“It’s touched everything,” he says. “I think that movement is about staying a little longer. It’s about lingering, knowing this is a good place to eat. I think there’s a sense that if you can sit down and feel comfortable in the environment, it makes the food taste better. That’s affected the entire industry.”
Showcasing ingredients, products, and prep areas also adds to the overall energy of a restaurant. Because consumers love to see the cooking process, many restaurants are bringing their kitchens out into the dining room, making their prep lines a focal point of the store design.
“Now more than ever, you’re seeing that in concepts that range from fast casual all the way up to fine dining,” says Tanya Spaulding, principal at Shea, a Minneapolis-based marketing and design firm. “People like to see the theater of it. They like to see the food. They like to see how it’s prepared. But more than anything, it makes the experience. That is definitely going to continue to grow, regardless of what level of dining.”
Spaulding’s firm helped design OneTwoThree Sushi, a new quick-service sushi concept in Minneapolis. Each of the three OneTwoThree Sushi units features a backdrop covered in a neutral white, with big pops of color graphics. The sushi prep areas are front and center.
Spaulding says restaurant design is simplifying, with stores using an overall smaller material palette. Design plans that incorporate imported European-made tile just aren’t practical anymore, Spaulding says, while many brands are moving past previous trends, like using reclaimed woods, because they don’t stand the test of time. As restaurants simplify their design strategies, the food becomes the real star of the space, she says.
Spaulding adds that limited-service restaurant design is also becoming more casual.
“Eating out is not a special occasion. It’s a part of everyday life,” she says. “[Customers] make their selections based on what is comfortable and approachable for them.”
And fancy just isn’t comfortable anymore, says Stephen Francis Jones, owner of Los Angeles–based SF Jones Architects.
“People have been kind of tired of going to restaurants and feeling too dressed up,” he says of higher-end restaurants. This shows itself in new design trends like warm wood or otherwise textured tabletops, which are “something you can see and feel and touch.”
At the Southern California organic fast-casual restaurant Greenleaf, Jones worked to highlight the soup, salads, and sandwiches in the store design. At Greenleaf’s Costa Mesa, California, location, he says, the design blends an appealing aesthetic with the need to move customers in and out. The space between the order point and the register is roughly 20 feet, Jones says, so customers move through the line as workers move through their order, similar to the way lines work at Chipotle.
“You’re not having people taking up space at a dining room table waiting to put your order in,” Jones says. “Tables turn quicker because of the time you’re spending standing up in line. You’re seeing a lot of that kind of strategy in the design.”
Designers say lighting and acoustics are often overlooked elements of quick-service design, though if utilized correctly, both can help create a warm, inviting environment.
“People are attracted to light. So you have to play into that,” says Tom Galvin, president of Galvin Design Group in Orlando. “These restaurants are looking closely into lighting elements. They’re looking at colors. And they’re looking at hard surfaces.”
While restaurants are upping their game in the dining room, Galvin says, a lot is happening behind the scenes, too. Kitchens are growing more compartmentalized and efficient than ever before, partly because of the growing cost and scarcity of labor. He expects many parts of the quick-service prep process to be taken over by robots and timers, like the systems many stores already use to fry french fries.
“I think everyone’s going to go to automation as much as they can,” Galvin says.
Juan Martinez, principal and founder of Profitality, a foodservice industrial engineering and ergonomics firm, says labor costs are also playing a role in shrinking store footprints. He says increasing real estate, health insurance, and labor costs are pushing some brands to squeeze into tighter spaces.
“If it costs me less to build and it costs me less to operate,” Martinez says, “I’m going to make more money.”
But Martinez acknowledges that going small is tough, especially when many brands are tearing down walls and bringing kitchens out into the front of house. That’s why using vertical space is a key to compact, efficient kitchen design, he says. When kitchens and prep lines are exposed, there’s less wall space overall for equipment and supplies.
Profitality recently worked with Au Bon Pain to create a smaller prototype for New York City–area stores, which, because of inordinately high real estate prices, were sized about 40 percent smaller than the typical Au Bon Pain store. Aside from offering kiosk ordering for the first time, Au Bon Pain pared down its menu to fit into the smaller space.
New store designs maintain the brand’s iconic yellow color, bakery display case, and sandwich line, says Steve Blum, the brand’s chief development officer. Blum says updating the brand’s look is more important than ever in today’s market, when even the best redesigns can grow tired looking within just a few short years. He says he personally thinks restaurants should be reinvesting in their physical space about every five years, with a heavier revamp every 10 years or so.
“[Trends] are coming in, they look great, and then they get tired pretty quickly. I just see there being a lot of movement in the next few years to stay current,” he says. “I don’t think that there is such a thing now as classical and timeless. So even if you have today what is a classic look, it could be tired in five years.”