Restaurant design: How to be 'on trend, not trendy'

| by Cherryh Cansler
Restaurant design: How to be 'on trend, not trendy'

Predicting when to roll out a new restaurant design is tricky, but two fast casuals recently decided their 10-year anniversaries were a perfect time to get face lifts. Newk’s Eatery and Salata, which both opened a decade ago, took on the redesign challenge in an effort to stay relevant with existing customers and to gain the attention of new fans.

"We’ve experienced an evolution over the past year — expanding our corporate and franchise operations, and growing into new markets," said Rachael Myrick, Newk's building and design project manager. "As a result, we felt it was time to freshen up our design while also staying true to our basic principles and devoutly loyal customer base."

Newk’s kept important features of the brand, including the kitchen staging area, condiment roundtable and the unique vestibule area outside of the restrooms, but enhanced the areas with better-quality finishes that complement its high-quality, culinary menu.

"We also added some partial walls and ceiling features to better define the unique areas and overall customer experience," Myrick said.

Salata wanted to shake up its look to show customers it was a growing brand, said David Laborde, the chain’s director of product development.

"We wanted the new design to encompass what Salata has always been about — all-natural, fresh, customizable and high quality, while delivering a more vibrant and modern atmosphere," he said. "We used all-natural materials to complement our all-natural menu, such as dark mango-stained wood to line the walls and stone countertops, and stone and glass in prep areas. Then we added very modern touches, such as  state-of-the-art tea taps that deliver fresh iced tea and lemonade through a system much like a beer tap."

Striking a balance between being trendy and staying true to the brand

Being on trend with décor is great until the trend is over and an operator is left with a restaurant that shows its age. The best way to keep that from occurring is to focus the design around the message the chain is trying to convey, explained Michelle Bushey, principal design director at Cohesive Design.

"The message most brands want to convey at this point is natural, honest, sustainable, environmentally conscious, so seeing colors that relate — greens, blues, orange, purple, are more popular," said Bushey, whose clients include Mooyah, Bennigan’s, Twin Peaks and Cowboy Chicken. "The palate seems to be getting a bit more sophisticated as customers are demanding more from design, which comes from so much exposure through TV or the Internet — technology is driving a lot of it."

Focusing on the brand message was Newk’s strategy when choosing a new color palette.

"We let the menu guide the direction of what finishes and colors would round out the environment," Myrick said. "The new color palette was also selected to showcase the fresh ingredients you will see in our restaurants. The reds, greens, and muted gold reflect our fresh tomatoes, lettuces, red and yellow peppers and freshly baked bread and croutons."

Bushey said sticking with a classic overall style and incorporating new trends via paint, artwork, and seating materials is the safest route to take when decorating a restaurant.

"Those are all things that can be changed and updated," she said. "Remember, less is more. Stay true to your brand message and realize that in today's environment in order to stay relevant you are looking at updating your look every four to six years or at least tweaking it."

Incorporating popular design elements

Both Newk’s and Salata have incorporated subway tile into their designs, which Bushey considers on trend but cautioned that standard-sized subway tile (4-inch or 6-inch) is out. Using larger tiles and different shapes, however, are definitely becoming more popular.

"We have been using quite a bit of hexagonal tile as well as using tiles in a different layouts and design configurations," she said. "Think herringbone or chevron."

Subway tiles give a contemporary feel, yet are timeless and portray the classic, neutral look of the overall redesign, Myrick said about Newk’s use of them.

"Because we didn't update the flow of the kitchen or get any new equipment, we needed a way to freshen up that space to be more in keeping with the ‘fresh from the kitchen’ aspect of our brand," she said. "Subway tile was the best material to use to accomplish that for us. We chose to use a larger subway tile than usual, 4.5-inch by 12.5-inch to really make the kitchen pop."

Salata’s design team incorporated subway tiles because of their clean, simple shape and look, Laborde said.

"We felt the look best resonated with the cleanliness and simplicity of our restaurants," he said. "The subway tiles appear behind our ordering station and will also take the place of menu boards, which are being phased out. This decision is a testament to Salata’s completely customizable menu — we realized we didn’t need menu boards because we’re all about customization and customer preference. So now our guests interact directly with the wide range of fresh ingredients laid out in front of them to guide their decisions."

Bushey said treclaimed wood is another design element that is still popular because it’s associated with a natural message, but the vintage and industrial look has been overdone and on its way out.

"I think it's become more polished, and the use of eclectic materials to create a look rather than an entire space of reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs," she said. "Natural and sustainable are very important, but telling that story with different types of materials is what has become trend. Maybe it's a chair made from a certain type of wood or from a particular region / area or selecting sustainable materials such as bamboo and LED lighting."

When to take the redesign plunge

Although it’s tempting to implement a redesign to try to spice up an image, Bushey said it's wise to take a step back to re-evaluate the business, demographic and competition.

"Where you were five years ago may not be where you are now or where you are headed," she said. "Stay on top of trends; pay attention to your competition. The goal is to be on trend, not trendy. Hire a design professional and listen to them. This is what you pay them for; it's their job to guide you and tell your brand story."

It’s also important to be honest about your budget, demographics and philosophy.

"All of these items come into play when doing a rebrand," Bushey said. "And, of course, have fun."


Wanna learn more from Bushey about design? She's speaking on a panel about restaurant design trends at this year's annual Fast Casual Executive Summmit Oct. 18-21 in Miami. Sign up here.

Photo sources: Top right: Newk's;Bottom right: Salata




Topics: Restaurant Design / Layout

Cherryh Cansler

Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for

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