Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

OPINIONKaiNovember 17, 2020

Covid will change restaurant design forever. Are we ready?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The challenges of 2020 have cemented the importance of having flexibility and adaptability top of mind when creating hospitality spaces, writes interior designer Jonathan Goss.

It’s no secret that Covid-19 has shaken up the hospitality industry. From being shut down fully for lockdown, to reopening under strict safety measures, then, after a few months, those in Auckland facing another few weeks in lockdown, it’s been quite the year. Now, finally, bars and clubs can operate normally under our current restrictions, but the Covid pinch lingers. 

Looking at New Zealand’s response from a design perspective, it’s clear some safety measures will stick. The perspex screens that went up hurriedly around the country seem like obvious features and it makes you wonder why we didn’t have these before. In terms of our health, it’s clear we need to protect ourselves from each other more than we have been – whether we’re in a pandemic or not. Other mandatory restrictions seem to be fluid, changing as we negotiate our way through alert levels. 

Luckily for some businesses, they’ve been set up to adapt long before Covid-19 existed. As designers and architects, we’re always designing with flexibility and future adaptability in mind and the value of this approach has been underscored year on year. A great success story is Commercial Bay’s Harbour Eats. Although I did the concept and design development three-and-a-half years ago while I was at Izzard, when it opened in June just days after the country entered alert level one, the open space with flexible seating arrangements lent itself perfectly to physical distancing rules. This has highlighted that anything can happen in a moment, and we need to ensure we are not painting ourselves into a corner by designing something that can’t be adapted or changed. 

commercial bay harbour eats food hall
Harbour Eats’ open space with flexible seating arrangements lent itself perfectly to physical distancing rules (Photo: Supplied)

Physical distancing requirements will continue to impact restaurant design and all scales of food and beverage operations. We now have an obligation to provide more separation between tables, and construction and fit-out budgets will be tighter than ever. With fewer spatial limitations, food halls, fast-casual dining and street food stalls will be the ultimate winners.

Flexible design allows food and beverage businesses to adapt to changing restrictions. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate into monetary gain. From an operational perspective, and an ultimate hospitality business case, the aim is always to achieve maximum seating capacity and facilitate turnover of those seats throughout the available trading hours, at a competitive and profitable price point. Now, working with additional restrictions, business owners are tasked with providing great dining experiences while also working to protect our health and safety. Even before Covid-19, food and beverage production has become more and more costly but some customers are less willing to cop that added fee. Sophie Gilmour’s piece puts it plainly: the price of a flat white hasn’t changed since 1999, but the price to produce it has. 

For the hospitality industry, Covid-19 has been a double-edged sword. It’s had massive financial implications, yes, but it’s also reinforced New Zealanders’ love for quality food and dining experiences. It’s highlighted how socialising and hospitality is in the fabric of our society. Whether it’s Sunday brunch with your grandmother or meeting your friends at a bar on a Friday night, those interactions were dearly missed during lockdown. We value those opportunities, so why not put an accurate price on them?

I’m based in Queenstown, and the hospitality industry here has undoubtedly been hit hard. But it’s fared surprisingly well off the back of domestic tourism considering its previous dependence on international visitors. I’ve noticed more places introducing smaller menus to reduce operational and staff costs, and while spending is still tight, business remains steady. Businesses that are loved by locals and contribute to a sense of community and integrity will endure and those that lacked authenticity, and merely existed to take the cream off the top of the tourist trade, are suffering the most. 


More than ever, New Zealanders are keen to support their local businesses where they can, and see and appreciate their spend going towards the survival of local operators. It’s also meant people are generally embracing and trying new experiences that have traditionally been deemed “touristy”. 

With a vaccine on the horizon but not yet confirmed, we’ve accepted that international visitors might be a way off. The trick for the hospitality industry will be to keep local punters coming into their business by ensuring the product is diverse, ever-changing, and authentic. We have been working closely over the last few years with Cardrona Alpine Resort, a well-loved local and national institution, to redevelop the resort, broaden their offering and future-proof their operations. A Kiwi-only ski season was not something anyone envisioned, but local and domestic tourists went above and beyond to support Cardrona. Part of Cardrona’s charm with domestic and international visitors alike is multiple food and beverage outlets, all with unique offerings. 

The next exciting chapter will be the Cardrona Ridgeline building, an alpine food and beverage hub located atop the ridge near McDougall’s top station, focusing on sustainability, and affording unrivalled 180-degree views of the Southern Alps back to Queenstown. It will provide winter and summer visitors alike the opportunity for a quick post-ski/hike/mountain bike coffee, beer or glass of wine, a family-diner-style lunch or dinner, as well as a conference or wedding facility. Come night time, visitors can enjoy stargazing all year round, meaning you don’t have to be a keen skier to enjoy the alpine environment. 

The hospitality industry has shown its resilience during this tough time, and people have realised the value of authentic local operations, which I hope will continue to thrive off loyal customer support. Despite Covid-19 tightening our purse strings, people still appreciate connecting socially over a cup of coffee or dining at a restaurant. We’re lucky this time round that many of our favourite food and beverages offerings remain open but that might not always be the case. If we’ve learnt anything from this entire experience, I hope it’s that we won’t take them for granted again.

Jonathan Goss is an interior designer at Warren and Mahoney, with 20 years’ professional experience in restaurant, bar and hospitality design.

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