What it takes to design a successful business not only a beautiful space
Designing restaurants is more than designing just spaces. It is about designing businesses that thrive. I often think of restaurants as living organisms. They have to connect with people; need to evolve; go through ups and downs; need constant nurture, attention, and love; and they leave memorable impressions on people. This restaurant design guide (1) is the first in a four part series of articles that aim to outline the steps needed to ensure you end up with a beautifully designed space that meets its financial target.
There are multiple layers to designing a restaurant. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child; I feel it takes as many people to design a restaurant. Based on my experience, in the ideal world, I believe you require around five to seven different designers (besides the branding component) to deliver a truly complete project.
In this series of articles, I will cover some topics I dealt with over the years, which I believe form the building blocks for a successful restaurant design project. Everyone involved in such projects hopes the finished result produces a beautifully designed hospitality business that delivers memorable experiences to customers and brings financial returns to the owner/operator. I am sharing these points and hope they might save some of you time when embarking on new projects to achieve these common goals.
The Various Restaurant Design Functions
The architect for spatial planning and layouts. Interior designer for the soft finishes and giving the space its textures, colours, and warmth. An industrial designer for custom installations, furniture, and fixtures. A stylist / visual merchandising expert for the finishing touches and the details that tell the story. Sometimes, the latter is also an art consultant.
There are a lucky few who can afford a lighting designer on a project. Larger hotel and commercial projects have lighting specialists as part of the core team of designers. Their addition to a project has a tremendous impact on the ambience achieved. Acoustics design is another component that is a rarity to have done, but its inclusion pays huge dividends and positively affects the overall customer experience. Finally, a key part of the design journey of any restaurant is a back of house / kitchen designer to ensure you optimise the heart and engine of the restaurant.
I am not saying there are no design firms out there with the skill sets and expertise to deliver all the above elements. The point is to consider all these while embarking on a new design project. Depending on the scale of the project and budgets, sometimes owner / operators have the luxury of being able to afford all five to seven of them. In most cases, though, they do not.
- Textures and finishes
- Details and furniture
- Styling and art
- Back of house (kitchen)
The observations I am sharing summarise things I have noticed from working on multiple projects over the past 20 years. I acknowledge that generalising is never one hundred percent accurate. There are obvious exceptions and anomalies (outliers) who defy these statements.
Architects and Interior Designers
Spaces designed by architects have great spatial allocation and flow, yet sometimes lack human scale and warmth. Spaces by interior designers sometimes have layouts that could be optimised. In both cases, too often you end up missing the finishing touches. I cannot overemphasise the value of this point. Styling, visual merchandising, and art installations truly inject life into a project and help deliver the story, without which you are left with good looking spaces that lack soul.
I have come across many designers who attempt to design the BOH (kitchen) spaces out of good will to help their clients. Their claim to their capabilities to do so is “we have come across many restaurants before”. I am confident there might be some who have in house specialists, and can do so, but many do not. To an owner/operator, this is perhaps the most important component of the design project and one that could affect your financial performance down the line the most.
Now to one of my personal favourites, industrial designers. While I have come across a growing number of design firms that boast multi-disciplinary teams which yields fantastic results in the finished product (executed project), not all firms have that luxury. If designed by a specialist, a customised chair, lighting fixture, or even a bench seating, will have a more thought out, carefully conceived, and detailed outcome.
Lighting and Acoustics Designers
While larger scale projects such as hotels and bigger independent restaurants can afford to have a lighting designer on board, not all smaller projects have that luxury. Often, the appointed interior designers depend on specialised suppliers for help in designing the lighting scheme. Same is true with sound and acoustics design. As I highlight in this series of articles, both these components are vital to get right on a restaurant project because they affect ambience and the overall dining experience.
The next big question I get on projects and would like to address here is: who comes first, the branding team or interiors? There is not a single answer that works for all projects to this question. What I found interesting is that this can, sometimes, become a point of contention. Branding experts always feel they need to come in first. Interiors teams sometimes feel the branding needs to plug into their concepts. I can tell you from now that there is no clear-cut answer to this, and it all depends on project scale, budget, and timelines.
The other question is, when does the kitchen designer come in and who produces the layout? Who does the initial division of space, back and front of house? I have been on projects listening to interiors teams asking kitchen design team the amount of space required and both trying to negotiate where the “border line” sits. We can solve this from day one with proper teamwork and communication.
This brings us to one of the most critical points when creating and implementing concepts. Timing, timing, timing. No, this is not a typo. Just an emphasis on its importance. Time is money. I have come across so many instances where people focus on budgets and value engineering a project and forget to assign the cost of time. Cost of time in terms of expenses incurred and in terms of lost revenues.
The simplest way to discuss a project lifespan (through the design lens), is to split it into three phases. While there are variations to this in terms of each stage and the sub-categories each firm has through their internal system and naming protocols, owner / operators need to focus on these three. You could add one more to the below, which is the “Planning Stage”. This is when you do all your market studies and financial projections to decide whether to move forward with a project. The focus here will be on the design stages.
- Concept Creation Stage
- Development Stage
- Implementation Stage
Time more than money has been the biggest challenge on most projects I worked on and am sure faced by many in our industry. Therefore, I always emphasise how important a proper design brief is, and highlight the need for efficient and effective design / project management. The brief framework I devised over the years, aims to enable the team to maximise the efficiency of time available, pass the hurdle of concept design and be able to come up with the most creative output that ticks the various project requirement boxes. As the saying goes, anything worthwhile takes time. The more efficient you are with your time, the better the outcome.
