When choosing surfacing materials for commercial foodservice, the concept, type of service, aesthetics and overall design all come into play. While a quick-service restaurant with self-service areas will be focused on durability, a fine-dining establishment’s choices may be more geared toward an upscale appearance.

Whatever the material, it will serve to define the space and set the style. Some operations will mix and match corresponding surface types, and others may choose to be cohesive, sticking with one material that works for multiple areas.

Materials choices run the gamut from stone, solid surface and stainless steel for countertops and queue areas to porcelain, ceramic, wood veneer, acoustic tiles, metal and stone on walls.

Horizontal Surfaces

For horizontal surface, including countertops, queue areas and self-service stations, there are a wide range of options to choose from.

Natural stone is a popular and durable material that offers many types to suit almost any budget and decor. Granite is available in various colors and patterns in textured and polished finishes. This durable material is easy to clean and resists scratches, heat and stains. The style or color will remain the same over its lifetime, but because each slab is unique it may not be ideal for those seeking a uniform design. Another natural stone, slate, is versatile with a textured look that is typically offered in either black or gray hues. Easy to maintain, it resists moisture and heat, but can’t be customized and is susceptible to cracks and chips. Marble is distinguished by its thin, colorful veins and provides a high-end appearance that never goes out of style. Like granite and slate, it resists heat but is unique in that a wide variety of colors and designs are available. Because marble is porous, it stains easily, and the appearance can change over time. It also can chip or scratch and can be costly, depending on the type. Less popular, soapstone gets its name from the mineral talc it’s composed of, which creates a smooth, matte finish. Although colors vary and include almost black to a light gray, some types have green or blue mixed in. When aged, soapstone takes on a dark patina. This type is not as durable as other natural stones, as it can crack, chip and is easily scratched, so it is not recommended for high-volume areas.

Although partially made of natural stone, quartz is an engineered surface that also includes resin and pigment. A popular choice for fast-casual concepts, this nonporous material offers many colors and patterns. It also resists cracks and stains for added durability. However, quartz can be costly and is not as heat resistant as natural stone.

Solid surface materials typically contain a mix of products and can simulate natural stone while providing a uniform appearance. The difference is there is an almost endless range of styles and colors. This type holds up to corrosive acids but is not as resistant to stains and heat as natural stone.

Laminate, made of plastic and resin that’s attached to particleboard, is less durable but more affordable compared with natural stone and solid surface materials. It is easy to clean and lightweight for simple installation. There are endless colors and finishes that can mimic higher-end materials like granite.

More industrial and durable, stainless steel is nonporous, easily cared for and can be sanitized for versatile use. It also is sustainable, resists heat and does not require sealing.

Moldable for endless shapes and sizes, concrete material is sealed to make it nonporous and suitable for foodservice use. Best for industrial or more rustic interiors, this type resists heat and stains for high-volume and outdoor areas.

Wood or butcher block offers a choice of wood types with the grain running either parallel or in a checkerboard-type pattern that incorporates various shades. This sustainable material is affordable and has a warm, natural appearance that conforms to any aesthetic. However, wood is easily scratched and will absorb moisture if not sealed properly.

Engineered surfaces use a nonporous composite that resists scratching, staining and heat. These also are weather resistant for outdoor use. The manufactured
material provides patterns similar to quartz but is
more affordable.

Vertical Surfaces

When choosing wall covering materials durability, cleanability and maintenance should be top of mind in addition to cohesiveness with the overall design.

Wall materials include vinyl, brick and brick veneer to wood, resin-based products that emulate wood, metal, ceramic tile and wallpaper. The most common wall coverings or surfacing materials used in commercial and restaurant kitchens are tile, fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) panels, stainless steel panels, epoxy paint and PVC wall panels.

Ceramic, porcelain or glass tile are durable, easily cleaned and installation is simple, but this can be pricey, depending on the product. Tile is popular in fast-casual and quick-service concepts. FRP panels are affordable and provide a variety of colors in smooth or textured finishes. With this type, there are seams in between panels, so the surface won’t be completely smooth. Stainless steel panels are thin but durable and typically used for cooklines since this material tolerates high heat and grease. The downside is stainless steel panels can be pricey.

Fine dining and full-service restaurants are more likely to use wood, wood veneer or acoustic wall panels in the front of house, which have a higher-end appearance and can be pricier but are not as durable compared with other materials. For a unique aesthetic, these types of establishments can call on a metal fabricator to incorporate metal screens with unique patterns. These metal screens can also be manipulated in ways to create forms that can add to the overall architectural design or be illuminated in ways that create a feature design element.

Another versatile wall material is embossed vinyl, which can emulate wood, metal and other materials. Although manufacturers provide off-the-shelf designs, this type of covering can be customized for a specific restaurant concept. Those seeking even more versatility can go with resin-based and plastic wall materials, which come in many colors and textures. Rustic designs can incorporate reclaimed wood on the walls as either a statement piece or throughout a space. It’s important to note that prefinished stock should be used, as painted old wood may contain lead.

Purchasing Considerations

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing surfacing materials, but the main ones are durability, aesthetics and cost. Also, in today’s environment, availability and lead time should be considered.

Look at the maintenance requirements of surface materials as well as the durability. Scratches, burns, stains, rust, dents, moisture, corrosion and exposure to high temperatures all have to be considered.

Location is a purchasing factor and whether the material will be subjected to wine, oils, knives or other potentially damaging substances or situations.

Consider if the material is sustainable, as this can be easily specified. Also, look at its service life and what is involved with replacement and/or resurfacing in the future.

Operators should also choose materials that are compliant with the requirements set out by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for areas where food is prepared.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Prior to choosing a surfacing material, it’s best to be aware of the cleaning and maintenance requirements, including what solutions are needed, how often the surface will need attention and replacement requirements over time. Be aware that porous materials are not only more difficult to clean but are prone to accumulate dirt, grime and bacteria and are susceptible to mold and mildew growth.

Quartz is not only durable and nonporous, it requires no sealing and is easy to clean. Granite, slate and marble both require frequent sealing to avoid stains. Soapstone requires polishing with oil while solid-surface materials scratch easily but can be buffed to fix markings. Laminate also scratches, can stain and moisture will damage it over time, so extra care needs to be taken with use. Although durable, stainless steel can scratch and requires frequent wipe downs to eliminate smudges and fingerprints. To repel stains and remain nonporous, concrete will require repeated sealing on a regular basis. Wood also needs to be properly sealed to remain sanitary and repel moisture.

Harsh chemicals and cleaners should be avoided with natural stones, as etching can occur. This is not the case with solid surfaces and porcelain, which easily tolerate these solutions.