Planning a Restaurant:
All aspects of creating a restaurant are interrelated. The potential of a particular space may influence the choice of location, the location may suggest a design approach. Both a restaurant’s location and the fundamental qualities of the space itself may also have a bearing on the menu. None of these decisions can be taken entirely in isolation. In a good restaurant, everything comes together to provide a total experience.
A great interior design and a consistent design concept of the ambience are able to enhance the quality impression of the kitchen. This is an important contribution to the path that gives a restaurant that mysterious X factor that makes it so truly memorable that your guests will enjoy this experience again and again.
But spatial design, from the restaurateur’s point of view, must also be hard-working. Getting the basics right – the disposition of space, the architectural shell, the servicing and so on – makes all the difference between a restaurant that is efficient and practical to run and one that loses money and goodwill hand over first from the day it opens.
When we start to design a restaurant, we realize that it is just about the most challenging and indeed most interesting design job there is.
In simple terms, a restaurant is a factory and a shop, and the design must answer all those demands made by both manufacture and retailing.
Add in graphics, ergonomics, servicing and technology – together with the need to provide the intangible qualities of atmosphere and welcome – and you have a design brief that covers nearly every discipline.
Often a first-time restaurateur will plan a space starting with the tables and chairs and work from there, from front-of-house to back-of-house, as it were. This is a mistake. One of the worst disadvantages a restaurant can have is too small a kitchen, with service and storage areas that are unable to cope with the number of covers needed to generate a profit.
Instead, it is more useful to plan all the behind-the-scenes requirements first – air management, refrigeration, storage, utilities, goods in, rubbish out, staff lockers, administration, IT cloakrooms, lavatories and so on – and put the tables and chairs in the space that is left.
Of course, this is something of a simplistic statement – it would be foolish to install kitchens, prep areas, storage and refrigeration to service 100 covers only to be left with room for 50 – but it is nevertheless worth working to a rough front-to-back-of-house ratio of 50:50.
At the same time, flexibility is important.
The type of restaurant you are going to run and the building you inherit will have an effect on the disposition of the space. A pizzeria, for example, demands less back-of-house space because most of the preparation and cooking can be done within the restaurant area itself.
Smaller kitchens are also generally found in restaurants at the luxury end of the market, which demand more space between tables, more waiter stations and serving areas than a casual brasserie or bistro.
Sometimes we realized that the space was far too big to accommodate just one restaurant and the idea arose to have two levels of dining – one smart and the other more casual.
Planning the Kitchen:
In the early stages of planning the space, it is important to consult designers, architects and surveyors to work out how much needs to be spent on refurbishment, structural alteration or fit-out.
The chef´s job starts well before the restaurant opens.
When you have found a location and decided on the type of restaurant you wish to open, it is important to have input from the chef and management at the early stage of the design.
A restaurant kitchen is an environment where a team of people produce a great variety and quantity of dishes, working under considerable pressure and in conditions which can be fairly extreme.
To create the most efficient working space you will need to know how the chef prefers to work and the equipment he will require in order to produce the dishes on the menu.
How much prep area is required ? How much storage space ? Is space needed for a grill, deep frying or rotisserie ? Will you need quantities of ice ? Cold storage ? Ambient storage ? Wash-up areas and freezers also need careful planning in order to establish the most efficient layout.
The design of a restaurant kitchen is highly complex.
In servicing terms, the single most important element is air management. Heat, smoke, steam and the smell of cooking must be efficiently extracted, with the extract outlet raised above the roofline of the adjoining buildings. In turn, cool air must be brought in to ensure conditions in the kitchen remain workable.
Overlaying the requirements of the chef and his staff are statutory health regulations. These legal requirements have added immeasurably to the basic start-up costs of opening a restaurant in recent years.
Equal attention must be paid to the logistics of deliveries, goods in and waste out, as is given to the cooking and refrigeration equipment. Walkways that are non-slip and easy to clean are essential and they must also be wide enough to take a trolley of raw ingredients or allow access for maintenance of equipment.
Staff have to have somewhere to change, shower, store their personal items, eat and rest, and chefs have to have somewhere to telephone, fax or e-mail their suppliers.
Durable surfaces and good lighting are also essential. But before a single oven is installed or one tap plumbed in, the foundations of the services – electrics, gas, IT water and drainage – have to be in place.
Large restaurant kitchens are increasingly dependent on sophisticated technology and an area has to be allocated and designed for electronic systems for ordering, billing, cost and stock control, deliveries and warehousing. The resulting miles of cables that connect waiters with chefs, chefs with buyers and delivery men, and control security cameras and alarms have to be planned and installed at the time of construction.
