The way the restaurant looks, sounds, and feels when a guest first walks in will set guests’ expectations for the rest of their experience and send a message about the brand. If a restaurant relies heavily on walk-in business, interior design (not a website or social media) is solely responsible for telling a brand’s story before a guest sits down.
Carefully consider the placement of key front-of-house elements to ensure efficient flow, as well as the necessary level of comfort for guests. By ensuring that the interior design represents the brand at every touchpoint, you also allow the team to do their best work by creating consistency for the entire guest experience.
Communication (with the designer) is key
Some restaurateurs will give their designer the broad strokes of their concept and let them take it from there. Others prefer a more hands-on approach in order to communicate not only what they want their guests to see when they walk in and sit down, but how they want the space to make their guests feel.
The USHG team provides tons of information to designers so that they have a comprehensive understanding of exactly how a guest should feel in the space, from the moment they see the restaurant to the time that they leave it.
Focus on the brand
Work with the designer to define the core components that make your restaurant unique. For example, if the wine list is central to the concept, consider creating a beautiful wine cellar that’s visible to guests or a captain’s table stocked with wine in the center of the dining room. If they’re not a notable part of your restaurant, these same design elements may confuse guests.
“You need to understand what your brand is and what’s going to make you different. Being an approachable, everyday place that everyone wants to go to isn’t enough. What makes you unique? Once you’ve got that nailed down, you need to find a way to express it through design,” says Shea.
Next, figure out what physical spaces are going to have the biggest effect on people. Shea advises against spending too much on ceilings, floors, and decor, instead creating zones and focal points that make the guest feel comfortable. Key design elements don’t need to be expensive, they just need to be effective and consistent with the experience that is being created for guests.
Editing is another important step. In addition to saving money, taking away pieces that don’t actively reinforce the brand will ensure guests aren’t distracted and their experience isn’t diluted. These components should always either drive more business or reinforce a key part of the brand.
It’s all about the vibe
Sometimes the little things have the biggest influence—and this is especially true when it comes to lighting and acoustics. Lighting and sound levels must be consistent with the concept.
Compare McDonald’s to The French Laundry, and see the extremes of both noise and lighting (and many other things as well). McDonald’s has only hard surfaces and is as bright at midnight as it is at noon. The French Laundry is filled with soft surfaces like padded booths and upholstered chairs, as well as lighting that changes throughout the day in order to maintain a comfortable and intimate ambiance. Make adjustments to your concept accordingly.
Having separate dimmers for different areas of the restaurant is a great way to control how a restaurant feels. With sound, ask the designer about discreet acoustical panels, introducing soft surfaces, and a good sound system with well-placed speakers.
Give them some space
You’ll need a detail oriented technician and someone with a talent for flow to perfected the floor plan.
The technician will deal with the many city, state, and federal codes that will dictate important details like how much space you need between tables, how wide certain corridors must be, and what you’ll need to satisfy ADA regulations. The designer also needs to understand how a restaurant flows from the front of the house to back of the house, and how to allocate space and transitions appropriately.
The talent—someone who has mastered the art of the restaurant flow—part of this equation will help your guests feel like they have front-row seats to a beautifully choreographed show, allowing servers, food runners, and bartenders to move around the room gracefully and easily. Both are equally important and these roles can be held by the same person, or by other members of your team. The same people will be repeating the same actions every night, and over time, inefficiencies can cause long wait times and negatively impact team morale.
Draw lines on the floorplan to represent how a staff member would navigate the dining room in order to do their job. This will help situate the coat check, host stand, service stations, restrooms, coffee station, and employee entrance in the most efficient places.
Do the same exercise with guests. What route will they need to follow in order to get from the host stand to a table and from a table to the restroom? Minimize crossover, especially between staff and guests. Work with designers to create a space that’s comfortable for guests and allows the team to excel without unnecessary obstacles. Even designers with lots of experience don’t spend their days and nights working in kitchens or on the floor, so you’ll need to be an active part of this process.
You don’t need to have a functioning restaurant to know which will be the most desirable tables and which ones will be difficult to seat. Tables that are close to service stations, near the front door, in high-traffic areas, or far away from any kind of anchor (like a banquette or pillar) tend to be the least desirable. Once the designer has presented you with some layout options, figure out how many “bad” tables you have and challenge the design team to get that number as low as possible.
In addition to code compliance, the spacing around tables will also be related to the market you’re in. In New York City, guests may be used to tables set up closer together than guests in the Midwestern suburbs. In a new market, do some research and ask your designer what guests feel most comfortable with.
Flexibility is key
Building flexibility into the design will help maximize revenue. Consider building tables that have the same width whenever possible so that you have the ability to combine them. Hinged flaps underneath some square tables allow them to be flipped up to create a large round.
A removable air wall in the private dining room grants the ability for the space to be bisected for two smaller parties or used for one big event. If the restaurant only uses one or two chair types, they can be used across spaces.
Starting from scratch can be a daunting task, but building out an efficient space can ensure a seamless experience for all parties involved. The design team is there to bring the restaurant vision to life, so loop them in early on and plan every detail from the start. By staying realistic with goals, prioritizing the big stuff, and reinforcing the brand in every opportunity, the restaurant will be set up for success.