Restaurant Concept Design & Development Considerations

The methodologies and approaches to restaurant design are as varied as the restaurant concepts in existence today. In the United States alone, there are nearly 1 million restaurants; each trying hard to differentiate itself from the next. Here, we provide insight into the considerations and complexities of restaurant design as they relate to both mom-and-pop start-ups as well as multi-national megachains pursuing renovations and new growth concepts.

Concept Development

The overall process of restaurant design, remodeling, planning, etc is often referred to as the discipline of restaurant concept development. Restaurant concept development is a larger circle which encompasses other considerations such as market and competitive research, emerging and fading trends, financial modeling and what-if scenarios, branding and brand evolution, supply chain issues, and potentially even brand portfolio management (for hospitality enterprises with multiple brands in a family that must articulate). Whether a restaurant renovation or in developing a completely new prototype, restaurant concept development is and should be involved. One cannot look at restaurant design in a vacuum or involving strictly the interior designers and architects.

Restaurant Design Budgets

Usually one of the first questions we’re asked by those embarking on restaurant design projects relates to budget: How much does it cost? Well, budgets can swing dramatically from project to project, but here are some rules of thumb:

  • Generally, restaurants are built between $85 – $300 a square foot (some mega projects or ultra-high-end projects have gone for a few thousand a square foot).
  • The cost for “restaurant design” and planning is often around 10% of the construction budget (considering strictly the design phases of the project, not larger concept development issues involved in large-scale development projects).
  • The type of restaurant you are building is certainly a factor – you’ll spend more per square foot for a fine dining restaurant than a fast-casual concept, generally speaking.

Also, you should expect an entirely different financial model in approaching the creation of a new restaurant concept you plan to roll-out nationwide versus a single one-off concept. The former requires much more planning and development. An average Red Lobster is believed to cost around $120 per square foot and an average Starbucks around $85 per square foot. However, these companies have spent millions and millions in design, branding and purchasing planning/efficiencies, so a start-up shouldn’t expect to be anywhere near these ranges in creating a new concept from scratch.  I find it amazing how often someone thinks they will be the next Starbucks within a 10 year period and with a $500,000 investment.  Starbucks has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to perfect what we see today in their latest restaurant prototype.

It’s more than just wishful thinking to think it can be duplicated as a growth concept within the cost of what they can today build a single unit they’ve spent so much perfecting. Mega chains, like Darden, can afford seven-figure-per-year Executive Vice Presidents and teams of hundreds working on a new concept. It’s believed well over $10m (“soft” costs) was spent developing just the prototype plans for their heralded Season’s 52 concept. Darden is the world’s most successful casual dining restaurant chain, so it’s fair to think they weren’t just burning money with their investment. Can a new prototype be created for less than $10m?  Of course.  By all means.  It’s less likely though that the next billion-dollar brand can be conceived within less than the cost of opening a single unit though.  At a minimum, you can expect to spend a lot more in the years to come correcting the mistakes of the under-funded prototype.

Restaurant Design Considerations

There are literally hundreds to thousands of elements to take into consideration in restaurant design.  Today’s successful restaurant concepts are about more than just “good food, good service, good atmosphere”. The below list is by no means comprehensive, or even in a particular order of priority, but it does provide you with a sense for how complex these projects can be and why it is common to see experienced outside professional restaurant design consultants intimately involved in bringing to life today’s successful new restaurant concepts.

