Designing the Restaurant Experience
While the panel was introduced as a panel of “experts,” I had to start with a disclaimer… expert is a word that carries a lot of weight, and, I can’t claim to be one, in restaurant design or any project type for that matter. I think of myself as a multidisciplinary designer – more of a generalist than a specialist. Every project I take on is a new challenge with a new set of criteria. But what I’d like to think I do well, and it’s prevalent in all the work that we do at Bergmeyer, is that we translate brands into brand platforms and physical experiences.
Adapted from my talk for AIGA’s “Designing the Restaurant Experience” event, I’d like to share four thoughts on how Bergmeyer and our teams have approached some recent work.
First, we start by listening. When you hear people talk about experience design, you often hear about it in terms of “storytelling” … a design technique using narrative to build emotional connections with users. But before we tell those stories, we need to listen to them. We need to listen to our clients. We need to listen to the chefs. We need to listen to the market. And make sense of it all. It’s not just a passive listening either. Designers need to ask the right questions to get the right information from early discussions. Those answers, and the stories we hear, are critical in informing the direction of the project.
2. Authentic Experiences
Restaurants are not a commodity, or a good, or even a service anymore. They are multisensory experiences that are no longer just part of a night out – they are the night out. And, they’re a large part of the Experience Economy. It’s why AIGA’s event was centered around creating food experiences and not just building food establishments.
What consumers want from their experiences is authenticity. We have this notion that “authenticity” means real, as opposed to fake. But, we all know, the experiences we design are figments of authenticity – imagined by a group of people, sometimes, out of nothing! And. that’s. fine. What makes a restaurant authentic is that they’re true to themselves – being who they say they are and delivering what people expect based on their perceptions of the brand.
We recently worked with Zo Greek on a brand refresh and their third location at Assembly Square in Somerville. The first two locations of Zo Greek didn’t really represent the authenticity of their food. When we started working with them, we did some social listening on Yelp – which for a restaurant could be a blessing or a curse! – and unfortunately, we found this bad review. One woman wanted the lemon chicken soup, called “avgolemono,” but the man behind the counter wouldn’t give it to her until she pronounced it correctly! They’re always super busy at lunch time. I’m sure the line was out the door, and here you have a manager of the restaurant, holding up the line just to educate a customer on how to pronounce their food. That’s outrageous! But, while that 2-star review didn’t help their overall rating, it actually proved to us how authentically Greek they really were. It’s part of what drove the inspiration for the project design and creating the authentic restaurant experience.
3. Diverse and Dynamic Teams
At Bergmeyer, we establish project teams with a diverse set of skills and unique points of view. There’s loads of research that shows teams are more successful when they have a balance of women and men, when they have both introverts and extroverts, and when they are diverse, when you bring various perspectives into the project. The common thread on the most successful teams is trust, where everyone feels safe to voice their opinion and where their ideas are truly valued.
It’s important to understand the dynamics of working with clients too, and how decisions will be made. It can range from having one decision-maker to a worst-case scenario “design-by-committee” where a project suffers from no clear direction. Knowing the structure can help designers overcome hurdles and keep the ball moving forward.
Two projects examples with many stakeholders:
McGauvran Center at UMass Lowell is a multi-use student center and dining facility. As a state university, we needed input and buy-in from a lot of different stakeholders, from Student Affairs, to Facilities Management, Campus Planning, Capital Projects, and the Food Operator. Collaborating with the Department of Communications, we came up with the names and concepts for each of the stations, as if they were their own little eateries, inspired by the food and with a material palette that complemented the concepts. Having the Department of Communications essentially as part of the design team helped us move the project swiftly through stakeholder approvals and we could move forward into implementation.
After successfully launching their original Lolita concept in the Back Bay, COJE Management Group called on us to execute their second location in Fort Point. It’s a slightly different take on the original restaurant – with a Day of the Dead inspiration – designed to fit within the oddly-shaped and subterranean space on Summer Street. The project required review from a ton of different agencies, like the EPA, National Park Service, Landmarks Commission, Fort Point Neighborhood Association, and on and on and on… Though the provocative design of the restaurant takes front stage, the process of executing this vision was a challenge that was met head-on.
4. Touchpoints Along a Journey
As with any brand, restaurants too have many brand touchpoints. A touchpoint is anywhere your brand comes into contact with consumers, from the restaurant itself and the elements inside, to the intangibles like interactions with servers. We identify these touchpoints and how we can have a positive impact to help strengthen that relationship between restaurant and guest.
These touchpoints happen along a journey. Like defining our touchpoints, we need to identify who our guests are, why they’re going to a restaurant in the first place, what they’re doing during their stay, and what they do afterwards. How are they sharing their experience? We imagine different users taking different journeys, and consider the key moments that can elevate their experience to get them coming back.
A couple examples where the many touchpoints are well considered:
The design of a Shake Shack is a series of touchpoints that convey their mission of “enlightened hospitality.” They’ve gone through a huge expansion lately and Bergmeyer has designed and launched nearly 30 Shacks so far, with more in the works. The space is a welcoming atmosphere for employees, customers, and the community. All locations are composed of a brand palette that we’re responsible for maintaining and evolving as the brand continues to grow. It’s inspired by the original Shack in Madison Square Park and now in over 160 locations in the US and abroad.
Another project with COJE, RUKA was inspired by their team’s travel to Peru and the rich cultural diversity of Lima. In many cases, restaurant concepts start with the culinary idea. Here, it’s Nikkei – a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese cuisine. When you can establish a really unique point of view with the food, the design of the restaurant has a clear root of inspiration. Located in the Godfrey Hotel, that culinary inspiration in every touchpoint - from the flatware to the murals and lighting – complementing the bold flavors of the food. Various elements inspired by both of these cultures juxtapose each other and adds a variety that is unlike anything else in Boston.
So, a quick recap on the four thoughts that have influenced our approach to experience design:
Before storytelling, comes story listening: Ask the right questions and listen to the market. Creating authentic experiences isn’t about “real” or “fake,” it means being who you say you are and going beyond guest expectations. Diversify and trust your project teams; know the dynamics and move the ball forward. And lastly, identify the touchpoints in a guest’s journey and elevate key moments for restaurants to build upon the relationship with them and get them coming back again and again.
Bergmeyer has a remarkable team working in restaurant design and we can’t wait to share with you what we’re working on next!
Thanks to Mike Diskin for the event photos, to AIGA Boston for inviting us to share our work, and to the other panelists from Korn Design and Assembly Design Studios for the engaging discussion!