Engineering a safer dining experience for restaurants

Restaurants face a unique challenge because of COVID-19, but companies and consulting engineers can help by making the overall design safer and cleaner for workers and customers.

By Brian Sander August 27, 2020

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants across the country have endured significant decreases in revenue, jobs, and overall profit, radically impacting the industry as a whole. Despite the challenges presented over the last several months, the restaurant sector, ranging from fast food chains to fine dining establishments, has been continuously adapting by implementing unique solutions to safely serve customers. As local jurisdictions begin the next phase of reopening, restaurant design professionals are working with restaurants to develop strategies that will ensure their dining areas are safe for customers to return to.

We know viruses can be spread in a variety of ways. As it relates to most coronaviruses, including COVID-19, there are three primary transmission vectors: droplet transmission, surface contact, and airborne infection. To mitigate these risks in restaurants, and to help our clients navigate infection control policies and the technologies that serve them, our experts in restaurant design have outlined key strategies for restaurant owners.

As restaurant design consultants, we’ve worked with clients like Shake Shack and BJ’s Brewhouse to implement strategies that will create a safer dining experience for their customers and operating experience for their employees. Below we go more in-depth on each of these restaurant design strategies related to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing design, and explore cost-effective approaches to infection control.

Surface transmission

One of the most effective ways to eliminate surface transmission is through increased surface cleaning. In restaurants, the number of touchpoints is high, which makes increased cleaning protocols critical to protect the safety of restaurant goers and staff. Flooring and seating materials should also be evaluated for cleanability. Cloth seating and thick carpeting can be harder to clean and harbor a greater risk of surface transmission. For more information on cleaning protocols, the National Restaurant Association has published guidelines to help restaurants reopen safely.

Incorporating touchless fixtures, such as door operators, faucets, and hand dryers, are also important steps when eliminating surface transmission. Additionally, utilizing touchless food delivery methods including app ordering, contactless drive thru/pick up windows, and leveraging pay-in-advance technology can help mitigate any potential risks of contamination.

Droplet transmission

Droplet transmission can occur when two people are in close contact with one another, from either small droplets passed when talking or from larger droplets when someone sneezes or coughs. Social distancing has proven to be one of the most effective strategies for decreasing the risk of droplet transmission. For restaurants, adhering to social distancing requires flexibility and more spaced out seating areas, as well as limiting the number of occupants in one space at a given time. Expanding outdoor seating areas for higher volume can help the bottom line when indoor seating is limited or considered unsafe by some patrons. Technologies such as misting in the summer or spot heating in cooler seasons can help extend the year-round usability of the patio and other outdoor seating areas.

In larger restaurants, smartphone technology can be used to eliminate lines by limiting the number of people using the restrooms or waiting at a counter for service. The app-based technology can clearly notify guests of estimated wait time and when service is available to them as both a convenience and to allow for social distancing.

Airborne transmission

When it comes to airborne transmission, HVAC systems have been the source of some concerning news; however, they can be utilized to lessen the potential spread of infection. One strategy that has been determined to be helpful is utilizing as much outside air as is possible to flush the space While each building’s needs will vary, this simple technique can be effective in removing contaminated air each day with little cost. We recommend separating HVAC systems airflows for kitchens from other areas of the restaurant to further decrease the opportunity for cross contamination and risk of infection.

HEPA is well known in the medical industry and is effective at catching virus particles. However, these filters create a large pressure drop that most HVAC equipment serving restaurants is not designed to handle. A Portable HEPA Purifier can be a cost-effective route and its visibility to customers also provides peace of mind. However, its effectiveness can often fall short when it comes to the volume of air needing to be treated per hour in a dining room space. While not as effective at stopping a virus particle as a HEPA filter, high efficiency filters such as MERV13 can still filter larger droplets that may contain viruses and can generally be used in any standard HVAC equipment.

UVc, or ultraviolet light, is also used as an infection control technology and can be helpful in rendering viruses non-infectious. Common in the industry already for cleaning coils, these lamps need to be properly sized to be effective in killing viruses. We recommend UVc, a specific bandwidth of the UV spectrum that’s been shown to have germicidal properties, to aid in both air and surface sanitization. While HEPA and UVc depends on air passing through the HVAC system to be effective, enhancing the filtration and sanitation of your standard HVAC equipment is another method of infection control that can be integrated into your building’s systems.

While COVID-19 has introduced a new set of challenges for infection control within restaurant spaces, creating environments where customers feel safe and comfortable reentering their favorite establishments is of paramount importance to restaurant owner’s business model. Our experts in restaurant design can help you implement design strategies tailored to your budget while helping protect patrons and employees.

This article originally appeared on Henderson Engineers’ websiteHenderson Engineers is a CFE Media content partner. 

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: Brian Sander, restaurant practice director | associate vice president, Henderson Engineers