    1. Brand Personality – Brands, like people, have personalities.  A person can become known for acting/behaving a certain way.  So too should your brand.  The personality of your brand should be defined and programmed.   This programming should happen before the first sketch of the restaurant design is even considered.
    2. Brand Promises – We would all like to think we have high integrity.  Integrity defined: saying what you’re going to do and then doing what you said you would by when you said you would.  For a brand to have integrity, one must establish its distinct set of promises that differentiate it and define it.  A strong brand is when the promises are met with integrity.
    3. Brand Positioning – There’s a saying that “You don’t merely want to be considered the best of the best, you want to be considered the only one who does what you do.”  The idea of “betterness” (we have a better burger, better restaurant design, etc) is subjective.  When you are the “only” though, you become a sole-source provider and can dominate a market.
    4. Silverware – We often don’t think consciously about our silverware when eating in a restaurant, but it can make an impression of the food before you even take your first bite.  Light, flimsy, and cheap silverware will give an impression of light, flimsy, and cheap food.  That’s why you will notice that many high-end steakhouses use large and heavy knives.  While part of the tableware these things all combine to reflect on the restaurant and are all considerations in the overall restaurant design and concept development.
    5. Uniforms – Restaurant uniforms have come a long way since the day of the fine dining “monkey suit”.  Even celebrity fashion designers are getting in on the action and designing uniforms for restaurants; and why not?  Some chains have tens of thousands of employees and each is an ambassador of the brand.  The uniform is an extension of the brand and therefore should be viewed through the same lens as your overall restaurant design process.
    6. Ventilation – Many regions around the world are outlawing smoking in public places. I’m still amazed by how many places don’t.  I’m not a smoker, but I would imagine not even smokers want to walk out of a restaurant smelling like an ashtray.  Ventilation is about more than the smells we don’t want to smell (more below on “aroma design”).  For instance, imagine a restaurant conceived in Florida being built in Massachusetts – you have to take an entirely different approach to seasonal temperature fluctuations.  Large cavernous spaces can be drafty.  As you can see, ventilation is an important consideration in restaurant design and just another example as to why this is about so much more than just good aesthetics and tasteful design selections.
    7. Bathrooms & Brand Immersion – We’ve all heard the adage that customers assume that by extension an unkempt bathroom must mean a disastrously unkempt kitchen.  “If they allow their bathrooms – which are in plain sight of customers – to get like this, what must the kitchen look like since it’s our view?”  We believe that more than just keeping a bathroom clean, the bathroom presents an opportunity to further differentiate a restaurant and make an impression.  You should be able to put a blindfold on a customer, spin them 10 times, drive them across town, put them in your bathroom, and take off the blindfold and they should be able to tell you exactly where they are.  That’s great bathroom design.  Distinctive and communicative of the brand.  Starbucks is a good example of this concept.  Even without seeing the logo, you know you are in a Starbucks bathroom.  The concept can be taken much further though.  So, is this design or is this marketing?  The two are inextricably intertwined in our opinion.
    8. Restaurant Design for Celebrities – These days there seem to be lots of celebrities getting into the restaurant business and also a surprising number of restaurateurs and chefs becoming celebrities for already being in the restaurant business.  Sure, there has long been the allure of the business – snapping your finger and getting a table, the misconceptions of a restaurant’s profitability, and the general sex appeal of being a restaurateur.  However, an extra layer has been added to the restaurant business for celebrities – brand extension.  Restaurants, like people, have a “brand personality” and, when properly executed, a restaurant can extend a celebrity’s empire with a walk-in advertisement.  Celebrities such as Magic Johnson, Eva Longoria, Justin Timberlake, Gloria Estefan, and others have not only made successful businesses with their restaurants, they have extended their brand into new arenas.  Both restaurateurs and celebrities could learn a thing or two from one another, and it’s certain to me those exchanged tips would have a lot to do with principles of restaurant design and branding.
    9. Door Knobs Can Speak – We’ve all heard the expression “dumb as a doorknob”.  While doorknobs don’t have an inherent intelligence, they can actually quite smartly communicate on your behalf.  We usually don’t pay attention to a doorknob; unless, that is, the doorknob is out of place.  Doorknobs actually speak on behalf of your restaurant before the hostess or greeter staff.  The texture, the weight, the materials, the style, the obviousness or understated nature of the doorknob all communicate the brand whether by accident or design.
    10. Restaurant Menu Design – The most important piece of marketing collateral for a restaurant is its menu.  A menu can’t be viewed as simply an inventory listing of items for sale with a corresponding price.  It must be viewed as the single most important tool in showcasing your restaurants offerings, culinary philosophy and brand attributes.  The weight, size, paper, presentation, fonts and typographies, photos, use of language and more are all important considerations in your restaurant menu.  The menu should be viewed as an extension of the restaurant design – fully integrated in the brand personality and positioning.
