Ashley Ortiz, co-owner and creative director of Chicago-based taco mini-chain Antique Taco, has always had an affinity for antiquities. When she and co-owner/husband Rick began designing their farmers market–inspired taco-and-margarita joint almost seven years ago, she didn’t want the space to reflect the prevailing minimalist, industrial style of most fast casuals at the time.

Instead, the Ortizes scoured flea markets and antique shops for old things that resonated with them. In 2012, they opened shop in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood; the original location featured light-toned, reclaimed wood tables; gauzy curtains; cheerful neon signage; and painted shelves piled with old baking tins and cookbooks amid handcrafted trinkets for sale.

“People want to be in an inviting space that they can almost relate to,” Ashley Ortiz says. “Even if people aren’t antique shoppers themselves, there’s something that resonates with everyone—whether you’re a lover of baseball, old cars, or baking tins, there’s a collectible for whatever your passion is.”

Antique Taco has since added two more locations: a sprawling storefront in a former gas station on Chicago’s South Side bedecked in old hubcaps, neon signs, and an old gas tank, and a “Chiquito” stall inside downtown marketplace Revival Food Hall, whose main differentiator is a neon-pink “Food” sign.

The Ortizes have also deepened their network of local craftspeople—from wood to iron workers—and adopted sturdier enameled dishes, learning that delicate antique plates are best saved for formal private events. Even their third-party delivery service (now accounting for 30 percent of overall business) doubles down on design: Branded boxes with custom masking tape visually transport customers who don’t step foot into the storefront. All the while, the Ortizes continue to amass antiques as they mull different footprints for future locations.

“Oftentimes with antiques you have to buy for something that isn’t quite there yet,” Ortiz says. “We might not need this piece right this moment, but it has a way of finding a home eventually. As a result, we find ourselves struggling to say each location is the exact same Antique Taco, because it’s not, even though the fish tacos taste the same.”

Softer edges, personal touches replace minimalism

The Ortizes’ gut instincts represent a broader trend in limited service away from the almost sterile, ultra-modern style that dominated fast casual’s early boom. Now, brands are embracing lighter, softer-edged interiors and personalized touches that make them feel more amenable to service-focused dayparts like brunch and dinner.

Sometimes a brand’s voice only becomes clear once it’s been open for a while. Nantucket, Massachusetts–based craft pizza chain Oath Pizza opened three years ago with a decidedly industrial design heavy on dark wood, cool gray tones, and galvanized steel.

“We opened Oath thinking it was going to be a pretty edgy brand doing pizza differently, so we leaned toward a more masculine design,” says marketing manager Tianna Tarquinio. Turns out, the brand’s market-driven artisanal pizzas cooked in avocado oil were attracting just as many women as men. So in late 2016, on the cusp of an aggressive expansion, the brand hired New York–based Revamp Interior Designs to lighten and brighten the palette and vibe. Blond oak supplanted dark reclaimed wood, and harsh edges gave way to curved booths, chairs, and walls. Sunny yellow with sharp black-and-white accents replaced muted, concrete grays.

“We introduced curves to give texture and evoke roundness and softness, almost to mimic the dough,” says Cece Stelljes, partner at Revamp.

Footprint and neighborhood determine certain personalized features, like outward-facing solo seating in student-heavy areas versus four tops and extra stroller space in more residential neighborhoods. The connecting thread among all locations is a “crust story” graphic telling the pizza’s story from dough to plate, though even that’s personalized based on site. Large murals on curved walls depict the Oath story in Manhattan, whereas at the Boston location near Fenway Park and the Washington, D.C., store near the Nationals Park stadium, the story is inlaid on sporty pennants hanging from the ceiling.

With 12 locations and counting, Oath is finding it harder to carve out as much time to plot each space, but that’s where Revamp comes in. “Having typologies for different storefronts and knowing what common elements we have to include, we can move forward quickly when we find a new location,” Stelljes says. “Let’s face it, you don’t sign a lease on every space you see.”

Brands are people

Samantha Wasser, cofounder of popular plant-based chain by Chloe, confronted a space similarly heavy on dark wood while she was scouting locations for her latest fast-casual venture in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood. Envisioning something sunnier and more provocative for Mediterranean-influenced Dez, Wasser tapped Jeanette Didon, cofounder and creative director of ByBlack NYC, the firm behind buzzy all-pink diner Pietro, to transform the space into a colorful desert-inspired escape.

“We wanted someone not scared of mixing colors or patterns,” Wasser says. “Didon has a style that really aligns with our brand: colorful and kind of beating to its own drum. We figured if she can make an all-pink restaurant feel cool and not tacky, she’s our girl.”

Dez features curved archways and blond-wood tables accented with triangular black-and-white patterns. Multicolored tile surfaces, leafy plants, and cozy banquettes upholstered in bright Moroccan rugs lend a warm if slightly cheeky vibe. Because the demographic skews a bit older than by Chloe, Wasser felt emboldened to push the boundaries with the graphics that adorn the rugs, packaging, and patio-seating fences, featuring such imagery as cartoon boobs.

“The bare-boobs graphic would never work at by Chloe, but it feels so Dez,” Wasser says. “I love creating brands with unique voices; I think of them almost like different people.”

That’s why she usually tries to avoid what’s trending in fast-casual design in favor of unearthing each brand’s identity.

“I find trends age super quickly, then in someone’s mind it becomes, ‘Oh, remember when that was popular?’” she says. “We opened by Chloe at a time when every fast-casual place was green. I remember walking into the space and saying, ‘Anything but green.’”

Design, Story