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How It Works: The New COVID Restaurant Rituals

Restaurants adapted to pandemic conditions in a variety of ways, from the innovative to the inspired to the desperate. Beyond big-picture challenges of delivery pivots and staffing shortages are the mundane everyday issues of exactly how stuff works in this new paradigm. When do you ask about vaccinations? How and where do you test? How can you taste food in the kitchen when masked? Where do you collect used masks? And how can you get all this done without making your restaurant feel like a medical clinic?

New York fine dining spot Reverence in Harlem has been a leader in pandemic precautions since the first lockdowns. Chef-owner Russell Jackson only recently got comfortable enough to offer inside dining, and only then once satisfied with a range of new procedures.

At Reverence, diners must show proof of vaccination (including boosters), as well as a negative COVID test. The policies and steps to submit proof of vaccination and a negative test result are detailed on Reverence’s FAQ as well as their Tock reservation page—which is the only way to dine at the restaurant, as they accept no phone reservations nor walk-ins. The FAQ also explains the restaurant’s extensive COVID mitigation practices for both guests and staff.

Guests can either submit a negative COVID test result obtained on their own, make use of a discount code (good for up to six test kits) provided by the restaurant to get tested in advance, or get tested at the restaurant by staff upon arrival.

Jackson is trying his best to incorporate these steps seamlessly into the hospitality experience. This means staging the process with a range of gestures and objects to make it “nice”—just like all the longstanding rituals and maneuvers common to restaurant hospitality before the pandemic. We asked Jackson to walk us through how these COVID hospitality rituals work at Reverence.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

Russell Jackson
Chef-owner, Reverence

It’s all clearly written out on our Tock reservation page—this is what you need to do, these are the requirements for guidance. Then you’ll get a questionnaire in a follow-up email that says, “Please remember that you need to be tested. Do you need a test, or will you provide us with one?” That way we know ahead of time who’s coming in, and how many tests we need to pull out of the box.

People come in and we look at their vaccination status. I even made a little video that was like, hey, this is where we’re at. This is what we’re doing right now.

The dining counter at Reverence where guests are seated once their COVID status is cleared. Photo: Emily Schindler.

If they’ve already got their negative test, they show us the On/Go app or show their vaccination cards, and sit down. Before, it was like, “Yeah, come on in and sit down. Take your mask off.” Now everybody’s got to sit and wait for the entire testing period to be done. So we ask people to come in a little bit earlier. People have been showing up 10 or 15 minutes early. We get them seated. We have a little silver tray we put out that’s got a little timer and a placard that says you can use the phone now, you can download the app if you haven’t already. The placard has the On/Go QR code and instructions to run you through the entire process.

Tray with testing materials presented to guests at Reverence. Photo: Emily Schindler.

We had one woman that came in who was tested. Her guest came in, knew that she needed to be tested, and brought her own test. She was like, “Do you mind if I take the test here?” We were like, “No problem!” She sat down and ran herself through her own test and we checked it.

We pick up the trays, and they go into the biohazard bin. We have a little antique ice bucket with tongs where we pick up all the scraps, and those go into the bio bin. At that point, we tell people that they can remove their masks.

Tongs and bucket for disposing of used COVID test materials and other debris. Photo: Emily Schindler.

When a guest needs to be tested at the restaurant, so far it’s just been me doing it. We have the tray set up based on who we know needs to test, because in the questionnaire we ask if they want to be tested here or whatever. We have it all pre-staged.

Wednesdays are usually prep days. That’s when a lot of our farmers come in and drop materials off. When everybody on staff comes in, they don’t unmask. They go and wash their hands or sanitize them, they sit down, I throw a test to them and they do their testing.

If a vendor came in, if my fish guy or my mushroom guy came in and asked to take a test, I’d put out a test for him. I have no problem with that. If we have a delivery guy that shows up and doesn’t have a mask, we give him a mask. If we see that their mask is kind of mucky, we’re like, “Do you want a fresh mask, man? I’ve got a KN95 for you. I’ve got an N95 for you. Do you want a lightweight one? I got a mask for you.”

Mask caddy. Photo: Emily Schindler.

We’re a small restaurant. If even one person gets sick, it has an effect on us. We went to heavy respirators for a period of time. I spent a couple of hundred bucks on respirators and filters and all that shit just because you could talk easier than wearing a mask. But we realized that taking it on and off and trying to taste stuff was impossible. If you go to taste something and it spills somewhere, you’re screwed. Even the way I taste now, I change my body position. I’m holding my mask in so that I don’t drip stuff on it.

Especially with the style and the way that I cook, tasting frequently is an important part of it. But the days of having just one tasting spoon sitting in water, those days are over. I’m one of those people who doesn’t want to use a disposable spoon because I think they’re disgusting. They just add more waste, irrespective of the green nature of some of these things. I hate using them. So at the end of the night, I have a bucket just for my own tasting spoons, and it’s just overflowing.

Chefs traditionally often had one tasting spoon to use during service, cleaned or soaked between tastes. Jackson now uses each tasting spoon once, then puts them in a bucket for later cleaning. Photo: Emily Schindler.

But it’s a fine dining restaurant. You want it to be nice. Even though we’re a little rock-and-roll—or a lot rock-and-roll—we still want there to be an element of elegance. I’ve spent a lot of money buying all these little things on Etsy. We even have a little setup where the UV sanitization system is—gifted by PhoneSoap—so if you want to sanitize your phone or your mask, you can do it. That’s all under a glass dome.

Ultraviolet sanitizer, waved over glass covers where guests can place their devices or masks. Photo: Emily Schilndler.

When the restaurant was full, I used to stand at a certain point in the kitchen and take my mask down and explain the dish to the crowd. Now, because I’m uncomfortable taking my mask on and off, I want to decrease that as much as humanly possible. And honestly, the person who’s doing the majority of the tasting is my sous chef, and he’s in the back facing the back wall, standing right by the ventilation. So he’s good.

But for me, I don’t want to take the mask on and off, so I actually bought a mic and a really cool little Marshall speaker. I wire up and turn the mic on, and I can talk to everybody without having to take my mask off and/or scream. Otherwise when I’m talking to the crew and I’m trying to talk to people, at the end of the night my throat is killing me. I can’t breathe.

Jackson’s mask for addressing guests, with mic wired to a mini Marshall amp. Photo: Emily Schindler.

I double mask everywhere else. During service, we have the custom masks made for us by Casupo—a women owned biz in California—with really lovely material, double-lined, and you can put a filter in there. I wear that during service because it’s comfortable for me and I can still talk. The idea of wearing the respirator is not practical for service. I can wear it if we have a repair guy in here or something like that.

For all the used masks and tests at the end of service, I actually brought in biohazard bags. We have biohazard cans, which are just kind of general trash cans at the front and in the bathroom. We tie them off and they go into the regular trash because there’s no regulation for it. There’s no logical process for it at this point in time.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

We’ve only started this testing program recently, so we haven’t yet had someone test positive in the restaurant. If it happens, we’ll explain to them, “I’m sorry you’ve tested positive. We’re going to have to ask you to leave immediately and reschedule.” I would highly recommend that they go to get a PCR. I may also give them another rapid test to take home with them to determine if they’ve got a false positive. But now that they’ve registered positive here, we can’t in good conscience let them stay for everyone’s safety. That’s why we ask everybody to stay masked until we call all clear.