Restaurants Look to Architectural Design to Attract Customers

In a competitive landscape, chains are striving to differentiate themselves

Photo of a renovated restaurant
One goal is to get people to think of an individual eatery as a local spot. Courtesy of Bartaco
Headshot of Richard Collings

Key insight:

To compete in a crowded space, restaurants were experimenting with all sorts of tactics to lure in diners prior to Covid-19, from KFC rolling out fried chicken Crocs to plant-based proteins.

While attention-grabbing collaborations and trendy food items will always be on the menu, restaurants are increasingly adding localization and safety measures to a mix of ingredients they hope will boost sales in a post-pandemic world. Through design, restaurant operators are going to even greater lengths not only to ensure diners’ health but to also provide an ambiance of escape.

Restaurants hope to achieve this by cloaking their corporate identities in unique settings while incorporating flexible dining rooms and expanded patios to accommodate for social distancing. One of the goals is for residents to think of an individual eatery as a local spot, which involves customizing each location to blend with the cultural and architectural identity of its surroundings, making it unique from other sites in that chain.

“They are looking for anything that differentiates themselves from the crowd,” said Justin Hill, a principal at architecture firm MG2 Design, which recently merged with pop-up specialist The Lionesque Group.

On the other hand, restaurants are removing fixed furniture such as booths in order to space tables farther apart, while looking at incorporating barriers made of materials such as cloth and wood to place between dining sections, Hill said. These efforts are likely to last until a vaccine is found.

Regional chain Torchy’s Tacos, which is based in Austin, Texas, and stretches across the Southwest and lower Midwest, is expanding from its current 75 locations to 165 by 2023, putting it on the same trajectory as Shake Shack, according to Scott Hudler, the brand’s CMO.

For Torchy’s, which will look to add drive-thrus at new locations so that takeout is a bigger part of its business, as it adapts to the pandemic and beyond, the aim is for restaurants to not have a homogenized look.

“It’s really born out of the fact that we want to do everything we can to avoid looking like a big corporate chain,” Hudler said.

Barcelona Wine Bar, founded in Norwalk, Conn., with 18 locations across the U.S., seeks out landmark buildings the company then restores, wrapping the brand in the history of the neighborhood, said CEO Adam Halberg. Barcelona Wine Bar’s location in South Philadelphia, for example, replicated the original stone tiles from the building’s exterior to maintain the facade. The company is also currently opening a restaurant in Dallas, where it partnered with the landlord to refurbish the exterior.

The chain will likely increase its number of private dining rooms to adapt to a post-pandemic world and introduce retail at its locations, consisting of a curated line of specialty products from Spain, Halberg explained.

Mexican-fusion chain Bartaco, meanwhile, has a similar but less intensive approach across its 21 locations. There are common design elements in all of its locations, said Anna Greenberg, the company’s director of marketing, but to differentiate each restaurant, its design team hangs out at local shops, views street art and identifies architectural nuances during the planning process.

“In addition to understanding the neighborhood, it’s about understanding the building space itself and how to infuse the Bartaco aesthetic,” said Greenberg.

She said to ensure the safety of its customers, Bartaco is not only spacing out its tables on its patios but also instituted a place for pickups outside the restaurant to make it completely contactless.

According to Hill, the restaurants are attempting to do something for the local market that feels authentic. “If they go into a strip mall, there is no sense of history there,” he said.

It is possible to “systemize” or “standardize” to accommodate change, Hill said, and still gain certain cost efficiencies.

This story first appeared in the June 8, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@RichCollings Richard Collings is a retail reporter at Adweek.