    11. Storage Needs – Do you plan on receiving lots of small deliveries in the week and having a high turnover of inventory, or do you plan to purchase in bulk for savings and store on-site?  Will your distributor let you buy in bulk and store in their warehouse without an additional fee?  Do you have a lot of high-value inventory that needs special security measures (you don’t store Remy Martin Louis VIII the same as you store bar napkins). This is an example of operational and functional design considerations, which aren’t part of the typical interior design curriculum. Where design meets function is often a gap for restaurant designers without deep restaurant industry experience.
    12. Refrigeration Needs – Will you have a lot of perishables on your menu that require a cooler storage facility, or are you bringing in boxes of frozen wings and French fries? A restaurant concept with 20 beers on tap will have dramatically different refrigeration needs than an ice cream store.
    13. Lighting Design – You can easily conjure in your mind the image of flickering fluorescent lights over a grid of office cubicles and know it’s not a place you want to be. We may watch a bug lamp in amazement that bugs continuously fly into the fatal electric shock, but we are doing the same thing in our own world. For reasons the layman can’t easily explain, lighting can captivate their mood and their wallets. Candles are romantic. Red lights make us stop (and hungry, incidentally). Low lighting can make us relaxed.  Staff need task lighting. Lighting is a highly specialized area of design. A restaurant without a thoughtfully conceived lighting plan is like Disney without fireworks.
    14. Acoustical Design – A restaurant engages all of the senses.  Certainly sight, smell, taste and touch considered in restaurant design projects, but what about sound? Is your restaurant best suited for peace and quiet or would you be better suited to have a bar that feels busy and bustling? One restaurant in Spain was dreadfully slow and about to go out of business. The owner pumped the recorded sound of a busy restaurant out on to the sidewalk streets and low-and-behold the restaurant was packed. Likewise, where we do or don’t hear music and ambient noise can make an impact. For example, many night clubs design areas that make it easy to talk to someone you met on a dance floor where you couldn’t hear yourself think.
    15. Aroma Design – Sure, the kitchen emits an aroma which should be pleasant and appealing.  This doesn’t happen by accident though.  Without proper considerations, you may fill your restaurant with wafts of smoke or unpleasant odors.  You can also have an aroma pollution where there are too many scents floating about.  Beyond the aroma of the cuisine though, there are other considerations. One restaurant we worked with introduced aromatherapy in a way that stimulated the senses and appetite before customers were even in the dining room. There’s nothing worse than smelling dirty mop water in the lobby or an unpleasant bathroom odor.  Without smell we would not have taste, so clearly this is an important consideration in your restaurant design and shouldn’t be left to chance.
    16. Restaurant Design Process – The steps in the restaurant design process can be expanded or collapsed to suit your tastes for level of detail.  There are hundreds of inter-dependent decisions and steps.  Generally, the timing of these projects can range from several very intense weeks to potentially a year or more for large-scale development projects moving at a steady pace.  As restaurant design consultants, our complete process is proprietary. We will be augmenting this article with a follow up piece on a summary of the process we undertake, but one thing we feel cannot be over-emphasized is the importance of starting with a very solid restaurant brand constitution/platform.  It’s better to spend more time in planning and soft costs of development with an experienced pro than to rush in to the design and then try to undo mistakes later.  It’s much easier to make a change on a digital file than it is to change a major mistake on a completed building.
    17. Licensed Restaurant Designers & Architects – Each country, state, county and even city can have dramatically different codes and laws governing design and architecture in that jurisdiction.  As a result, the permitting process for a new project can take from a few weeks to several years. Navigating through this minefield of bureaucracy can be challenging to say the least. Ultimately, all restaurant design plans must be submitted to these boards via a licensed architect. They must be “signed and sealed”, meaning a senior licensed architect has reviewed the design, the architecture and the mechanical, electrical and plumbing plans (often referred to as the MEP).  [NOTE:  Aaron Allen does not represent himself as a licensed interior designer or licensed architectural firm.  We are restaurant design “consultants” specializing in overall restaurant design strategy, branding, concept development and comprehensive integration of projects as restaurant consultants].  In the realm of design, a licensed designer may submit plans that do not call for significant modifications to an existing building, such as structural changes. In the hierarchy of licensing, a licensed architect can approve anything a licensed designer can, but a licensed designer cannot approval all that a licensed architect can.  Just as with conceptual development, design and architectural planning, the location of your selected consultants is less important than specialization. This process can and often is completed at a distance (i.e. architects in New York creating buildings in Dubai, or a specialized restaurant designer in Orlando doing a project in Mexico, or wherever). That said, it is often advised for complex projects to also retain a local architect that is familiar with the codes in some jurisdictions and has the relationships to physically “walk the plans through permitting”. Yes, although it should be the case, the indigenous consultants can get some special treatment. Familiarization with local codes and officials, however, shouldn’t be more important to you than the big picture in your selections.  We recommend hiring locals to augment the team on bigger projects, not to run them necessarily.  We have several licensed architects we have worked with and can recommend.  We also serve as advisors and project-lead for restaurant concept development in articulation with your own selected licensed designer or one that we can refer to you.

