Restaurant design – provide excitement or perish

Restaurant design – provide excitement or perish

(In the first of a 2-part blog, designer Michael McCann delves into what really makes restaurants stand out in today’s marketplace.) 

Having worked in international 5-star hotel development and operations for more than 25 years in 12 countries on 4 continents with such renowned companies as Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and Hyatt International before I moved to the “dark side” and created my own hospitality design studio, Dreamtime Australia Design, based in Sydney, Australia, I have been fortunate to have gained a bit of on-the-job training.

In those years, I learned first-hand the tremendous difference between new hotels we opened that were stock standard, run-of-the-mill products and those that were creative, beautiful and dramatic. Those fit-outs sold themselves – customers came more often and spent more money. It was an uplifting and continually motivating experience for myself and virtually all other staff to essentially have to stand back to not be trampled by patrons rushing in to enjoy our facilities. In the unfortunate instances where I had to work in more conservative, boring environments, customers had to be sold on cheaper prices or, more often, corporate agreements that forced them to patronize our hotel, restaurants, bars, etc.

And that was then, the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s – a long time ago. In the ensuing years the world of upmarket hospitality design – and you could easily add retail design, residential design, even product design  – has witnessed dramatic, exciting advances in the evolution of the design industry. Quite simply, “wow” has been added and customers now are increasingly expecting “wow” when they go out for dinner, where they work, where they shop, where they live, even where they exercise. But make no mistake, they save their highest expectations for the hospitality industry – for which they have saved their hard earned money to be able to truly escape those other areas of life I just mentioned.

Let’s talk about the restaurant experience. In hotel school (I attended the University of Denver, University of Hawaii and graduated from Florida Intl. University) we learned that the most important aspects of the dining experience are the quality of food, service and value-for-money with ambience falling a very distant last. Some reports even went as far as to declare that service was more important than the food. We used to have this reinforced year after year in the hotel industry in endless “train the trainer” sessions. After a near-lifetime of experience (thank God not quite an entire lifetime) I’m here to tell you that this theory is dead wrong, and has lead to a never-ending supply of (mostly) hotel restaurants with over-wrought, over-worked “cuisine” delivered by over-zealous service staff providing too much service in boring, often over-stuffed environments. Think for a second how this rarely happens in freestanding restaurants, where owners pay rent or a mortgage and lose their house if they don’t get the balance right. Funny that.

I’m here to tell you that “ambience” is the most important ingredient in generating repeat business and maximizing the average check potential, followed by food, value-for-money then service. Clearly all four have to excel if a restaurant is going to really fire on all cylinders, but ambience is still the most important of the four. However, it is rarely treated as such except by very savvy operators. It is by far the best insurance you have to cushion your business against dips in the economy, food or service quality or if the market judges that you’ve hiked up your prices too far, as experienced independent operators know all too well.

We all know of austere, minimalist, usually gourmet restaurants (above) with exceptional cuisine that are successful. However, these businesses, no matter how elegant and even popular, are in a precarious financial position due to a seriously risky business model.  Should the chef’s standards fall, should he or she resign, sell the business or run off with the dishwasher patrons soon realize that there is little reason to return.

 Perkins Cove, Ogunquit, Maine

On the other hand, we all know of many more restaurants and cafés with average food, ok service but are perennial favorites (which means oftentimes that value-for-money is very debatable). They seem to have “something special” about them – even if they are a little rundown and that “something” is almost always “ambience,” which in some cases is purely location (beach, city laneway, etc.) but is more often than not due to the restaurant’s interior, whether “designer” designed or not.  And speaking of average checks, these are also usually the places where you say “bring me another bottle of wine – I’m not going anywhere.”

Diners are increasingly looking to be entertained when they eat out, but not in the traditional sense of a musical trio in the corner. They want action and excitement. Depending upon the concept, this can be achieved in a number of ways.

(To be continued in Part 2.)