How to create an atmosphere that enhances your bottom line

By Steve Forler
January 4, 2013
Restaurant design: Creating an atmosphere that enhances your bottom line

Even though your customers are more knowledgeable and sophisticated about our industry than ever before, it is important to remember that you have the advantage of staying one step ahead of them – because you are the proprietor of the establishment they are about to eat in. Nobody knows their business better than the owner, and that is the key to creating the perfect dining experience for your guests.

You should know your business inside and out. Know how you want to position your restaurant, who you want it to appeal to, and what you specialize in. Build your brand around those things all the time, every time. Diners will return to your restaurant with the expectation that you will create the same great experience for them that they encountered the last time they visited. Or, even better – that you create the kind of experience that generates positive recommendations from others. Ah, yes, the power of word-of-mouth marketing.

Seeking an experience

When diners are deciding on an evening out or a spot for lunch, they are looking to create an experience. In the world of restaurant design we call this “creating atmosphere.” Most often when our clients ask us to design a restaurant, they are usually thinking about décor, a certain “look,” the latest trend or something different than the restaurant next door. Every restaurateur wants to create a unique experience for their guests.

The success of your restaurant, however, does not come from capturing the “look of the day” or picking the latest design trend elements, or even a combination of both. It comes from creating a unique atmosphere that can only be experienced by dining at your establishment.

Simply put, atmosphere is the experience created through the seamless combination of service, food, ambience and design. The word “seamless” is the key, since a break in the chain can leave a lasting impression. The restaurant with the best food in town but with poor table service will leave a lasting impression, and that impression is terrible service.

Consistency counts


There can be no disconnect in the presentation of your restaurant to your audience, starting with the flyer or ad that triggered their visit to the moment they leave your establishment. That is why when designing or renovating a restaurant our most important questions are:

  • Who is you target market?
  • What is on the menu?
  • What level of service are you providing?
  • What sets you apart from the competition?
  • How much is your average cheque?

Basically, this includes all of the information wrapped up into your business plan – yes, the financial piece. Ultimately, owning a restaurant is about making money by selling a product. Our job as restaurant designers is to position your restaurant to sell your product and its offerings as effectively as possible.

A wine bar and a quick service restaurant both have atmosphere, but the mood they are creating will be completely different. Diners already have a preconceived notion about what certain types of restaurant identities mean. Choose the wording in your brand messaging very carefully. It sets the stage for the customer’s expectations even before they set foot into your establishment. The word “bistro” evokes an image of a certain experience, very different than the image of a sports bar, but maybe not so far off from that of a wine bar.

Some of the obvious drivers of atmosphere are colour, finishes, layout, lighting and music. So when selecting these options, be very mindful of what impression they are creating.

Colourful statements

When it comes to colour, have specific reasons for your colour and finish selections that support your concept. Colour can be subjective but it will make a strong statement. Current trends lean towards a more tone-on-tone balance of colours punctuated with a shot of contrasting colour. When selecting your base finishes to cover your walls, floors and ceilings, select colours and products that are more timeless. A shot of colour from paint or wallpaper can easily be changed up when they become tired or dated, but changing flooring is expensive and time-consuming.

Planning for success

When creating new concepts and designs for our clients, the central focus of the initial design work is spent on planning, starting with developing a solid, functional floor plan. The entire feel of the restaurant hinges on creating a seating layout that maximizes capacity while creating multiple seating arrangements that are flexible. Good planning will also allow the staff to easily and efficiently deliver the food offerings to your patrons, thus reducing the risk of poor or slow service.

Bright ideas

Residential design elements have become popular in restaurant design. Nowhere is this more apparent than in lighting. Crystal chandeliers and table lamps have become commonplace as designers blur the lines of design. But more importantly is the ability to control the lighting. Install dimmers and create separate circuits that allow you the flexibility to change the mood of the lighting. This also helps reduce energy usage and costs. The new trend of fast casual restaurants almost requires two levels of lighting in order to create different atmosphere over the course of an entire day. Fluorescent lighting or LED lighting to boost light levels during the day should have the option to be turned off in order to create a more intimate experience during the evening hours.

Beautiful music

Satellite radio has made access to many genres of music a lot easier in recent years. That allows you to select the perfect music to create your atmosphere. Maybe even change it up over the course of the day. Be very careful of your choices, however. Music makes a very strong impression even if it is simply background music. Use it to set the mood and create your atmosphere. Lower volume is best in most situations, enough to allow for conversation, but still be heard. Monitor those levels as your restaurant becomes busier. Be informed and know the stations or recordings that you use and have a strict policy with your staff as to its use. Control is key with music.

Other factors

Some of the less obvious, but no less important drivers, are traffic flow, seating layouts, menu design and uniforms. These elements may speak subtly to your patrons but they are intentionally designed into your concept to create a carefully crafted experience for them, without them ever consciously noticing.

Your restaurant’s ambience and interior design is a three-dimensional representation of your business brand and it sets the stage for your entire operation. It is a calculated extension of your food experience, designed for impact, so get your guests in the mood for food. It’s a winning combination for success.

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About the author

Steve Forler, a Toronto-based registered interior designer, has been designing and renovating restaurants and retail stores for 25 years. He is a member of the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO). He established his firm Squarefoot Design Inc. in 2001 to provide creative, common sense interior design solutions for their clients’ restaurants and hospitality projects.

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