Restaurant marketing by design

Marketing by design
By Chris Hannah

October 22, 2012


Is your restaurant design sending the right message?

Do your customers understand you? In my view, Marketing 101 would suggest that sending a clear message is Job No. 1. Nowhere is this more apparent and more critical than in foodservice. And, nowhere have I seen this rule broken more often than in restaurants. While trying to be all things to all people, you run the risk of ending up in an overpopulated, middle-of-the-road market characterized by customer apathy.

Consequently, in talking about trends in restaurant design, there is a danger that we grab hold of the latest and coolest and try to make it part of our place because it works so well in others. Instead, what we need to ask first is: What message does this element send to those who have not seen it before?

Your storefront is the first place to make a good impression. It is also the best place to make a bad, or perhaps worse, the wrong impression. It is one thing to fail at enticing the customer, but another entirely to get them in under false pretenses. In this respect, honesty and transparency is the best approach, both literally and figuratively. While the exterior does not need to tell the whole story, it does need to pique the customer’s curiosity. Ask yourself: Do the elements, such as signage, graphics and key materials, send a clear message at all times of day, or not?

Keep it interesting

Let the interior transmit some of your message to the street, but leave something to be discovered.  Make sure the window seats are the place where people want to sit, so you always look happening.  Natural landscaping only works when it is maintained, and you need to think about how your botanical investment looks through the other three Canadian seasons.

The front door is the first thing your customer will touch, and herein lies a theme: What the customer touches, the customer remembers. It may not be the elaborate ceiling detail or the marble floor tiles.   While in many leased spaces the possible scope of exterior changes may be limited, the door and the hardware are a smart way to spend limited dollars.

Spending dollars wisely on both interior and exterior starts with an assessment of the site. In this regard, design starts before you sign a lease. Look to see if the space has good ‘bones.’ Sometimes individual elements or architectural materials will help you develop a design direction and perhaps even frame the style of the operation. Two words of caution, however: First, be careful you don’t fall in love with a classic building that will later become a money pit. Second, if you are thinking about multiple units, consider the difficulty in matching the magic of that first site as you look to expand.

Furniture counts

How we furnish restaurants has evolved in recent years. It’s not just chairs for dining and stools for drinking. It’s not just wood for casual and tablecloths for formal. Customers often choose to sit at higher tables in a bar atmosphere for dining because they like the different energy level, and they like to be at eye level to the staff. Conversely, some customers are happy to sit in a lounge seat and a table lower than dining height, even for lunch and dinner. Counter-height seating, which is between dining and bar height, reminds us of sitting at a kitchen counter.

Communal tables are a recent trend, but in many cases they are not really being implemented as communal, but rather as large group tables. A true communal table will make individuals and smaller groups feel comfortable sharing and often generates conversation and activity that otherwise would not exist. Like many aspects of design, you as an owner must decide how your place should operate, and therefore how it will feel.

Everybody loves booths, so why don’t we do all booths? Budget notwithstanding, inflexibility is the issue. Not just that you cannot move them, but that we often see one or two people using up four seats, thereby cutting your usable capacity by a high percentage.

Public vs. private

This leads us into a discussion of private versus public space. Booths are not only popular due to physical comfort, but also for a psychological comfort that comes with being surrounded. Here again there has been a shift, particularly in urban markets from spaces that are divided and private to more open and public; where bar no longer has to be separate from dining; where couples rub shoulders with others; where more and more of the production activity is exposed.

Finally, a word (or two) on process. It is nearly impossible for any or all of the above to come together if the design process is dysfunctional. As a restaurant owner, you may think that the process is in the hands of the design team, but you must remember that the team includes you. As an operator you will (must) bring something to the table to ignite the design. It may be as simple as a key menu focus, or a specific service model, but it must be something that you believe in. That being said, design of foodservice spaces is a unique endeavor, and you need to make sure your whole team is up to the task. Make sure you are dealing with specialists in every aspect of the process.

Determine focus

The next goal is to establish clear lines of communication, and try hard to put ego aside. So where do we start? Again, as designers we need to take our cues from the operator. In planning and designing a restaurant we need to know what the focus is, and therefore we determine:

  • How it should be perceived by the customer
  • What it should look like stylistically
  • How it should flow
  • What is the focal point

Tips to remember:

  • Bring all aspects together – from name, to menu, to service, to design
  • The design process starts with site selection
  • Start to tell the story with the exterior, but leave something to be discovered
  • Spend on the elements that the customer touches
  • Be brave and take a stand; be known for something

See also:

About the author

Chris Hannah is the principal of Cricket Design Company Inc. in Toronto. The firm was founded in 1988 and specializes in hospitality projects, from kiosks to casinos and everything in between. Hannah also teaches at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design. For more information visit – but stand by for a new and improved site coming this fall. Email:

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