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Making a Mark—A Culintro Member's Reaction to The Future of Restaurant Design Conversation

By Amanda Neville
Partner, ThinkSo Creative

Earlier this week, Brett and I attended a panel discussion sponsored by Culintro about the future of restaurant design. We were totally impressed by the panelists Glen Coben, LTL Architects, Paul Liebrandt, and especially AvroKO, which not only creates fabulous concepts and designs beautiful environments but actually opened a couple of its own restaurants where the firm’s talents are on full display

Future of Restaurant Design
"Inspiration can turn into reality by paying obsessive attention to details and finding ways to do things just a little bit differently."

Visionary restauranteurs pay attention to every detail and understand that if even one element is out of synch, it can change the whole dining experience. It made me think about how our business parallels theirs and about the creative challenges we share.

Let’s take the strategy phase: When we start an identity project, we spend a lot of time with clients talking about what the brand should “feel” like. We discuss target audiences, and survey the market place to look for opportunities for distinction. Similarly, Liebrant, co-owner of the acclaimed Corton, emphasized the need to identify and understand who the guests will be and what they expect when they walk in the door. He also sat down with his team to talk about what the food represented conceptually, how he approaches the menu, and what kind of environment would best “exhibit” the dishes. Once the team understood his philosophy, the design process was actually pretty efficient because a lot of choices were eliminated. They weren’t going to create a cozy pub or a bustling Balthazar. Because that was established, they were able to focus on developing spare, subtle gestures that wouldn’t distract from the main attraction in any way.

The two principals from AvroKO, Adam Farmerie and Kristina O’Neal, described how inspiration can turn into reality by paying obsessive attention to details and talked about finding ways to do things just a little bit differently. As part of their process, they consider every element — not just the menu and matchbooks, but the uniforms, the bathroom, the lighting. In the same vein, Coben shared an anecdote about a client who may very well have sacrificed a Michelin star because of his choice of music in the dining room. He mused that the dissonance between an intimate Italian menu and AC/DC were too great for the reviewer to overcome.

This reminded me of the conversations we have with clients when it comes time to start producing things. We work hard on holistic implementation plans and then fight hard for even the small stuff. Creating materials that will appeal to each target audience is just the start. It’s important to put materials out in the world that reflect the brand’s personality — whether it is luxurious or whimsical or serious — and create as many touch points as possible for customers to interact with the brand. If, at the end of a big branding or rebranding effort, you only produce business cards and a brochure, you’re missing a chance to wow your audience.

Future of Restaurant
Design
"The bottom line is that if you care about creating something memorable, you have to be careful about where you cut the corners."

Marc Tsurumaki, one of LTL’s three partners, talked about acknowledging limitations and instead of giving in to them, turning them into distinctive differentiators. For architects forced to deal with small, awkward spaces, it means creating illusions and using simple materials in innovative ways to maximize impact while minimizing cost. For designers, it means using smart copy and finding clever production solutions to create effective, affordable marketing materials.

Someone in the audience asked where to spend money when budgets are limited. Glen talked about going back to basics, while AvroKO described their “squint test.” But the bottom line is that if you care about creating something memorable, you have to be careful about where you cut the corners. Think about what will affect your audience directly and consider what will damage the concept. We spend a lot of time making sure materials are printed on high quality paper with a top-notch printer or developed with a sophisticated back-end that allows navigation to transition seamlessly — and persuading clients that the return will justify the cost (even when the return is less tangible than the cost). Because if the pieces that clients actually touch and experience don’t feel good, they won’t feel good about the brand.

Finally, there was an amusing discourse about designers being blamed for the failure of a restaurant. In an industry with an excruciatingly high failure rate, the idea that the designer could be to blame (even after rave reviews and splashy magazine features) is ludicrous. But we nodded our heads in sympathy, having heard similar stories in our field. I guess even the glamorous world of gastronomy isn’t immune to irrational superstitions and clients who aren’t willing to acknowledge that a well-run business requires more than a well-designed idea — because if there’s no steak behind the sizzle, every one goes home hungry.

Amanda Neville is a partner at ThinkSo Creative. She blogs over at Sayso and you can follow her on Twitter @thinksomandy

This article was originally published on Sayso and is re-printed here with permission.