The Importance of Company Buy-In

There are literally dozens of specialized disciplines that have to come together to complete a successful new restaurant prototype. Who should they all report to?  Who is the quarterback? Yes, the owner of the team is still the owner of the team, but that’s not the person running every call of the game. We believe the entire team should report in to the most senior marketing strategist, who in turn reports in to the executive team. There are literally thousands of decisions that must be made through the course of a restaurant design project. All of these decisions should be viewed through the lens of the brand and that is the domain of you most senior marketing advisor. I am not a licensed designer or architect, yet I have successfully lead restaurant design projects on six continents representing dozens of new prototypes. It’s been a very successful approach, and one we pioneered.

Restaurant design is not just about picking colors and fabrics. It involves a lot of technical knowledge of how restaurants work and restaurant operational considerations. It’s why we recommend you find a partner with a deep restaurant industry knowledge; being a qualified interior designer or architect is not enough these days to create a truly integrated restaurant brand.

Great restaurant design is complicated. Shopping for “cheap” restaurant design consultants is like shopping for a cheap neurosurgeon. Yep, they’re out there.  The question you have to ask yourself is – do I want the cheapest neurosurgeon or do I want the best? The best and the cheapest often take very different approaches.


The Psychology of Menu Design

10 Trends Reshaping the Restaurant Industry

Questions to Answer Before Launching a New Menu

Are We Relevant?: Questions to Ask During a Restaurant Brand Audit


Aaron Allen & Associates is a leading global restaurant industry consultancy specializing in growth strategy, marketing, branding, and commercial due diligence for emerging restaurant chains and prestigious private equity firms. We have helped helped restaurant companies around the world drive revenues, increase profits, and enhance the guest experience through improved marketing, messaging, and menu engineering. Collectively, our clients post more than $100 billion, span all 6 inhabited continents and 100+ countries, with locations totaling tens of thousands.

Any references to Interior Design or Interior Design Work which may imply that Aaron Allen and/or affiliates is either participating in, soliciting for, or subcontracting Interior Design Work, as defined by the Florida Statute, is not to be construed in a manner in which Aaron Allen and/or affiliates desires to participate in any of the three activities listed herein. © 2010 Aaron D. Allen