DANVILLE — Restaurants built around the bustle of communal dining had to embrace takeout when the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to close their dining rooms.

But now that in-dining is once again permitted, Old Forge Brewery is blending the best of both worlds, while adhering to customer-safety protocols.

“We are doing in-dining, but at 50 percent capacity,” said general manager Jace Rovenolt said.

“Our protocol calls for pretty much every other table, customers can’t sit at. They are marked off with kegs on the table, to prevent people from sitting there.”

The marking off of tables didn’t really call for a redesign of the space,” he said. “We just had to make sure that the space we used was of proper distance away.”

Old Forge’s takeout business during the shutdown, was “like a feast or famine,” Rovenolt said, noting that there were lulls between busy lunch and dinner hours.

“We are welcoming people in the door,” he added, “but we still do a fair amount of takeout. There is no bar seating available because we are using that area to stage our takeout orders.” 

Many changes in restaurant protocols are expected to stick even as establishments like Old Forge Brewery welcomes customers back to dining rooms in limited numbers.

Consumers had been gravitating toward more takeout before the pandemic, and the health crisis has left restaurants with little choice but to get creative to replicate the restaurant experience at home.

According to a Zagat survey of nearly 7,000 people, just a third of respondents said they plan to return to restaurants the week they reopen, and among those staying away, 20 percent said they plan to wait three months.

Takeout had been growing long before the pandemic, as technology enabled more working and shopping from home, said David Portalatin, a restaurant analyst at market research firm NPD Group.

In January, carryout visits grew nearly 3 percent compared with a year earlier, drive-thru grew 4 percent and delivery grew 1 percent while on-premise dining was flat, he said.

Stay-at-home orders “probably fast-forwarded where the trend was already going,” Portalatin said.

In April, delivery was up 115 percent from the prior year and drive-thru was up 19 percent.

Traditional carryout fell 21 percent as people opted for takeout options with less interaction.

Interest in takeout is expected to persist as people cocoon as they did in the comfort-seeking years after 9/11, Portalatin said.

Takeout also has presented a different cash flow reality, as high-margin items like iced tea are generally not ordered to-go.

Restaurants can make up for it by charging for extras, like adding bacon or avocado to a burger, or replacing a cooked rib-eye with a steak kit, with all the ingredients for a DIY grilling session, but charging the same.

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