The dining experience has changed, and so has the pizzeria layout
The pandemic changed the way people order food, and pizzeria owners adapted by rethinking their spaces. Carryout became crucial, so operators removed tables and focused on to-go orders. Now, as consumers return to dining-in but still appreciate a delicious pizza to-go, restaurant owners and designers are reconsidering their floor plans. They are rearranging the furniture, rethinking the host stand, and streamlining the kitchen.
When Byram Pizza Company opened in Greenwich, Connecticut in September 2020, it took over an existing pizzeria that had bulky booths, stand-up counters, and old Formica tables. “I ripped the whole place apart,” says co-owner Denis Kraljevic. “Everything needed to be updated.”
Among the updates was to emphasize delivery and takeout, and Kraljevic installed a lighted, angled pizza display case in the front of the eatery. People enter, order and step aside, or they order online and pick up. The restaurant measures 800 square feet and has three tables, considerably fewer than the previous owner’s floor plan. “You’re not going to fill all those tables,” he says. “You can have a smaller place and still put out the same amount of food.”
The kitchen also became more compact, to increase efficiency. The prep table and oven are close together, and the POS system at the front counter is close to the pizza display.
Others agree that today’s floor plan calls for fewer tables. The two Old Scratch Pizza locations in Dayton and Centerville, Ohio, measure 8,500 feet and seated about 200 people pre-pandemic. The restaurants reduced their capacity to follow mandates, and today the available seating is still only 80 percent of the pre-pandemic numbers. “We realized we didn’t need as many seats to get that volume,” says owner and founder Eric Soller. “Once we made more space for customers, it all of a sudden felt uncomfortable to put people so close together.”
Takeout was also a factor, and Old Scratch Pizza implemented a curbside pickup system during the pandemic. Today, customers still have the option to pick up their pies without leaving their vehicles. The pizzeria uses texting, signage, video monitoring and technology that alerts the crew when the customer arrives. “We try to make the curbside experience so exceptional that it reduces the need to come in,” Soller says.
Staff members use a separate exit to bring orders to cars. There is also signage directing third-party delivery drivers to that entrance, so they do not crowd the front of the restaurant where people enter and exit for dining in. People still want to come in and enjoy a restaurant meal or sit at the bar, Soller says, so it’s important to make that experience enjoyable too.
“People want more space, and we’re giving it to them,” Soller says. “We’re making money in other ways, with curbside and with merchandise. We dedicated more space to merchandise.” There is a display case with t-shirts, pint glasses, hats and other items at the front of the restaurant, so people can shop while they wait for their table. Old Scratch Pizza has two locations, with plans to open two more in 2023.
Some restaurants converted their concepts to pizzerias during the pandemic. In Chicago, Bite Cafe became Pizza Friendly Pizza. “Bite was a small capacity restaurant,” says Bruce Finkelman, managing partner of 16 On Center, a hospitality collective. “During the pandemic, we thought it was going to be a long time until people would feel comfortable dining in small quarters.” One new feature is an alley-facing pickup window, which Finkelman says is here to stay.
Even before the pandemic, consumers were looking for easy ways to pick up dinner. Restaurant chains have for years made announcements about new compact, streamlined locations. “It’s all about convenience,” says Dana Zipser, managing director and principal for Rubber and Road Creative in San Francisco. The branding firm worked with Pizza Factory to design its new Express locations. “We went from 5,000 to 6,000 square foot local pizzerias with games and family dining to a tried and true DELCO, with 1,000 square feet and no seating.”
Alternatively, some are noticing a trend back to dining in and socializing, and that is driving different changes in the floor plan. “We’re starting to see clients shift their focus to make the space approachable and comfortable,” says Abigail Plonkey, founder and chief experience curator at Maximalist, a restaurant design firm in Denver. “They are moving away from fast casual to more slow and laid back and stay a while.”
Plonkey adds that banquettes and community tables are gaining popularity as operators answer guest demand for a communal experience. Even the waiting area is changing from the typical podium and bench to a more lively bar where people can socialize. “We all stayed home during the pandemic,” she says. “We need a reason to go out now, and it’s not just to fill our bellies with food.”
When Maximalist clients consider the floor plan for a restaurant, Plonkey has them do journey mapping, which means putting themselves in the perspective of customers as they arrive, leave their car, enter the building and take all the other steps involved in dining at the restaurant. The operator and designer consider every touchpoint and often find details that need to be reconsidered. One such detail: signage. “Say order here, pick-up here, restrooms here,” Plonkey says. “If it’s complicated, they won’t come back, or they will walk away. The restaurant should be as welcoming as walking into someone’s home.”
In addition to socializing, people also want to experience the food prep. “People want to interact with the food making process,” says Alexis Readinger, founder of Preen, Inc. in Los Angeles. For some restaurants, that means tables located very close to an open kitchen, so diners can watch the crew work.
Fast casual consumers also want to see how the pizza is made. Preen recently worked with Hot Tongue Pizza to open in a former sandwich franchise location in LA. The counter has seating close to the glassed-in food prep area, so people can see the ingredients at the plant-based concept. “It’s just one more way of experiencing in a small space,” Readinger says. “Everything has an experiential element.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer who covers small business, finance and lifestyle topics.