In this context, the great advantage of a small restaurant is that it can survive perfectly well with only the low-tech assistance of a reservations book, shouted orders and hand-written bills!
There is a tendency nowadays to over-equip restaurant kitchens. Not only is this expensive but it leads to excruciating maintenance costs. The one area where high specification definitely pays off, however is the piano – the chefs colloquial term for the cooking range – which has to survive a punishing existence. A good piano is built like a tank to withstand the warfare of the kitchen.
Integrating services and equipment efficiently in the space available demands exceptionally precise planning.
Designing a restaurant is not merely a rigorous technical and practical exercise, it also means paying attention to seemingly intangible elements that can make all the difference to the enjoyment of your customers.
Sound levels, proximity of other diners and sympathetic lighting are key factors in creating a good ambience. The sense of well-being which is so important in creating a successful restaurant is also a function of its style.
Very few of us, maybe with the exception of minimalist architects, prefer to dine in monastic surroundings. While plain refectory tables, unrelenting hard surfaces and bare walls may be right for a quick lunch, such surroundings do not succeed in giving people incentives to linger any more than they encourage relaxation.
At the same time, the type of enveloping luxury that was typical of the grand hotel dining rooms of the past can be just too suffocatingly baroque for today’s customers, who are increasingly ill at ease both with excessive formality and with over-the-top soft furnishings.
The architecture of a space can provide drama and theatre, but seemingly less momentous elements also have an important part to play in creating atmosphere. Outdoor eating, for example, is synonymous with pleasure for many people. Where the location offers no such possibilty, the integration of a patio or a wintergarden might be the key factor to your success.
One of the most important aspects to consider when planning a restaurant interior is the quality of light – how it will be achieved, how it will change from day to night, whether there will be natural light, street lighting and other external influences.
Lighting is a crucial factor, because it leaves the greatest impression on the customer and contributes significantly to the overall mood. Natural light conditions may include bright, sunny midsummer evenings, overcast midwinter lunchtimes and every variation in between. Even if the restaurant has no natural light source, it is important for artificial lighting to echo conditions outside.
One more tip: You are never alone with a mirror – every lunchtime and every evening, someone has to be the first customer to arrive and in bigger spaces, particularly, that can be a lonely and uncomfortable sensation. Strategic use of mirrors can open up views and connect potentially isolated dining spots with the vigour of the main part of the restaurant.
Finding the right location is the first step to opening a new restaurant. If you fondly dream of opening your own café or restaurant, it may be that the location goes hand in hand with your dream: perhaps it is of a smart cocktail bar in a city centre, of a public house in a country backwater or of a seaside café.
These associations show the importance that is attached to location: exceptional views, a building with history or local character can all help create a bit of magic.
Of course, the received wisdom among property developers is that there are three things to look for in a site: location, location and location. However, prime sites do not come cheaply, and the restaurant business is an exceptionally tricky one.
Very few restaurants are full from day one, and almost all will go through a painful learning curve during the opening year. The last thing you want is to add to the stress by paying a premium in rent.
For us, it is all about potential.
Analyzing the potential of a site and balancing its inherent commercial strengths and weaknesses is the pivotal point on which a restaurant founders or flourishes. What is required is a balance of careful planning and entrepreneurial vision.
It is only once a location is secured that the various other elements of running a restaurant have a context. Everything else follows from it – the type of food, the formality or otherwise of the presentation, the amount spent on fitting out the space.
As energetic Indoor Architects we are inundated with rafts of property proposals, most of which are unsuitable – premises may be too big or too small, the lease may be too short or too expensive, but more often than not, the site will be in the wrong place.
Just as finding a good location is one of the most important criteria when you are purchasing a shop or domestic property, it is reasonable to expect the same to hold true when it is a question of acquiring a site for a restaurant; perhaps even more so.
After all, launching a restaurant is a major undertaking and one that demands considerable investment. A prime location means customers on the doorstep and a better chance of success. Or does it?
Location is indeed a crucial consideration for the would-be restaurateur; but important distinctions have to be made. When you buy a house, you invariably tie the value of your property into the prosperity, or otherwise, of the immediate neighborhood.
The success of a restaurant, however is not exclusively a function of its site.
In many cases, restaurants can act as spurs for regeneration, breathing new life into what were formerly rather moribund areas. In this particular context it is crucial to distinguish between ‘destination’ restaurants and those dependent on passing trade.
