Designers Dish

It's a new year with new trends, from table styles and materials, to tech toys, colors and open kitchens. rd+d hosted a roundtable discussion with four prolific designers from renowned firms throughout the country to get their thoughts on what's in and what's out in the chain and independent restaurant worlds

right now.


Our experts:

Danielle Lopez-Rubalcava, senior designer/environmental graphic development at JBI Interiors, Long Beach, Calif.

Tré Musco, CEO and chief creative officer at Tesser, San Francisco

Patrick O'Hare, vice president of business development at EDG Interior Architecture + Design, San Rafael, Calif.

Nicole Poole, project designer at Aria Architects, Chicago


rd+d: How important is brand authenticity, and how do you define it?

Musco: Brand authenticity is key. Diners want to know more about the companies behind their food, and they want to know if their favorite brands share their values. They also want to receive communication that's clear and not "sales message-y," but rather, more honest and deep. For example, Popeyes recently looked to emphasize its Louisiana heritage and history. They decided they have an authenticity story to tell and, rather than just trying to be hip, have focused more on that story. Now their growth has been strong in the stock market. Another example is Ben & Jerry's. They felt they weren't communicating their authenticity as best as they could and wanted to communicate that better to their customers. They wanted to connect beyond just the ice cream and reinforce their convictions that they do things the right way.

rd+d: Along the lines of brand authenticity, what is transparency — and what are consumers looking for?

Musco: Transparency is more than just using some cool ads and powerful advertising. In fact, there seems to be a backlash against overly slick marketing. Consumers want to know their brands don't have anything to hide. In addition, recent food safety scares have really hit home for the consumer. Brands are finding they need to use fresher ingredients and show their customers that they are a company consumers can believe in. We did some work with Papa Murphy's, showing they have nothing to hide and bringing more attention to their food quality. Breaking down barriers between consumers and the product is important, and this translates to design. Concepts are more open and airy, and open kitchens create more of an open book atmosphere. Oftentimes, diners will speak directly to a staff person without large barriers like cash registers, and the lines between the front and back of the house are blurring. In fact, we have a new name for it: middle of the house.

O'Hare: Everything seems to be all about authenticity, but we're not seeing the huge display kitchens from the '90s. Instead, we're seeing authenticity take shape in the form of staff members working two feet away from customers, who can lean over a short counter and ask what they're doing. It's more about the naturally occurring action of preparing food and less of a "stage." Among independent restaurants you see this in the form of counter seating set up in front of or alongside an open kitchen.

Poole: I agree with Patrick. Many of our independent clients are replacing walls and windows with a more open format where customers could almost reach over and touch a chef on the arm. We have also installed curing cabinets right next to the dining room so guests can see cooks pulling out bacon a few feet away. Setups like these make the dining room feel more interactive.

O'Hare: Yes, and for another example, Boudin Bakery in San Francisco has a storefront window with a view into the bakery and speakers where cooks talk to people on the street.

Musco: Design definitely has a direct impact on this authenticity. We coined the term "food forward" with Wendy's because the chain wanted to prove that their food is fresh and made to order, and the best way to prove this is by showing it. You can hang fancy posters about how fresh your food is, but diners really want to see true, honest food preparation happening right in front of them. This directly impacts design and how the kitchen is oriented. Hot Dog on a Stick, a mall concept, allows customers to see their staff battering and cooking the dogs right in front of them so they know the food isn't frozen and premade. They also showcase their juicers for fresh lemonade. Domino's also has opened up its kitchens and added more lights in the pizza prep areas so consumers can see their food being made as they order it. In one store, we also moved the line around so that those passing by could see the dough being made fresh through the storefront windows.

rd+d: What are some trends in general dining room layout?

Poole: People are getting more comfortable with communal tables. While some say communal tables are out, I am actually seeing more clients requesting them. They are a little different than in years past, though. We recently had a client want to tie in communal seating with technology in the form of an iPad bar for customers to sit by themselves and do their own thing, or for small groups to congregate.

Lopez-Rubalcava: I agree with Nicole. Chains are asking for those communal areas with an electronic element, such as charging stations or hubs for laptops and tablets. I am seeing this in the form of communal high-top tables as well as in lounge areas, even in fast-food chains.

O'Hare: In the fine-dining world, menu trends drive the way dining rooms are laid out. So many restaurants are still using that shared-menu concept that it has impacted the size of tables: We're seeing more of a mix of some high-top communal tables but also lower, larger tables that are more comfortable and can hold larger groups looking to share different dishes.

rd+d: Many restaurants are creating more spaces for digital connections. Do you see this as an ongoing trend?

Lopez-Rubalcava: In addition to charging stations and iPad hubs, we've also been seeing a lot of interactive game play for adults and children. This is happening in the form of electronic tabletops or projections on walls for playing games.

Poole: I've even seen new charging stations where you can simply lay your phone down flat on a surface and it will charge.

O'Hare: Social media seems to be playing into the technology trend too. People are using tabletops and glass wall projections to share photos or information with others in the restaurant. This type of interactive technology has had a compelling transformation on spaces.

Musco: While you do see many chains requesting charging stations, I see more restaurants going back to their authentic definition — as a place to rest, reconnect and recharge. Some view this design-wise as an iPad charging station, but others emphasize spaces of the restaurant where people can unplug, literally, and have more personal, face-to-face interaction. In fact, some independent restaurants have designed "blackout rooms" that don't have Wi-Fi alongside more digital spaces. I think the future of design in this regard will be about providing more options for customers and embracing this idea of what I call "unexpected comfort" — eating in a more lounge or communal area rather than upright in traditional chairs and tables. We put fireplaces at Wendy's to recreate the home family room experience for diners, and they were a hit.

rd+d: How do outdoor spaces work into this gathering concept?

