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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.
“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.”