Concept Creation Stage:
Here is when the artistic expression is explored. When the interior design team come with their concept idea. The branding team come up with brand direction, tone, and language. This is when you shape the soul and character of the concept and translate the design brief into a visual language that the viewer can instantly read and understand.
The key challenge during this stage is, depending on the size of the project, the different stakeholders involved and the subjective nature of the deliverables. In most cases, it is a matter of opinions and tastes. Those are very personal and shaped by the viewer’s (stakeholder) personality and background. Over the years, I found that one way to reduce that subjective aspect and align the team prior to starting the design process is to have a proper Design Brief.
Another key lesson I found is that more is more. Not less is more during this stage. Up to a certain point of course. What do I mean by that? More input, more people from multi-disciplinary backgrounds, more inspirations, more constraints, and more design criteria. These often result in a better design outcome. The key for this is to put the ego aside. The team has to have a singular focus, which is the project.
Design for the customer not the client. What I mean by that is, put the end user and restaurant customers at the centre of the design process. When I refer to client here, I mean the owner / operator. Of course, one must consider their needs and requirements. Too often, I find them being put in the centre of the design process for understandable reasons. To get the sign off and approval to have an efficient design process and journey. This approach leads to shortcuts and compromises done.
I truly believe proper detailing has a significant impact on a project. I elaborate further on this in article three (3 of 4) of this series.
Many design firms I have come across outsource the detail design stage to third party firms, whether in the same country or abroad. I have also come across the polar opposite perspectives of project detailing in the different cities I call home (Melbourne and Dubai). While this might be a bit of a generalisation, I base it on most projects I dealt with. In one city, the builders have a vast amount of expertise and knowhow, that they almost get offended by excessive detailing. In the other, the detail sets need to be so elaborate to eliminate, or at least minimise, the contemplation and problem solving on site.
My point on this is simple. It is a lot more efficient and cost effective to resolve things on paper, delete, review, redraw, than it is to do so on site. There will always be things you need to figure out on location based on site conditions, but the more you resolve on paper, the better the outcome.
I would also recommend involving multiple eyes and expertise in this process. Different people have fresh eyes for things. For instance, a good floor supervisor or waiter could give valuable input on a waiter’s station design. The thing is, not all have the skill set to read the drawings, which means you need to walk them through details by having conversations and a dialogue.
The best-case scenario, which also is a rare occasion, is to have the builder involved in the detailing stage helping resolve buildability issues and with the value engineering process. A proper detail set can save both time and money during the implementation stage.
From a client / operator’s perspective, this is the riskiest stage of all. This is where things move from paper to site. It is where the large financial commitments pile up. In many ways, it is the point of no return when you press go. Many things could go wrong during this stage. Budget overruns are dangerous and need to be managed. Cashflow and financing needs to be in place and well planned. Many operational pressures pile up in terms of recruitment, training, menu development, operating manuals, and procurement of operating equipment (which should have been done prior to this stage).
The biggest challenge I find is time once more. Time overruns hurt a project much more than all else because of all the interlinked dependencies and the costs associated. Whether these costs are actual expenditures on things (such as rent and salaries), or opportunity cost of lost revenues, time costs money.
Choosing the Right Partners
This is where choosing the right partners to execute the project come into play. I say partners not contractors because this is how you should look at these relationships, as partnerships. The tender evaluation process should not merely be an excel exercise. The right partners can help resolve the inevitable challenges faced on site. They are the most likely to deliver the project on time or as close to that as possible because they feel vested in it. For the sake of this article, the right partners can bring the vision to life. The best outcome is when all stakeholders involved stand on site during handover and say, “wow this looks better than the initial renders and vision we had”.
Minimise Value Engineering
It is possible to minimise the need for value engineering. The two key points I will discuss in this series of articles pertaining to this issue are: get the budget right from the beginning; and design to budget. You can achieve both these points if you involve the contractor / builder in the project during detailing, and / or if the design team has in depth knowledge of material costs and takes them into consideration during the development stages.
Having gone through countless painful value engineering exercises that put strains on projects, and having worked in a fitout company, I developed a tool to help set a realistic budget from the outset and give designers an allocation per category to work with. The team then takes the concept presentation and does a quick audit of the potential costs involved and gives input to the designers for them to consider during the development stages.
Allow Time for Finishes
The last thing I want to address in the implementation stage that pertains to the design of the restaurant is allowing enough time for the finishes. Often, I have seen projects start with a walk, then a light jog halfway through, then sprint, and a final dash, or tumble, towards the finish line. Sprint from the beginning and then jog at the end. Take the time to get the finishes right. You can do this through proper planning, project management, a suitable set of detailed drawings to minimise confusion and interpretation on site, and sufficient resource allocation from the contractor’s side.
The Design Brief
I cannot over emphasise how important this step is to ensure a successful design outcome. This is where the multi-disciplinary aspect of a restaurant is addressed, and parameters are put in place, to ensure that the project team is designing a business not only a space. It is also an important step to make sure the various teams are aligned and heading towards a common vision.
A proper design brief addresses the project concept and storyline, along with what the business model of the entity being designed is. The purpose of it is to:
- Increase the probability of the concept submittal being accepted by the client
- Align all design initiatives (brand, interior, kitchen, etc) in one direction
- Ensure the new venue is built on solid business metrics and foundations
I believe getting off to a good start on a project will yield a successful completion (of the design process), and ensure profitable longevity of the business for years to come.
For a more in-depth dive into this subject, I suggest you read the Restaurant Design Brief article. In it, I outline the entire approach and methodology.
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