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Economic downturn has customers focused on ambience

Still recession-ravaged, today’s consumer is looking for a different dining experience than he or she was just a few years ago. While price, value and convenience are still top of mind, many consumers are also in search of restaurants they can feel connected to, where the atmosphere echoes their current sentiments and feels right, right now, according to industry observers. 

From handcrafted materials to restaurants that feel custom-made for a particular neighborhood to a more modest luxury experience, consumers want restaurants to appeal to all five senses, not just to their sense of value. 

“Especially with today’s economic climate, we’re re-seeing attention on environment,” said John Miologos, executive vice president of architecture and engineering for Columbus, Ohio-based WD Partners. 

We spoke to architects, designers and industry experts like Miologos about what consumers want from their dining environments and how restaurant operators are giving it to them. The following are trends that came up again and again:

Make me feel connected

From eating locally grown food to buying products from neighborhood merchants, today’s consumers are more and more interested in supporting their local economies and communities. They want to know whom they are buying from and feel connected to those people and places — and they want that connection to extend to restaurant interiors. 

“The current consumer wants more regionalization, more localization,” Miologos said. “[It makes them] feel more comfortable and attached.”

Miologos cited as an example McDonald’s regional menu offerings and the chain’s practice of letting franchisees supplement decor to appeal to the local community by displaying items such as photos of the local football team.

Wolfgang Puck’s casual concept, Bistro, plays up localization in its design as well. In July, the company unveiled its newest Bistro location in Tulsa, Okla. The sixth location of the concept, the Tulsa store is the first designed using an existing location rather than a new build-out. 

With the help of Patrick O’Hare of San Rafael, Calif.-based EDG design firm, Puck’s company transformed an auto repair shop into its newest restaurant. The design incorporates the garage’s high-ceilings and open feeling as well as its concrete flooring, but has been warmed up with humble lighting fixtures, comfortable seating and fresh product displayed in jars on shelves. 

“The look and feel of this project is a little more focused on the neighborhood feel ... as opposed to dropping a group of standard specs in a box regardless of what’s around,” said Joe Essa, president of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide. “We don’t want to be outsiders. We want to be part of the community.”

Make it unique

Immersed in the virtual world and consumed with things they can’t really touch, tech-obsessed consumers are craving things that are handcrafted and authentic. They want something that is special, not mass-produced, that they can actually touch — and feel.

There’s a desire for interiors that use “products, finishes and materials that have a sense of craft to them,” said Jeffrey Sheppard of Denver-based Roth + Sheppard Architects.

As one example, Roth points to Carelli’s, an Italian concept in Boulder, Colo., that his firm designed, which has a door handle that is an abstraction of a piece of twisted pasta. A similar example can be found at Standard Tap, a gastro pub in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood that serves local beer and features a custom-made door front of angular, beer-tap-inspired metal.

But it’s not just independent restaurants using handcrafted elements to appeal to sensory-overloaded consumers. Even big chains such as Burger King are making the move to incorporate design elements that feel handcrafted or original. The chain recently reported that it is embarking on a massive chain-wide remodeling effort that will make use of materials such as exposed brick and corrugated steel. 

Tone down the luxury

Given the current economic climate, many consumers feel it’s still not fashionable to spend. Those that can afford it still want luxury dining, just in a less-ostentatious and more relaxed environment. 

“The biggest change we’ve seen is this redefinition of luxury — creating a more approachable environment for a wide variety of consumers,” said EDG’s O’Hare.

To meet consumers’ desires for a new type of luxury, The Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles in Beverly Hills completely revamped its traditional, fine-dining hotel restaurant. Culina, which reopened in the spring, is still luxurious, but features a more approachable design. The new restaurant has an open seating plan, community tables, a crudo bar and an Italian-style wine and snack table, and features warm materials such as reclaimed wood and ceramic tile.

“What we wanted to do was create a free-standing, independent restaurant in a hotel ... a neighborhood restaurant,” said hotel manager Mehdi Eftekari. “Dinner business has quadrupled [since we reopened].”

Soothe me

Before the recession, many consumers wanted an amped-up dining environment where they could exercise their buying power under bold decor, loud music, bright lights and fast service. Now that many consumers have lost some of that power, experts say they are looking for more soothing environments where they can escape reality.

“Baby boomers [especially] are looking for a soothing-type dining experience,” Sheppard said.

Over the years, the decor at Tokyo Joe’s, a fast-casual chain based in Denver, has evolved to meet these changing desires. A few years ago, the decor was chaotic and high-energy, with bright red and yellow paint and loud music. It screamed, “We have money, and we want to spend it now,” said Sheppard, whose firm has designed more than 20 Tokyo Joe’s locations over the last 15 years. The latest iteration of Tokyo Joe’s decor is more organized, the paint is the same color, but not on every wall, and there are accents of color. 

Match my mood

When it comes to restaurant lighting, consumers want illumination that reflects the event. Whether they are having a business lunch and need to clearly view their electronic devices or are quietly lingering over a cup of specialty coffee, they want the lighting to meet their specific needs.

“Lighting is ... no longer just fluorescents across the ceiling,” said WD’s Miologos. “[We are] seeing a better sophistication in lighting design ... more focal points.”

As an example, Miologos references a Bob Evans unit where light is used to make one large table the focal point of the restaurant, while the other tables are more traditionally lit.

McDonald’s rolled out an interior remodeling program earlier this year in an effort to show customers that it can change with the times and meet their needs. Among the many upgrades to interiors is zoned seating and lighting. The zones are based on customer preferences such as “fast,” “linger” and “social” and feature different types of lighting designed to create a variety of pleasant dining experiences, a spokeswoman said.

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