Its part of the formula of the destination restaurant to be off pitch, a little removed from the beaten track. A restaurant that relies on passing trade for most of its custom, on the other hand, has to be sited right in the heart of things.
The optimum location for a restaurant is one where there is a guaranteed catchment of customers both during the day and at night: for example, where there is some office business but also a good residential area for evening bookings. Such sites are hard to find.
The economics of running a restaurant today are such that the figures only work if you have lunch as well as evening trade. A good lunch trade and a reasonable dinner is acceptable; even preferable is to have a good lunch and an excellent dinner business at least six days a week. It’s hard, although not impossible, to make a success of anything less.
Given these economic parameters, it is more and more difficult to make a success of that persistent dream, the country restaurant. In the country, invariably everyone wants to eat out on Friday and Saturday night, sometimes at Sunday lunchtime. The result is that the dining room is empty four or five nights a week and over-subscribed the rest of the time. We know of a really superb restaurant that had to close last year after being in business for some twenty years. It just could not afford the overheads on what had become effectively a two-day week.
Country restaurants can work, however. And when they do work, they can have a beneficial role in the revitalization of the whole area.
Perhaps the easiest way for a budget-conscious entrepreneur to become a restaurateur is to take over an existing restaurant. It is essential to carry out plenty of research beforehand to establish exactly how the restaurant operates, what its customer base is like, how good a relationship it has with other local traders, and what changes you might make for the better.
Be prepared to pay more for a successful business with a high goodwill value.
If you are considering taking over an under-performing business, you must find out why it is not successful and how feasible it will be to overcome the problems. Avoid those locations that have seen a succession of enterprises fail. There are some sites that look good on paper and ought to work, but for some mysterious reason never do – the Chinese might ascribe the run of bad luck to poor feng shui, but opening a restaurant is chancy enough without taking on such additional risk.
We believe that there are many advantages in not going into prime locations
Lower property costs, for one thing, little if any competition, and the opportunity to negotiate a favorable lease or rental terms.
The first step when the site comes up is to make an assessment of the viability of the location.
Is there enough local business to fill a restaurant at lunchtime and sufficient interest to attract diners in the evening ? How much space is there ? How much will be front- and how much back-of-house ? How many covers ? What turnover and what profit is the site likely to
The demographics of the area will also give you an indication of the type of customers you are likely to attract – business people in the financial districts, ladies who lunch in an upmarket shopping area, literati in a publishing quarter; media people where you find ad agencies and luwies in theatreland. This catchment, in turn, will give you an idea of the sort of food to serve and the prices to charge.
Many restaurants have failed even before they got off the ground quite simply because of under-investment.
It is crucially important to get this right from the beginning:
under-capitalization at the start makes catching up, once the restaurant is open, very, very difficult.
Start with a basic business plan that will show you if your proposal has economic feasibility. You should know what sort of restaurant it will be, who your likely customers are, and therefore the kind of menu, the price range and the style of interior design. It is particularly important to ensure that enough money is put into the restaurant behind the scenes. This is where people often try to take shortcuts, but the right equipment and the right standards of efficiency and hygiene are essential.
It is invaluable at this stage in the process to bring in an architect or designer to give you an idea of the cost of the project and also an accountant who has some knowledge and experience of the business. These people will be able to advise you on how much operating capital you are realistically likely to need for the type of restaurant that you are planning.
Getting it right means taking sound financial advice and doing your homework well.
The property deal can make a huge difference to the ultimate success of the restaurant. The basic rules are: do not spend too much on rent and tie the rent wherever possible to turnover. Do not acquire a site to make a rapid return on the investment. Instead, look at the long term and try to negotiate long leases.
Because the company spends a great deal of money on design and fitting out a restaurant to high specifications, the property deal must be sufficiently good for the business to be viable not only in good times but also in bad. It does not take a crystal ball to predict that over 15 or 20 years there are going to be highs and lows in the business; therefore the object should be to keep the fixed costs as low as possible.
One way to achieve this is to negotiate a relatively low basic rental, with the balance tied into a percentage of the turnover.
Restaurants are increasingly seen as attractive opportunities for investment. We believe that if investors are faced with a management team that has commercial integrity and a good track record, something different to offer and sound business sense, the investment potential should automatically speak for itself.
But, as an investment opportunity, a restaurant also provides something a little more special than a unit trust or a multinational corporation, and that is the opportunity to actually participate in the development of the enterprise.
People always love the idea of going to a restaurant and thinking:
“I own part of this.”
Shared ownership can be a very real part of the restaurant’s “feel-good factor”.