restaurant design

The future of restaurant design has an eye on the bottom line

By Chris Hannah

As restaurants fight for a place in the market, we often focus on key elements such as menu, service and ambience. While a single factor such as restaurant design cannot save a bad restaurant, it can certainly contribute to its demise, especially if the design budget is not managed wisely.

It used to be that as the public became more design literate restaurants were forced to up their design game in a way that came with a significant price tag. Recent design trends, however, offer an opportunity for cost efficiency, and to get more bang for the buck. Let’s see how we can use some of the major shifts in the world of restaurant design to our advantage when it comes to cost control.


I will leave the discussion of energy efficient equipment to the specialists, but there have certainly been advancements with respect to technology. In the scope of interior design, lighting is probably the most effective way to shape space when thinking about budget. We need light to function, and so it simply becomes a matter of what we use, and how we apply it.

It wasn’t long ago that we struggled to meet restrictions on energy consumption for restaurant interiors as mandated by building codes. Then came LED lighting — it was energy efficient, but more costly, and often lacked the colour rendition required for hospitality. However, the speed of change in this type of lighting technology has been staggering. The 2000 edition of the IES (Illuminating Engineering Society) Handbook covers LED lighting, mainly in terms of peripheral applications, but very little for tangible spatial lighting. With new technology comes new learning, and so care should be taken in selection:

  • Be wary of longevity claims – most lamps change as they age
  • LED may be the right solution for some applications, but maybe not all
  • ‘White’ is a broad category of light – make sure the colour of all lighting types is in synch for a unified and comfortable design

Good bones

New lighting technology helps, but what about the rest of the elements of an interior? Design and trends are often, by nature, wasteful. Keeping on top of what’s hot and what’s not can lead to a cycle of waste that is not just hard on the environment, but also on the financial health of a business.

When starting a new venture, and particularly when looking for new space, we always look for good bones – elements that exist in a space that are assets to the concept. These can be aesthetic elements such as a brick wall, a wood floor, or simply a great spatial quality. However, given that one of the largest variables in the cost of a restaurant is the mechanical systems (exhaust, heating, cooling and plumbing), look for a space that has some of those elements in place. Often a quick feasibility study can help you assess if the location of mechanical elements can work for your concept.

One benefit of the sad truth of restaurant failures is that spaces become available that are already suited to, and fitted out for restaurant use. Converting from a completely different occupancy type can be costly in terms of time and money – and, of course, in the restaurant business time is money, and downtime is lost money.

The DIY effect

It seems more and more that people in general — and foodies in particular — have become very design-savvy. This can cause tension and frustration in some design relationships, but can also lead to a very rich collaborative process if managed well. Working with clients who want to be involved in the design, product sourcing, and even fabrication process engenders a much deeper sense of ownership in the end result. This is often a matter of necessity due to budget, but can also be encouraged as part of the genesis of a new concept.


It’s hard to imagine how a restaurant that opens only for dinner five days a week justifies full-time rent. I think that quality of life plays into the ‘hours-of-operation’ decision, particularly for owner-operated businesses. It’s hard to be all things to all people, but many locations and business models allow for the possibility of capturing different types of business at different times of the day and week.

To take advantage of this, changeability within a design is an asset. Flexible planning, spatial sense, detail and atmosphere are all possible, and need not be complicated. Now that newer lighting technology is fully dimmable, simple lighting adjustments can transition the space through changing levels, as well as moving the visual points of focus. Movable screens, furniture and fixtures can be developed in a way that does not leave the space looking like a banquet hall, simply by giving substance to the details.


Barrier-free codes are being more and more strict and with good reason. We live in a world where inclusiveness is not just a buzzword, but a reality. Creating a space that meets the needs of the relatively few, will ultimately benefit all. We have pushed clients for years to avoid unnecessary level changes, since they tend to eat up space, and we can find ways to manipulate the spatial quality by other means. There is no denying that some code aspects cost more, so it puts further emphasis on design to not back us into corners we can’t get out of, metaphorically speaking.

The new modern

Finally, it’s worth talking about shifts in style that have made clean and simple spaces acceptable to more of us. The new modern, however, does rely on careful use of colour, texture and a tactile sense to bring a human element to the details. To bring this conversation full circle, designing with clean and simple forms supports the other ideas discussed here – new lighting elements are easily incorporated into simple details to add depth, texture and warmth; waste is reduced in material use when forms are clean and simple allowing for a more sustainable approach; DIY is made easier as simple detailing requires less skill and technology to produce; changeability suits the new modern, particularly in the sub-category of industrial-chic; and finally, a space is made more accessible and inclusive if it is less complicated and confusing.

Designing to budget is nothing new, but something often forgotten in the rush to keep up. Play it smart, have fun with the process, and the whole team will be proud of the results.

About the author

Chris Hannah is the principal of Cricket Design Company Inc. in Toronto. The firm was founded in 1988 and since then has specialized in hospitality projects of all kinds. In addition to running the firm, Hannah teaches at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design. You can check them out on the web at and see some recent work at

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