How to nail a restaurant Design Brief that merges the Art and Science of the business

This is a subject that is very dear to my heart and was born out of necessity and a need to minimise anxiety and heartache. The Design Brief and how to nail it has been a topic I have been grappling with and refining for years. I believe a proper Restaurant Design Brief is the foundation and seed that can ensure long-term success and market longevity for any aspiring restaurateur embarking on a new project. You can think of it as a design driven Business Plan

A “Purist” Approach to Concept Creation

Back in the early 2000s, I was lucky to be working with a very creative and inspirational person who I like to refer to as a mentor in a boutique design and consultancy firm. Back then, we did everything from A to Z pertaining to conceptualising, designing, and implementing F&B businesses. Each project took a piece of me, with the amount of attention to detail and passion that was poured into it. 

A strategic partner and collaborator of that firm was an amazing architect based out of Chicago, to whom I owe a lot when it comes to design and concept thinking. She taught me a lesson very early in my career on concept creation and presentations. One of her rules was “never use a picture of an existing restaurant to show clients design intent of a new project even at an early concept / ideation stage”. Her reasoning was simple, if the picture represents your intent then your idea exists already, if it does, then you are not proposing anything different or new. If that is the case, then what is the point?

Both she and my mentor were purists in their approach, which in this day and age is becoming more of a rare attribute. I like to believe some of that rubbed off on me and I carry that torch with me to this day. 

Design Brief Objectives 

This purist approach does not come without its commercial constraints and obstacles. Mainly time and money. While the latter can be mitigated and costs kept to a specific budget, to do so would require more of the first ingredient, time. We all know that time is not something we are blessed with in these days. In my last stint in a design and construction firm that focused on the F&B industry, we had clients who gave us twelve weeks turnarounds for design and build projects. Try being a purist with those constraints. 

My biggest nemesis as a child and is something I still hold with me till now is the word OR. Either this OR that. My question was why not AND? This AND that. So I asked myself early on: 

Can we be purists AND commercially viable? Creative AND efficient? Produce unique “out of the box” designs AND deliver a project on time? 

The answer, at least based on my ambitious perspective, is yes, of course. A lot of it boils down to a proper Design Brief and designing inside the box. Yes, many of you must have either heard of, created, or been a part of a Design Brief. What I will attempt to do is outline the approach I have woven together over the years to come up with a Design Brief that ticks all the boxes and can become the blueprint for all design disciplines to work off. 

Market Longevity and Financial Success

For any F&B business to have a chance at longevity and profitability, both the science and the art need to coexist. The focus of this entire site and what Food Business Design stands for is to explore ways of merging these two worlds. I have refined the process of crafting these Design Briefs over the years through a lot of trials and even more errors.

In recent years, I have been using this same framework to help businesses optimise their performance. The same framework used to create a business can be utilised to assess and optimise one. I am emphasising the word, business, here. We have to always remember the design of a restaurant is the design of a business, not a space. Not any business may I add. A hospitality business. You can think of these Design Briefs as Business Plans that are design driven and merged with Concept Presentations.

Efficient Approach to a Creative Output

Anyone involved in any form of design project knows that the concept stage is very subjective. The primary drive behind developing this approach for a Design Brief was to turn the “subjective” into “objective”. I found that the concept design stage can be more efficient and creative if the client, designers, and all other stakeholders involved share the same vision from the outset. This will ensure the concept presentation session becomes a productive display of how the brief was interpreted rather than turn into a collision of tastes. When there is logic and a reason behind design decisions it no longer becomes a question of de we like red or blue. 

The Design Brief Building Blocks 

This might sound off putting to many designers out there, but the trick is to design inside the box. The brief is the box (parameters) and the challenge is to design within these parameters. Its shape itself need not be a box, it can be a circle, hexagon, amoeba, or organic shape. The point is, in order to design a business that has commercial viability, multiple inputs need to converge and be taken into consideration. 

Target audience, budget, location, competition, seating capacity, positioning, cuisine type, trends, the list of inputs goes on and on. To simplify the process, and make sense of it all, I have condensed these into two fundamental building blocks:

  • Business Model
  • Storyline 
Design Brief food business design

The Business Model

The Business Model section includes elements that address all things pertaining to commercials. It outlines returns and trading volumes as well as price points and market positioning. Some outputs of the Business Model can inform the design stages in terms of outlet ideal size (if a location is not yet identified), back and front of house allocations, seating capacities and so on. Here is a list of some topics this section typically covers: 

  • Investment budget
  • Potential returns
  • Average spend 
  • Meal periods demand
  • Maximum covers per meal period 
  • Manning levels 
  • Breakeven (number of covers and space required)
  • Seating capacities
  • Outlet ideal size
  • Digital offer 
  • Price points 
  • Positioning 

For a more in-depth dive on my approach to the business model, you can refer to The Business Model (1 to 4) series of articles. 

