Gone are the days of big-box fast-food joints, sterile plastic booths, and mystery kitchens. Limited-service brands are getting makeovers, and the results are sleeker, more attractive restaurants that are giving customers even more reason to trade down from full-service experiences.
Many companies are downsizing, creating smaller and more efficient stores in many markets, while some value-minded brands are creating more homey, comfortable, and upscale spaces. All kinds of concepts, meanwhile, are peeling the curtain back on the kitchen, making the back of the house just as much a centerpiece of the restaurant design as the dining room.
The reason for this change, experts say, is that good design is an imperative in today’s restaurant climate. No longer can brands compete on cost, speed, and quality alone; executives say aesthetics are just as important, and that design plays as much of a role in showcasing food as the menuboard. That’s why brands ranging from the biggest quick-serve chains to upstart fast-casual stores are adding more sophisticated design and architectural touches.
Updated McDonald’s stores, for example, feature plush armchairs and clean, modern lines throughout. The company even ditched the hallmark double-sloped Mansard roof for a more modern look. Wendy’s, meanwhile, has added fireplaces, flat-screen TVs, and light wood to give its restaurants a more airy and comfortable feel.
“I think that many of the players in the [quick-service] business have realized they’ve really got to up their look in order to look similar to the Paneras and the other big fast casuals out there,” says Michael Arrowsmith, chief development officer for Captain D’s.
The seafood brand, Arrowsmith says, has always been more of a fast-casual concept at heart. It cooks to order and does most business inside the restaurant, not at the drive thru. But until a recent branding and design overhaul, customers might have found it easy to lump Captain D’s in with other standard quick-service concepts.
The store redesign created a more beach-like feel in updated units, with surfboards hanging as wall art, communal seating, and bright colors and materials. The physical overhaul works in concert with Captain D’s menu change, which brought on grilled items like shrimp skewers and steak kabobs. The brand is aiming at recruiting new customers while still maintaining old menu favorites like fried fish and hushpuppies. Collectively, the changes are working to increase sales and bring in a younger crowd.
“If you walked into a Captain D’s today and weren’t familiar with the brand’s past, it really looks more like a fast-casual restaurant than it does a quick serve,” Arrowsmith says.
It’s tough to send a message about such a wholesale change, Arrowsmith says, without some kind of physical facelift. That’s because even restaurants that have traditionally competed on price and speed, he says, are paying closer attention to design and architecture. It’s considered just as important as the menu and the speed of service and just as fundamental as accuracy or customer service.
“I think the design and the experience are so intertwined now,” says Anna Abbruzzo, principal at Igloodgn, a Montreal-based design firm. “It’s that expectation—[customers] really expect to feel something special, to connect to their environment. When we go out for a burger, we’re not just going out for a burger.”
Abbruzzo’s firm redesigned one of Montreal’s oldest burger joints, Mister Steer. At the time, half of Mister Steer’s clientele was over 50, and the owners, much like at Captain D’s, wanted to find a way to keep their current customers happy while attracting a new fan base.
The new design added sepia-tone tiles laid in a quilt-like patchwork, red vinyl reminiscent of an old diner, and designer lighting. Igloodgn also worked on a total rebrand of the restaurant, changing everything down to its website.
The redesign seems to have paid off. With a totally new look and vibe in the restaurant, Mister Steer’s owner was able to raise burger prices. That, Abbruzzo says, wouldn’t be possible without the aesthetic upgrades. “He couldn’t have done it,” she says. “I think he would have been laughed out of business. I think you’ve got to give your customers a reason [to visit].”
Across the spectrum, fast-casual and quick-serve restaurants are putting more weight on design, Abbruzzo says, because it’s a necessary competitive advantage.
“Chains know they can no longer be generic,” she says. “Even Applebee’s has to stand out from Friendly’s, for example. And I think a lot of the time, the food is very similar. They just do it with design.”
That’s true even for some of the most value-minded brands. Whereas a “get them in, get them out” mentality used to reign, companies now are encouraging people to linger, says Lynn Rosenbaum, vice president of environments for Chute Gerdeman, a Columbus, Ohio, strategic brand and design firm. That’s partly because environments that are more comfortable help build brand loyalty and trust, he says.
Take Domino’s as an example. Chute Gerdeman’s recent design of a new-store prototype, dubbed “Domino’s Pizza Theater,” changes the entire store environment. No longer are customers relegated to a small waiting area. The new design is open and bright, and includes a dining area, a sea change for the brand that made its name in quick delivery and service.
As consumers grew more sophisticated and had higher expectations, Rosenbaum says, Domino’s executives realized they needed to showcase their ingredients and cooking process more. Putting the prep line in customers’ view in the “Pizza Theater” model has done more than just provide a behind-the-scenes peek at pizza making; it’s put more trust into the cardboard box.
“Domino’s has always used fresh ingredients. They’ve always hand-tossed their pizza. They’ve never used frozen ingredients,” Rosenbaum says. “But there was an assumption by customers that because I can’t see what’s going on back there, they must be using frozen, processed ingredients.”
The environment where customers get their food, he adds, says a lot about what they’re eating. Rosenbaum points to grocery stores like Whole Foods that have revolutionized shopping by focusing on fresh and healthy products, displaying fresh meats, cheeses, and produce as if they were art. He says that change has trickled into the quick-serve world.
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