Musco: There is a huge trend in creating extraordinary outdoor spaces, rather than just tacking on a patio off to the side. Patios now feature lounge sofas with low tables, fire pits, misters for hot areas, beautiful shade structures and other places to gather around cooking stations and game areas. This outdoor living room is becoming more mainstream in the restaurant category, and while they do well on the West Coast, you're seeing these spaces more across the rest of the country. The patio is becoming a more integral part of the architecture and design of the entire building.

rd+d: What are the trends when it comes to lighting?

Lopez-Rubalcava: For our chain clients, we are definitely seeing more use of LED from a sustainable standpoint, but they are also using LEDs more because they can be easily integrated into new design fixtures, like oversized, drum pendant lamps.

Poole: I agree. In the past, our clients were nervous about how much LED lighting cost, but now they realize they can save more money in the long run and incandescent bulbs are becoming a thing of the past. The latest trend I see with LEDs is rustic mixed with modern. Last year we saw a lot of Edison bulbs, but lately I'm seeing fixtures that are a little more creative and looking like pieces of art.

Musco: The next wave in lighting trends seems to go beyond just installing LED bulbs. We are now able to design completely different types of light fixtures using LED lighting, such as illuminating floors and walls that light up with different patterns and colors. We're no longer taking LED bulbs and simply putting them in old fixtures; rather, we're designing the next generation of LED lighting with a hypercreative approach.

rd+d: What are chains in particular looking for when it comes to new designs?

Musco: Chains are looking at improving brand authenticity and traceability in the most cost-effective manner with a positive return on investment. Our clients have very specific return-on-investment targets, so it is important that we respond to these new trends in a way that can be done in scale. Another interesting phenomenon as of late is that there has been a monumental shift in the last couple decades from founder-operated chains to those driven by private equity. As a result, transparency and brand authenticity is again very important.

rd+d: What are some trends in color and other decor elements?

Poole: Among the independents, I am seeing a lot of patterns from runway fashion shows making their way into restaurants. For instance, I am seeing more black-and-white patterns mixed with a bit of color as well as natural and neutral palettes. This past year has been all about the modern industrial look incorporating both metals and woods, but more clients are starting to ask for brighter colors, which is exciting — colors like cobalt blue and more exciting
patterns and textures.

Lopez-Rubalcava: Our quick-service restaurant chain clients are approaching colors in an economical way, going for a neutral, plain base that can be applied to multiple stores systemwide with pops of brighter colors, as Nicole suggested. You might see these colors in some furnishings or in large, oversized murals. But they still keep things relatively simple because they want these remodels to last a long time.

O'Hare: I agree. Restaurants across all segments, from fine dining to casual concepts, are leaning towards natural, organic materials and natural colors with small punches of brighter shades. Pops of color, rather than large expanses of color, give them the flexibility to change.

Poole: The farm-to-table concept has had an impact on color schemes and designs, too. You're seeing more natural and organic materials as a result, but exposing the curing cabinets and other parts of the food production plays into this trend as well.

rd+d: What are some of your favorite recent finds and materials?

O'Hare: We have a great library from reps showing us products every week, and it seems there is always something new and unique. I am a fan lately of large-format porcelain tile that can come in different patterns and colors. I'm also seeing more use of large-format graphics and others laminated on glass. The sky is the limit.

Lopez-Rubalcava: I'm seeing that too. With digital printing advances you can print on any substrate, from vinyl to wood to glass. You can even have the image sandwiched between two sheets of glass or have the glass bend in the image. Local sourcing seems to be playing into design as well. People want unique and raw materials that are sourced and made in their areas, rather than shipped in from far-away places.

rd+d: Bar design seems to be having its heyday in restaurant development.

O'Hare: It depends on what type of format you have, but I am seeing the bartender becoming the rock star today. We're seeing more roving cocktail carts and larger bars for drinks and fresh herb displays used in mixology, but also for crudo and cheese that extend the presence of food into the heart of the restaurant. This is a fun area of innovation that might be changing faster than even culinary in many ways.

Poole: More of our clients are becoming entertainment-driven. As a result there is a huge focus on the bar. We're responding to requests for sports lounges with tiered, stadium-like seating and others that want to incorporate a million TVs around a bar.

Lopez-Rubalcava: Making sure there is an area to have flat screens and or being able to integrate messaging into a wall is important to our chain clients. They want their guests to not just come and leave quickly, but actually linger longer. This is a huge differentiation from the past.

rd+d: What are some of your restaurant design pet peeves?

Poole: One of the biggest trends of the last year among independents was the use of reclaimed products, but our biggest challenge with that is curbing expectations. You might see reclaimed wood being used a lot, but there is a huge variety in the types of reclaimed wood you can get — some are in worse shape than others. We also once worked with some reclaimed metal, but when it showed up it had a bunch of nail holes in it because it had come from a barn. So we had to work with that.

O'Hare: I have had some clients request an open kitchen tied into an outdoor cooking space, but many health departments won't allow a kitchen that opens up to the outside because of bug and pest concerns. These kitchens need a glass wall to separate the two spaces.

Poole: We're seeing that as well. Some customers want garage doors or sliding doors between inside and outside spaces. But we often have to install a screen as well because the kitchen is open.

Lopez-Rubalcava: Having unrealistic expectations is my biggest pet peeve. Clients will sometimes see something online and think they can get it for a certain cost, but that's not really realistic. More than ever, I am dealing with a constant battle over budgets or looking for pieces that are meant more for residential than commercial spaces.