The Storyline

The Storyline is the emotional aspect of the concept and what some would refer to as the soul of the brand. It is the emotive queues that connect with customers, the content (to use a more digital term), the meaning behind, the why, etc. Here is a list of some topics this section typically covers: 

  • Target audience (the collective me too) 
  • The story 
  • Relevant trends (when appropriate)
  • Brand tone and character 
  • Design strategy and inspiration 
  • Product strategy and inspiration (with connections to kitchen design, branding, furniture, tableware)
  • Guest experience / sequence of service 
  • Communication / Content strategy 
  • Music
  • Ambience 
  • Tableware 
  • Food theatrics and visual displays 
  • Collaboration and community engagement 
  • Sustainability element 
  • Art
  • Furniture 
  • Spatial Allocation (layout)

You can refer to the Ultimate Guide to Restaurant Design (1 to 4) series of articles for a more elaborate description on what I view are the essential building blocks of a successful restaurant design. 

Creating Unique Viable Concepts 

How far to push the limits? This is a question I have been confronted with and contemplating for years. Do you create a concept that is miles ahead of what is in the market, is like nothing seen before, pushes boundaries and limits and is unique in every aspect? Perhaps many would say yes to this. However, I would caution to consider how far you push the limits.

I am all for innovation and being unique. Bringing something new to the market is key to ensure you are different and have a chance at being successful. In a crowded marketplace, you want to stand out from the rest and be noticed. With that said, you need to be mindful of how far you push the boundaries.

If you are proposing something that is totally different to what the customers are used to, it is best that you plan for the education period. Sometimes it takes time for customers to accept something completely novel. If you are breaking habits and existing patterns, you need to allow for the time and the investment required in educating your customers. There is nothing worse than a first mover failing because of lack of cashflow to sustain the business until customers accept this new offer. Copycats usually follow. They jump at the idea and learn from the first mover’s hard work and innovation. They pick a ripe fruit you planted. 

Design Concept

You need to be able to coin a good F&B concept in a three to five words phrase. It should not require two paragraphs to explain. This concept description needs to align the Business Model inputs with the Storyline. From that concept statement, designers can derive their design concept. 

There is a difference between “design concept” and “design elements”. A design concept is not merely a description of design elements. It should be a compelling Storyline that describes the design direction derived from the concept statement. 

F&B Design Concept food business design

Early in my career, I used to create a fictional mascot or character, that personifies the brand which formed part of the Design Brief. Is it old, young, woman, man, grungy, sharp, serious, quirky, cosy, energetic, etc? I have since evolved and moved away from this literal approach, which could still be relevant in certain cases. I still attempt to bring the concept to life in these briefs.

Importance of the Layout

The layout, in my opinion, is a crucial element in the success of any restaurant. The layouts proposed in the Design Brief do not replace those coming from the design teams. With layouts, I am a firm believer in “the more the merrier”. It is very important to take the time to explore various options and have multiple inputs. The layouts proposed in the brief are from an operator’s lens looking at elements such as seating types and arrangements, service stations, kitchen and bar counters, BOH requirements, etc. They also look at flow and operational traffic. Both kitchen and interior designers will then take these as a starting point to build upon, improve and reiterate to come up with the best solution.

What you can take away from this

A proper Design Brief can: 

  • Help you save time
  • Nail the concept deliverables and remove much of the guess work
  • Align the various designers and stakeholders on the team
  • Ensure common objectives are met
  • Drive teams to design a hospitality business not just a space
  • Address business metrics and increase chances of financial success

The whole point of this entire process is to:

  • Increase the probability of the concept being accepted by the client
  • Align all design initiatives (brand, interior, kitchen, etc) in one direction
  • Ensure the finished product is built on solid business metrics and foundations
  • Improve the usage of time to enable the teams to deliver something unique, compelling, and commercially viable

I believe following this structure will allow you to adopt a more purist approach to perfecting a concept. The structured approach of efficiency and taking in all the variables allows creative teams time to come up with a captivating, novel, and engaging brand story. By merging the art and science, true magic happens and hospitality businesses are created that resonate with the target audience and have market longevity. 

If you are an owner/operator reading this while embarking on a new project, then you can consider the points mentioned in this article to put together a brief or at least try to answer some of these topics prior to starting the design process. If you are a designer reading this, I suggest you have a workshop session with your client to extract as much of this information as possible to help guide you on the path of efficiently designing a successful F&B business.  

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If your enjoyed this article and found it useful then I would recommend you check out the following : 

RESTAURANT BUSINESS MODEL The building blocks of setting up and operating a successful restaurant 

RESTAURANT DESIGN GUIDE What it takes to design a successful business not only a beautiful space


I am keen to hear from you. Listen to your stories, challenges and experiences in the industry. I would also like to know if you found this article useful and whether you had a specific question or subject you wanted me to tackle in the future. Get in touch with me.


Thank you for taking the time to read through this article. To learn more about me, click here.  

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