Restaurants Must Forge a Path of Innovation and Ingenuity to Retain Customers

Peter Stocker



Halfway through what continues to be a tumultuous year, it’s apparent that the future of the entire consumer landscape has drastically changed. While we can only speculate what the coming months and years will hold, we can say with certainty that everything we’ve encountered—both as consumers and business owners—has been, and will continue to be, uncharted territory. 


Thankfully, in both the physical and digital worlds, American consumers have a voracious appetite for newness.


As consumers, the emotional motivations for eating and drinking experiences to apply newness and delight are still just as relevant in this new era of dining. In fact, planning for future investment while in a constant state of adaptation may now be more important than ever, as it will be increasingly difficult to compete with the ease and safety of having food delivered to one’s door. This is a moment in time when owners should capitalize on how to plan for rapid adaption in the future to meet the shifting needs of consumers.


When it comes to restaurant dining, there is a large inventory in the market of “sameness,” which used to be a benchmark for quality and experience.


But newness is the primary motivation for today’s consumers who have grown up absorbing more information and entertainment than any generation before them. Newness and connection are the drivers to leave our homes to eat, drink, or play.



Predictable = profitable, right?


Traditionally, the typical food and beverage experience is designed for a 10-year brand lifespan. We craft environments that thoughtfully embrace a relatively set culinary program and consumer experience: a brand experience that is designed, funded, and brought into the market with a single design language and a consistent core product offering.


This is has been typical for good reason: An expensive capital project like opening a restaurant requires a solid business plan, including a design that will be attractive and relevant for as long as possible in order to remain profitably in business. A culinary program that has predictable food costs and operational soundness -- this is the kind of practical thinking that landlords and bankers appreciate most, not to mention the best approach to the “classic model.”


Historically, some restaurants have built their following and reputation on a tried and true menu with must-try classics and known favorites. A first wave of consumer enthusiasts adopts this model, and their recommendations drive a second and third wave of consumers who evangelize for the brand. But even this classic model will reach a saturation point where brands must invest more in marketing and aided communication to bring new consumers into the fold. Original adopters eventually become weary of the same experience, and while they might still visit every so often, the newness is long gone, replaced by monotony.


What if newness was the foundational design mandate for a new restaurant experience and culinary program? What if seasonal changes went beyond supplemental menu inserts? What if the space itself was the minimum evidence of newness and kinetic design features reduced financial constraints associated with refreshing and remodeling stationary environments?



The other end of the spectrum


Currently, on one end of this newness spectrum, you have Paul Pairet’s Ultraviolet in Shanghai. A single dining room with a single table, yet a fully immersive experience where the food, place settings, even the walls change completely — more than 20 times — over the course of each seating. Pairet has designed the space and all the sensory cues to change based on the dish. Music, smells, plates, utensils, and table settings, all evolving to match each course served.


While Ultraviolet is a culinary and sensory event that has gone to extreme lengths to delight and inform, Park Avenue Winter (Spring, Summer, Autumn) in New York City takes a lighter touch. The name, along with the menu and even the chef, changes with each season. The dining room and its presentation follow the newness of the menu and are more subtle, more refined in its approach. What is surprisingly revolutionary about both experiences is that they are rare examples of newness leading a food and beverage model as the primary programming concern.


But can newness as the primary experience be applied to fast-casual, or even QSR brands? What would the frequency of change look like?


Evolving with the seasons


One approach to bringing a newness model to market for fast-casual and quick-serve restaurants would be to follow a seasonal model. A hybrid that might follow natural seasons but could also be based on campus seasons or even sports seasonality. This model could also realize a bit of practicality and sustainability by reuse of seasonal, visual assets. Similar to a reoccurring stage theater production or department store visual inventory, as a season ends, it is replaced with last year’s package. For many years in Seattle, Maurice Sendak’s design of The Nutcracker stage sets was a reoccurring crowd favorite.  If the seasonal design changes are thoughtful, creative, and perennial, they will resonate for multiple years before outliving their relevance. However, these details cannot be planned as an added expense. They must be supported by a new way of thinking about the dining room, signage, and initial construction.


The consumer experience


If we were to follow this model and related details, we must consider where and how funding is spent to allow for the application of newness to the consumer experience. We must seek spaces that were previously outfitted as restaurants. This model would not be affordable if an expensive back-of-house conversion and supporting infrastructure were not previously in place. We would need our shell to be modular: walls that could accept inexpensive change, lighting that would be interchangeable: signs, menu boards, table surfaces, and even furniture, fixtures, and equipment that could change and be manipulated to match each season. It would begin with reassigning where and how we spend on design. Expensive custom millwork and interior architecture would need to be deleted. Substrates and surfaces would have to be designed and specified to cater to inexpensive “skins” or inserts that would refresh the space.


A successful, real-world example can be found in art gallery spaces: a blank white sheet of paper upon which to assign stories, experiences, and most of all, a low dollars-per-square foot buildout that allows for maximum flexibility and change. If we were to approach restaurants in this manner with systems that are purposeful in their simplicity and modularity, we could in theory set aside more funds for seasonal changes and newness, exciting restaurant-goers for the return of “their favorite season.”


A new belief system


This brings us full-circle to the consumer’s consumption and fondness for newness. What if your favorite restaurant changed with the seasons? From a warm, cozy winter dining room featuring a comfort food menu, to a refreshing spring awakening? What if spring gave way to a light, bright summer space with equally light and healthy fare? What if the fall design of the space and the menu was an annual event that welcomed back your favorite decor, plates, seating, and autumn dishes? Could “roll-in, bolt-on” modularity be constructed, stored, and staged for its eventual return to the space?


With a deliberate, reordering of initial design decisions and funding, and a new belief system based on the idea that newness drives delight and engagement, we could, as designers, bring new life to struggling chains and brands, We could help them overcome consumer apathy for sameness, and replace it with the newness they crave. We could change the world’s menu as we know it.


Author Bio:

Peter Stocker is a principal at the global architect firm Mg2. With almost 30 years of brand design and development experience, Stocker has worked with companies such as Amazon, Smashburger, White Castle, and Tommy Bahama.


Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Pxhere (Creative Commons)

--Free-Photos (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Pxhere (Creative Commons)

--Pxfuel (Creative Commons)


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