The fast-casual category has evolved into one of the restaurant industry’s dominant forces. Bridging the gap between traditional fast food and fine dining, it offers bang for the buck, appealing to consumers on a budget while also drawing those who are more culinary adventurous.
But it’s not just the quality of the food that appeals to fast-casual fans. The design and aesthetic of fast-casual restaurants also help these brands stand out from the competitive limited-service pack.
“It’s not the days of McDonald’s anymore,” says Rick Conrath, a principal at Washington, D.C.–based GTM Architects. “[Restaurants] have to rely on the demographics of being able to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s really critical that they’re able to offer a décor that brings in people in the morning, in the afternoon, and later, and that you can offer a variety of choices as it relates to seating.”
We spoke with several experts in fast-casual design—both brand representatives and third-party architects—to find out how fast-casual operators can effectively leverage store design. These are the top six ideas for great design.
1. Develop a vision for your brand
While having a vision may sound like obvious advice, not all owners knows exactly what they want to do with their restaurant at the outset.
Conrath says his firm begins by sitting down with owners to hear more about their vision. Some have very specific ideas, while others just have a kernel of an idea. “Sometimes they have an idea of what they want to do—whether it’s a menu or a type of food or a concept—and they want you to guide them through that process and help them a little bit with the branding,” he says.
He stresses that branding needs to be clear so that when customers enter the premises, they have a good sense of what is going on inside. For example, if the concept is all about fresh food, then the branding should be very focused on the product.
Over the last three years, Los Angeles–based SF Jones Architects has worked on 30 units for the Kenya-based coffee chain Java House, working in collaboration with a graphic designer and local architects who did the production and construction. SF Jones created a branded look and customized each space to the unique attributes of each location.
“A lot of times, what we end up doing [with companies] is helping them establish the brand identity, mix the architecture along with the brand and the graphics, and help to define that look,” says Stephen Francis Jones, owner of SF Jones Architects. “Then we’ll do the next two or three of them, and once they start growing, they inevitably look for cheaper architects to do the rollouts.”
One common mistake with inexperienced restaurateurs is they try to replicate other successful brands, says Vincent Celano, founder and principal of New York–based Celano Design Studio, which has worked on numerous full-service restaurants and recently crossed over into fast casual. He believes each owner’s individual passion drives the cuisine and the concept, and so it should also be presented to the public through the restaurant’s design.
“When we start a project, we always make sure that the client knows who the customer is,” Celano says. “Define what the experience is going to be.”
Celano’s firm recently collaborated with Grove Bay Hospitality on the American Harvest concept at the Brickell City Centre in Miami. Because the restaurant is farm to table, the design includes a lot of farm-inspired imagery, including a tractor, and has a kitchen with a low counter. “There’s a bit of a green wall, [and] a bowl of fruits or vegetables,” he says. “There’s this graphic representation of the farmer—you can see the physical labor, bringing forward the labor, love, and passion of working on the farm, and the product that comes from that.”
2. Find your flow
Moving customers through the queue with ease and expediency is another integral aspect of fast-casual design. The layout and visibility of the menuboard, as well as the appropriate space and shape of the ordering line, are important considerations. Visual separation can help, such as in Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, where a stainless steel kitchen and ordering area is contrasted with a red brick wall background in the dining area.
Conrath recalls how Boston Market, a GTM client, experienced growing pains early on, noting that customers coming in for lunch were overwhelmed by the complex menu.
“They had to get people through the queue line, and tried a bunch of different things to get them moving along with computers and monitors,” he says. There are two types of people to deal with in a fast casual, Conrath adds: those who want to get a quick meal and be out the door and those who want to sit and stay awhile. He says being able to deal with both types successfully is crucial.
Jones says operators must consider how throughput will affect guests’ experience, especially with the proximity of the queue line to tables. “You don’t want people sitting there with people’s butts in their face,” he says. “You also want to have a place that looks like there is a big line outside and is a popular place to go. Trying to do something that balances those two is really important.”
He adds that he recently visited Austin, Texas–based Hopdoddy Burger Bar and found the brand’s approach to be unique. Hopdoddy seats patrons after they order, but if no more seats are available, the restaurant won’t take any new orders until a table begins to open up. That means that at peak times, the line moves slowly, but customers won’t be stuck holding food with no place to sit.
“The flow of the traffic is very important when you queue up, even to give an indication of what that’s going to be, [like,] ‘If you stand here, in eight minutes you’re going to have your food,’” Celano says. “You’re already having a conversation in terms of how quickly you can get the product, and interaction that happens as you move up or down the counter.”
3. Remember that smaller can be better
While many fast casuals have ambitious plans for dining-room features, experts say bigger is not always better.
Conrath says a smaller, packed space implies to visitors that a restaurant is good, whereas a place with many empty chairs implies that it might not be.
While the average restaurant sweet spot used to be 5,000–6,000 square feet, Jones says, fast casuals today typically operate under a smaller footprint of 3,000–4,000 square feet. He says that with dense urban locations, parking is always a problem, and smaller footprints mean fewer required parking spots. He adds that operators should look for real estate that was previously a restaurant because there are inherent difficulties when moving into a space that was not previously a restaurant.
