If going out to eat was just about getting food, restaurant design would be purely functional. But, as famed chef Alain Ducasse says, food is just one part a larger dining experience: “The rest counts as well: The mood, the atmosphere, the music, the feeling, the design, the harmony between what you have on the plate and what surrounds the plate.”
In short, dining out is an experience. Yes, we want good food, but the experience is a huge part of why we go. The dining scene has changed significantly in recent years, and no more so than in 2020, successful restaurants are adapting to the changes with a renewed focus on the experiential side of the restaurant business. To keep up with the latest, we spoke with Thor Garlick, who leads our Restaurant Solutions team, and he shared his insights into the most important restaurant design trends, and what we can look forward to seeing more of when we head out for meal.
It’s All in the Delivery
One of the biggest pressures on the restaurant industry today comes from the rapid rise in popularity of delivery services. The kitchens may be busy, but in many cases restaurants are seeing fewer people in the dining room.
“Delivery has become such a big factor — even for fine dining in bigger cities — that restaurants have to focus on getting people to come in,” says Garlick. “Up to 30 percent of some restaurants’ business is now coming from delivery.”
This has design implications. Some restaurants are devoting kitchen space to just serving delivery orders, and many are incorporating a pickup space for delivery drivers that doesn’t interfere with front of house operation and offers more space for social distancing.
Even before delivery started playing such a large role, restaurants were already faced with challenges that mirrored the changes in the retail landscape. Fewer people in shopping districts and malls due to the rise of online shopping translates to fewer people in the restaurants in the same locations.
“As fewer people are coming in, restaurant marketing has shifted to focusing on experiences, on bringing back the community feeling of dining out,” says Garlick. “Old-school casual dining restaurants are struggling and have to adapt. Customers really want an experience when they go out to eat.”
Just Add Experience
So how exactly are restaurant designers enticing people back? By adding new activities and making eating just one of the reasons you come to a restaurant.
“More and more, restaurants are focusing team resources and sanitary measures to hands-on experiences — bocce, corn hole, golf — even in the type of places that wouldn’t have considered that before,” says Garlick.
Take video games. In the glory days of Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man, game rooms were places to stow the kids while parents had a chance to eat in peace. Now, the experiences are for adults as well. Venues like Punch Bowl Social are nationwide, offering eating and drinking amid bowling, karaoke, and yes, video games. They’re reimagining these experiences to offer a safe way for families to get out of the house and enjoy activities while dining and interacting in a safe environment.
A major trend-setter in experiential dining is Top Golf. Backpacking on the old-school idea of the country club, where booze, food, and golf reign supreme, the nationwide chain offers eats with games for guests of all ages.
“They’ve taken the concept of combining food and drink with hands-on experiences to a new level,” says Garlick. “Others are starting to realize that they can do the same thing, but at a much smaller scale and still be appealing to customers.”
Adding experiences changes the way restaurants design spaces. Restaurants that aren’t devoting some of their dining space for experiential, are often shrinking their footprints, or are dividing up the space so they can accommodate larger crowds as needed, while not looking empty at slower times.
Along with new experiences, restaurants are realizing that they need to create more memorable visual landscapes that help them stand out.
“The standard oak tables and chairs are no more. The furniture today is looking much more high-end and visually dynamic,” says Garlick. “We’re also seeing a lot of focus on walls, from large scenic art to custom wall coverings.”
The industry-wide shift to LED lighting has opened up a world of new options for designers, much as it has in retail and trade show booth design.
“Lighting is showing up in all sorts of surfaces — not just in traditional lighting fixtures. Surfaces, walls, and other custom design elements can easily incorporate modern lighting,” Garlick says.
Restaurants Go Green
Customers are increasingly wanting to see brands taking sustainability seriously, and that includes the restaurants they frequent. In response, restaurant chains are starting to use more eco-friendly materials and fixtures. Sustainably-harvested lumber is in high-demand, as well as brick and stone walls. Lighting has also gone green.
“LED lighting has replaced essentially everything. It’s not just environmentally friendly, but it’s a considerable cost savings as well,” says Garlick.
In the kitchen, changes have made restaurants more sustainable while helping the bottom line by using less power and water.
“Manufacturers of kitchen equipment are putting a lot of research and development toward creating appliances that use less water and electricity,” says Garlick. Likewise, cost-effective flow control on faucets and boilerless steamers are becoming the norm. “Items like these reduce both cost and overall water use, which important when so many places are experiencing drought.”
In addition, ventless technology on commercial electric cooktops eliminates the need for expensive hood installation and allows for easy reconfiguration of the kitchen design.
Back to Basics
Nearly all of the restaurant design trends have one goal in mind: to remind people why going out to eat has always been fun and an important way to build community.
“Restaurants are great places to go make memories,” says Garlick. “That’s what restaurants and bars were for in the first place.
The only difference today is that this might also involve a fierce game of bocce.