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Form vs. function in restaurant design

Foster Frable is an NRN contributor and a founding partner of Clevenger Frable LaVallee Inc. in White Plains, N.Y. He has designed more than 400 foodservice projects, including restaurants and operations in hotels, colleges and more. He can be reached at [email protected].

The mechanical engineers doing project work at a high-profile restaurant specified an air conditioner that needed to be installed 12 inches above the roofline due to its size, making it visible from certain vantage points in the outdoor eating area. Rather than accept the condition or try to camouflage it, the designers had the contractor reduce the size and, consequently, the capacity of the AC unit by one-third, making it flush with the edge of the roof and improving visual appeal.

Soon after opening, on a warm summer day, the air inside the restaurant was 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the outside temperature because of an inadequately sized AC unit. Customer complaints forced the owner to install a costly temporary system, and eventually he had to completely rebuild the mechanical plant to add the missing 30-percent AC capacity that was required to properly cool the space.

Have you struggled with placing form over function at your restaurants? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Not all mistakes are on such a large scale, but avoidable errors are costly nonetheless. Examples are:

• Bar tops that are too deep or too high for bartenders and/or customers;

• Impractical doors that create extra travel for servers in the name of symmetry;

• Bar chairs that are too high for customers to get their legs under the bar top;

• Heavy stone, metal or glass bar tops that require under-bar structural support that consumes too much equipment and work space;

• Wine displays that are constructed with locks on the bottom of each door, requiring staff members to get on hands and knees to unlock them;

• Residential tables and chairs that aren’t durable enough for a restaurant setting and can be extremely costly to replace;

• Decor and finishes that use hard reflective materials that amplify sound, with noise intensifying as the dining room fills with customers;

• A hard-to-clean or slippery floor material that is selected for an open kitchen because it looks better than a more practical alternative;

• A tiny, pin-spot light that focuses over a single vase in the center of each table, requiring guests to use cell phones in order to read the menu and forcing lighting off center whenever tables are moved to accommodate a large party;

• Residential-grade materials and finishes that quickly deteriorate with normal restaurant wear and tear, such as wine or liquor spills;  

• Light-gauge metal finishes that dent or sag;

• A point of sale system that is recommended by a designer based on how it looks rather than compatibility with other software or systems critical to both front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house operations;

• The omission of built-in locks from back bar cabinets for aesthetic reasons, requiring an owner to later install unattractive surface-mounted padlock hasps to combat theft. 

Designers who are focused on making a design statement or achieving the next hot look can end up compromising effective core operations. This error results in long-term challenges to efficiency and, consequently, impacts good customer service.

Operators need to balance the visual appeal of a restaurant or dining area with the practical operational requirements that allow the unit to operate efficiently and provide the best service and comfort for guests. Following are some tips and things to consider in order to avoid issues like this when building or renovating a facility.

1. Select an architect or interior designer who specializes in restaurant or hospitality design and has experience with multiple restaurant projects in a class similar to your own project. Retail and restaurant design may have commonalities, but good restaurant design requires unique experience.

2. Especially with large and complex projects, select a firm with multiple principals and a support staff in order to benefit from a team effort. 

3. Invite designers who are being considered for a project to visit various restaurants. Ask the manager and people who work there how the layout, counters and service areas work for them. Are the service stations well-planned? Is the bar functional? How are the floors, walls and furniture holding up? Is the lighting attractive and functional in all areas?

4. Learn from the leaders: Visit recently opened or renovated upscale restaurants operated by groups with multiple concepts, like Del Fresco’s Restaurant Group Inc., Darden Restaurants Inc., Fox Restaurant Concepts, Starr Restaurants and ESquared Hospitality, who know what it takes to make and maintain a restaurant. The advice here isn’t to copy their decor, but instead pay attention to details and develop a list of what is important in making a restaurant successful and sustainable.

5. Designers come with a wide range of experiences and resources, but they may not have expertise in a specific area critical to the success of a particular design. If multiple attempts to solve problems don’t lead to acceptable solutions, request another person from the same firm to provide a second opinion, or bring in a specialty consultant. Specialists in lighting, access for the disabled, acoustics and noise control, and POS systems are frequently added to a restaurant project team.  

6. Some high-profile restaurant designers only produce hand sketches and elevations, presentation boards with materials and inspirational photos, and outline specifications with the expectation that your architect or contractor will convert these into detailed drawings. This can lead to misunderstandings, project delays, field changes and additional costs. 

7. Ask a designer to order samples of any chairs or tables that you are not familiar with, and test them against a wide range of heights and body sizes.

8. If you get pushback from a designer on an issue you know is important, take them on a tour. Let them stand in the kitchen and feel the heat so they take care to allocate right-sized space and air conditioning. Have them wash a glass at the bar sink to test whether the bar top extends too far over the work area. Ask them where they would find a straw or napkin at a bar pickup to demonstrate the need for storage and server support. Take them to a noisy restaurant where everyone needs to scream to be heard so they can appreciate the value of acoustical treatment.

9. The complexity, cost and computer power required to generate high-quality 3D renderings and visualizations has dropped considerably and is usually within the capabilities of any retail or restaurant design specialist. While there may be an additional cost for this service, it’s well worth the expense if it helps reduce unwelcome surprises and disappointment during construction.

The goal of good restaurant interior design should be to balance the functional aspects of a restaurant with a decor and layout that wows and excites guests, and doesn’t create an environment that is difficult to maintain, looks dated in a few years, or makes it difficult for the bar and food staff to serve their guests. Avant-garde furniture and design can create an initial buzz, but classical design has longevity and satisfies a range of customers. Before adding any decor or finishes, ask yourself, “Will this increase revenue or bring more customers?"

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