SF Jones has been working with a pub concept called Simmzy’s, whose first location in Manhattan Beach, California, was smaller but “always crowded and very popular,” Jones says. But when the company went to duplicate that success in bigger spaces, it encountered some problems.
“We’ve done five new ones, and each one has its own problematic components,” Jones says. “But now [the owner] is only going to do really small restaurants, because those are the ones that are making him money. There’s a lot of trial and error, and trying to be repetitive is always a challenge.”
4. Strive for originality and accessibility
Some design and material components have become common touchpoints for fast casuals across the country. For example, wood, brick, and marble have been widely used to communicate quality, comfort, and modernism.
But Conrath says some of these design trends have become too saturated. He suggests operators be more flexible with the themes and types of materials they choose. His company recently worked on a fast-casual chain called Fish Taco that favors a nautical theme, which he says is eclectic but efficiently communicates the brand’s ethnic menu.
“It’s a combination of styles, and there’s a certain quality to it,” he says. “It hints at the idea of Tex-Mex, but it’s not so ethnic that it would turn you off if you didn’t like those sorts of places.”
Fish Taco’s interior design uses many types of wood, including distressed wood. Conrath says there is a movement away from the dark mahogany look favored by country clubs and pubs and toward lighter colored wood and a variety of finishes. “It can be a little funky,” he adds.
Celano says the guest experience starts when he or she walks in the door. He stresses the importance of graphics that are unique to the concept and that convey a sense of brand personality.
“The menu, the graphics, and the signage become the identity of the brand and the concept, whereas fine dining or casual dining is more about the expectation of the food,” Celano says. “Fast casual has to identify immediately; you have to bring the product up front as part of the guest experience.”
5. Focus your message
Going against the grain with interior design does not mean going over the top. For its modern take on the fast-casual pizza shop, Washington, D.C.–based &pizza goes to great lengths to create a sense of space, sporting dynamic black-and-white graphics, photos, and designs. But all of it combines to feel completely natural to the brand and its messaging.
Heidi Guerard, creative director and brand manager for &pizza, says the architecture and design from the beginning “always had that clean, bold [look], a few big moves, heavy on the black and white.”
Aiming for 21 locations by year’s end, the four-year-old company customizes each unit’s design to its neighborhood. One &pizza location is located in an area of D.C. with many music venues, “so we took the idea of brass instruments and created a very large ampersand that is 118 inches high,” Guerard says, noting the concept’s popular icon. “It’s a patchwork with rivets, and the patchwork is cut into an abstract version of a street map of that neighborhood.”
She adds that &pizza’s shop in Gaithersburg, Maryland, sits on land that was a farm in the 1800s, so the store’s design incorporates spindle-back chairs and barn-door hardware. “We actually took a tractor-tire pattern, abstracted it, and applied it onto black corrugated metal that spans about 12 feet high and 45 feet long that anchors the dining room,” she says.
Guerard says &pizza strives to strike the right balance in its design, going so far as to edit itself during store build-out. “Being able to pivot and strip away anything that wasn’t necessary has been our approach, and it has been interesting as we’ve gone into other markets,” she says.
When &pizza earlier this year opened its first shop outside the D.C. area, in Baltimore, some guests were not familiar with the design approach, which eschews menuboards, messaging, and signs directing customers where to order and pay. Guerard says that as the chain expands, company leaders are rethinking how to communicate with guests through design.
“Have we been too quiet or are we not communicating with the guests enough?” she says. “It’s definitely been a learning experience.”
6. Take a chance
Some fast-casual concepts evolve naturally from a fresh idea, and that inevitably dictates a fresh design.
Iowa-based chef and restaurateur George Formaro, whose concepts include Italian, French, and Latin restaurants in the Des Moines area, is a lifelong horror fan who was originally inspired by the Universal Studios horror monsters, as well as the German Expressionist film The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. The inspiration led to Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, a better-burger concept that opened in the East Village area of Des Moines in 2011. Two more Zombie Burger locations followed, and two more are due to open by the end of this month.
Zombie Burger aspires to be edgy without being bloody, while also being family friendly. In the original location, there are three murals by artist Ron Wagner depicting the Zombie Apocalypse in Des Moines, which are creepy without being graphically gory. Other design components include a 19th century wicker coffin, a zombie clown, and a couple of life-sized zombies with whom customers can get their picture taken.
“When I told my partners what I wanted to do, there wasn’t a model for me to look at for this,” Formaro says. “We were just going to have to create this thing and hope for the best. But we’re really able to push it further now. We have the scary zombies up front totally decked out in what I call ‘apocalyptic chic.’ We have these chain-link fences hanging all over the dining room. There are barred-up windows and a lot of different textures.”
Formaro’s gamble for something edgy and fun is paying off. “It’s hard to explain to people what to expect, but when they get there, people love the place,” he says.