When Super Chix founder Nick Ouimet decided his Texas-based fast casual needed a new design, he and his team first considered their own knowledge of the brand.

“We’re a classed-up chicken joint, so we asked ourselves, what does that look like?” Ouimet says.

With Dallas-based design firm Studio 11, Ouimet and his team developed a design with subtle nods to chicken coops and eggs, like arrow-shaped directional signs and mercury-tipped light bulbs. The focal point is a textured white brick wall with hand-drawn images depicting the concept’s many specially sourced, high-quality ingredients. It’s modern and fundamentally cool, but it never strays far from the down-home roots of its star dish.

Design is a key factor for emerging restaurants. Super Chix redesigned when building only its second restaurant. Operators understand that people want to eat where they feel comfortable and welcome, and that design is a valuable way to communicate the brand’s story and values to customers.

Design also sets the expectations for the customers, which the food and staff then deliver, says Steve Starr, founder of Starr Design, a North Carolina architecture and design firm. Fast casuals have become a hotbed for design innovation.

“It’s happening more there than any other sector besides independent luxury dining or retail,” Starr says. Previously, fashion and home décor defined design trends, but the need for fast-casual restaurants to differentiate from one another, the increasing sophistication of the customer, and a new emphasis on dinner business have positioned fast casuals at the forefront of design.

For these concepts, authenticity stands above much else as the ultimate goal. Millennials are discerning observers who value genuineness and craftsmanship. They’re exposed to way too much information and media to value something that’s not real, Starr says.

Meanwhile, Fast Casual 2.0 concepts use design to showcase their “real” elements. Open kitchens spotlight and celebrate high-quality food, as do glass-door coolers that display sustainable or local ingredients, Starr says. And if there’s an opportunity to use real material like wood, stone, or brick rather than a synthetic one, many restaurateurs take it.

What authenticity looks like varies from brand to brand. Many stumble by following trends too closely and not choosing a design that reflects their core brand. A sleek look with molded plastics would be authentic for an Asian fusion concept, but would look inappropriate in a barbecue joint, while rustic wood and exposed brick wouldn’t look right at a sushi conveyor place.

“We didn’t want to be too cool for what we sell: high-quality chicken tenders, frozen custard, and french fries,” Ouimet says. Wood is trendy but hard to clean after a fried chicken dinner, so Super Chix stuck with laminate tabletops and incorporated natural materials where they made sense. Those include ropes with pendant lights and a hand-forged steel drink rail where guests sip local craft beers.

At the same time, the Super Chix team knew that their food—free of GMOs, corn syrup, and other impurities—was at the core of their identity. They axed bright reds and blues, which Studio 11 and Ouimet felt were too much like traditional fast food and masculine, and went with a softer, gender-neutral palette of whites, blacks, browns, and yellows.

The integrity of the food is reflected in the hand-drawn mural and locally made, restaurant-quality banquettes that were given a Super Chix spin.

“We took them apart, painted a yellow accent on them, and put them back together,” says Kellie Sirna, principal and cofounder of Studio 11, who worked on the Super Chix project. “They’ve become a Super Chix icon.”

Steve Paperno and David Goldstein, CEO and COO, respectively, of Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, a Los Angeles–based fast casual, also believe that it’s crucial for the design to align with the brand. They were involved every step of the way—down to picking each piece of material—in the process of designing the new Sharky’s restaurants. The chain debuted in 1992, began a complete design overhaul in 2010, and debuted its new look at a Los Angeles–area store in July.

Sharky’s primarily organic, GMO-free, and sustainably sourced salads, burritos, and wood-fired pizzas are served on real plates with real silverware. Paperno and Goldstein helped choose materials like sandblasted Douglas fir for support beams, reclaimed wood for wainscoting, and Carrara marble for countertops.

“Those materials have been around forever and really mean something,” Paperno says. “We’re really not trying to be something we’re not.”

The careful display of handcrafted lemonades, sangrias, and local beer taps reflect what Paperno calls a “stunning visual” that showcases the product’s authenticity. The design also conveys Sharky’s commitment to a personal connection.

“We worked hard to make the beverage experience happen in front of guests. The team member doesn’t have to turn around. That point of connection between guests and the team member is vitally important,” Goldstein says. “Any time we can keep those people together for 10 seconds longer, it really enhances the experience.”

A fully formed brand identity and accompanying design also begin with understanding the clientele. When redesigning its stores, Nekter, a health-oriented California-based juice bar, looked to customers for inspiration.

“Our goal was to be representative of what we believe our guests to be, and what they believe us to be,” says Steve Schulze, founder and CEO of Nekter.

The brand’s guests are either already educated about health or wanting to be, so the whimsical green-and-orange palette found in old juice-bar designs didn’t fit. Instead, Schulze and his team opted for a cleaner, more sophisticated vibe achieved through a hardwood honey floor, a curated art wall, and a calmer color palette with bright white walls. “It’s slightly more serious, creating a more motivational and inspirational environment,” Schulze adds.

Nekter also took cues from its locations’ neighborhoods. The curated art wall reflects the local culture, with beach-themed images in stores near the coast and desert photos in Arizona.

Schulze and his team are delighted that some Nekters located near high schools have become teenage hangouts. On any given afternoon, one might see 30 kids in there, drinking green juice and eating açai bowls. Now eight-person banquettes are being added in some locations to accommodate the younger customers.

In Starr’s opinion, the hardest part of fast-casual design is striking a balance between inviting people to stay and relax while still increasing throughput.

“Different customers are looking for different experiences from the same concept, and therefore we have to be more innovative with design,” he says. This shift is well illustrated by fast casuals, which are increasingly courting the dinner daypart.

Both Sharky’s and Super Chix have used flexible seating to create spaces for different types of diners at different dayparts. Sharky’s, whose dinner business has risen from 35–50 percent of sales in recent years, used tufted booths, communal tables, a bar with overhead TVs, and patio seating to make guests feel welcome regardless of whether they want to watch the game, chat with friends, or enjoy a family dinner.

Super Chix’s modern wood banquettes can be expanded when other tables are placed beside them. The communal table features a sliding shield that provides some privacy. There are a number of two-tops where young professionals sit during lunch, but Ouimet knew it would also need to accommodate high chairs for a family dinner crowd.

Super Chix has mastered the balance between upscale and kid-friendly. In addition to the tables, it created a custard bar that both adults and kids love. Children especially like going up to it after dinner for a sweet treat, Sirna says. The “chicken coop” is a simple play area where kids can frolic after dinner while parents enjoy wine or beer. The genius of the play area, Sirna says, is that it’s tucked away outside and diners without kids probably wouldn’t know it was there.

Sirna says lighting is the biggest change restaurateurs can make to attract dinner customers and improve design. She used different lighting elements—mercury-tipped bulbs in a low soffit over the banquettes, pendant lights over the bar—to define different areas of the restaurant. Lighting also improves the look of food and dining companions, and when dimmed, it makes guests feel like they’re escaping to a dinner restaurant rather than an energetic lunch place.

“Design communicates so many things,” Starr says. It lets customers experience the restaurant both consciously and unconsciously: Nekter re-envisioned its queuing system so customers aren’t herded into a line immediately but can decide for themselves when to approach the counter; Sharky’s added a large neon sign that says “Feel Good About Eating” to invite guests to consider their meal and what “healthy” means to them.

And really, the influence of design doesn’t get more apparent than that.

Customer Experience, Design, Fast Casual, Restaurant Operations, Story, Nekter Juice Bar, Sharky's Woodfired Mexican Grill, Super Chix