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By Elvira Pollina
MILAN (Reuters) - Burger King is trialling an app for ordering food and booking a table at its outlets in Italy, as it seeks to persuade locals it is safe to eat out again after more than two months of coronavirus lockdown.
Like other fast food chains, sandwich outlets and coffee shops, Burger King, which serves an average 11 million people a day in 25,000 restaurants around the globe, is worried that social distancing rules and fear of contagion will put people off from popping into its stores to grab a burger and chips.
"We need to be good at showing people that it's safe to come to a place which is perceived as being crowded, and give them options so they understand there is a safe way to come in," Andrea Valota, Burger King's chief in Italy, said in an interview.
The chain plans to start testing the app in three of its Milan restaurants as soon as they are allowed to fully reopen, which is expected from June 1. If successful, the app could be used in other countries, Valota said.
Almost all of Burger King's 220 outlets in Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus pandemic, have been shut since the government imposed tight restrictions on people's movements and forced businesses and shops to close in early March.
The chain, which on average serves 20 million people a year in Italy, gradually reopened around 40 restaurants for home delivery during the lockdown. Since May 4, when some restrictions were lifted and about 4.5 million Italians returned to work, it has been selling burgers at drive-through points.
Valota said the pandemic could change consumers' behaviour "for a year or two."
The app will allow customers to order food, pay and book a table from home before making their way to the restaurant. Alternatively, they can book a take away order.
Around a third of the tables in restaurants during peak hours - usually 12-2 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. - will be reserved for this use, Valota said. Social distancing rules will more than halve capacity inside restaurants, he added. "If you have 100 tables, now you can use just 40 of them at the same time."
By doing this, he said the chain hoped to keep its revenues stable, without giving figures. In normal times, around 70% of restaurant revenues come from customers eating in. The hope is to reach at least 50% with the new system, he said.
"The rest should be made thanks to drive through and home delivery, which before the crisis was really marginal," he said.
The chain has also reorganised its kitchens to keep workers further apart. Staff are being divided into teams to limit mixing and are encouraged to wash their hands every 30 minutes.
Outside restaurants, employees will restrict the number of customers entering and will take their temperatures before they do so. Inside, tables will be separated with plexiglass screens.
Rival McDonald's <MCD.N> is also looking at new arrangements for stores as lockdowns are eased, including a trial in the Netherlands with Big Macs delivered on trolleys.
"It's really important to find solutions that allow the customer to enjoy the experience," Valota said.
(Reporting by Elvira Pollina, writing by Silvia Aloisi, editing by Mark Potter)