As the food service industry fights to rebound from COVID-19, restaurants around the world are brainstorming creative ways to get patrons back in their doors and comfortable with health and safety standards.
One such establishment is Silver Diner, which, on Aug. 12, became the first restaurant chain in the U.S. to install air filtration, purification and ultraviolet light systems across all its 18 locations in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey, plus two Silver New American Brasseries.
Its Richmond restaurant in Innsbrook features the new technology, the brainchild of Chris Rawlings, founder and chief efficiency officer of Veteran LED, a Richmond-based lighting and energy management firm.
Rawlings, a Chesterfield County native and Iraq war veteran, said his company began researching advanced means of purification at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Germicidal ultraviolet light and HEPA filtration, two tools which have grown in popularity in the fight against the virus, came to the forefront of the search.
“The science is now out there that germicidal light, HEPA filtration, ionization, these different technologies are proven, they work, they create a safer space,” Rawlings said as he strolled about the restaurant, checking filters and testing UV lights.
A handful of wall-mounted systems are spread around the restaurant. They look a bit like small, high-tech air conditioning units, and are on all the time, ionizing the air. They have UV lights on the inside designed to stamp out any particulates the filters capture. A larger UV light hangs above the bar, and comes on at night to provide a radiance field that disinfects surfaces in the area.
UV lights are used as a disinfecting tool in the medical field, and Boston University in June released a study validating claims that ultraviolet light sources can deactivate the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Rawlings noted.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is roughly 125 nanometers in diameter, and HEPA (high efficiency particulate absorbing) filters are able to capture any particle 10 nanometers and above with exceptional efficiency, according to experts.
“None of us can prevent COVID-19 completely. But the bottom line is that we’re creating a safer environment,” Rawlings said.
Ype von Hengst, Silver Diner co-founder and executive chef, said the Maryland-based chain’s sales were up double digits in January and February in conjunction with its 30-year anniversary in 2019.
“Then all of a sudden the whole world collapsed,” he said, adding that 1,600 layoffs ensued. “You get creative in these moments.”
To-go orders made up only about 25% of sales in the first few months. Business suffered and, even as physical spaces reopened at partial capacity, patronage stayed way below average as restaurantgoers remained apprehensive toward the idea of dining in.
“Profit margins in the restaurant world are real small. We need people to come in again,” said von Hengst, gesturing around to the 20 or so guests spread about the restaurant at 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. More sat outside below a tent.
He began considering air filtration and UV purification for his business after reading about a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, that garnered international headlines. One diner infected with the novel coronavirus appeared to spread it to nine people when one of the restaurant’s air conditioners seemed to blow the virus particles around the dining room.
It was this story that pushed von Hengst to the conclusion that customer safety must be of paramount importance to any service industry business struggling to rebound from the pandemic, and that air purification may be the solution.
Silver Diner spent $500,000 to install the filtration systems and UV lights in its 20 locations. It’s a big investment, von Hengst said, but one he thinks will become a necessity.
“If we want to get people back in and make people feel secure, things will have to change,” he said, referring to the service industry as a whole.
“It’s worth the investment because I think this is going to be the new standard.”
Dawn Craddock, a server at the Silver Diner in Innsbrook, was out of work and stayed home for three months at the beginning of the pandemic. She returned in June, a little nervous but ready to get back to her job.
She feels safer in her environment with the filtration system and UV lights installed. As required by the state, masks are still a necessity inside for staff and for diners when not seated at a table.
“I also feel like it’s safer for the guests, people are more comfortable now coming in, dining in, eating and enjoying themselves,” she said, adding that feedback from customers has been encouraging since the systems were installed.
“They feel safer, they are astonished that we are doing all this,” said von Hengst, who has also heard positive feedback from customers. He said that in the past couple of weeks since the systems were put in place, patronage at some of the chain’s locations is back up to around 60%-70% of what it was in 2019.
“They ask us why nobody else is doing this, and, well, somebody has to be the first.”