, including restaurants, are allowed to open again.

Sushi Robots

A black and gray box placed on a wooden counter. A pair of hands in black gloves can be seen pulling a sheet of rice out of it.
The maki maker at Kissaki
Kissaki [Official]

Fast-casual sushi restaurants using the help of robots and conveyer belts to dish out rolls isn’t an uncommon phenomenon — even in New York City, and even before the pandemic. Yet the fact that Lower East Side omakase Kissaki started employing them in April might be an indication of what’s to come for other high-end sushi spots in the city.

Kissaki, which only opened its doors in January this year, has invested in a variety of sushi-producing robots that significantly speed up the preparation process, owner Garry Kanfer says. One machine produces rice sheets, another produces rice balls for nigiri, and a third cuts rolls. The maki machine can produce 1,100 rice sheets per hour, and was particularly helpful when it was just the chef Mark Garcia working in the kitchen in April, according to Kanfer.

While the restaurant won’t use the machines when dining-in service goes back to normal, Kanfer estimates that’s still a while away, and until then Kissaki has primed itself for fast takeout service. “Restaurants looking on ways to survive and grow right now will have to look outside the box,” Kanfer says.

Fancy-Ass Screens

The interior of a fine dining restaurant with white linen and several round tables and chairs. Renderings of glass screens can be seen in the distance
A rendering of proposed glass screens at the Michelin-starred French restaurant Daniel
Tihany Design

Fine-dining restaurants have a particular challenge of bringing customers back in when the dining-in shutdown lifts. Unlike many other places, their food doesn’t translate well for takeout and delivery, and for many of these restaurants, ambience is a major part of the dining experience.

While plastic barriers between the cashier and customer can be seen at takeout spots and grocery stores across the city, one design company is betting that high-end restaurants will want fancier versions to create more social distancing and prevent the spread of the virus. Tihany Design created custom panels with glass and wood for Michelin-starred restaurants and Per Se and Daniel, which the company also originally designed.

The restaurants haven’t committed to using them yet and are waiting until government officials offer more guidance on reopening, and there’s no proof that these panels will prevent the spread of the virus. Yet Adam Tihany, head of the firm, says the prototype could help maintain the intimacy of fine dining while addressing safety concerns. The company did not say how much they would cost.