Design for the Customer, Not the Designer

StrategicThinking

Design for the Customer, Not the Designer

Enhancing the customer’s dining experience,
not just creating design "photo ops."

How often have you seen restaurants that received outstanding design awards close after only a few years? How many restaurant concepts have you seen that operate very successful local operations, only to fail when they try to expand?

A common reason for such failures is that they "lose something in the translation," turning from a place customers like into one that instead reflects the likes of new designers.

This isn’t just a problem for commercial restaurants. The onsite foodservice community has numerous examples of corporate cafeterias in which similar mistakes have been made. Many "showplace" operations are filled with all the glass, marble, granite and other designer glitz that can be imagined, but which achieve only 20% or 30% participation rates after the novelty wears off.

Food quality and variety, service presentation and other factors can certainly share the blame for participation fall off. But in my experience, the problem of "design for design’s sake," rather than for the comfort and experience of the customer, often plays a significant role.

Today, few customers are satisfied with just "getting something to eat." Rather, they have come to expect higher levels of "dining experience," whether it be from fine white tablecloth restaurants, quick service or casual eateries or any of the many types of onsite foodservice operations. Finding ways to create the right kind of dining experience to match the customer base is a growing challenge for every operator.

That dining "experience" is the result of many factors, but few would disagree that design in the broadest of terms is key to the perceptions most customers have of the restaurants they frequent. And by design I am not referring only to color selection, the choice of material finishes, or even the layout of dining rooms and serveries. Design in the largest sense encompasses these things and many others, ranging from the creation of a restaurant’s identity to its lighting, food merchandising, sit-down "neighborhoods" and overall mood.

I was present at a design meeting several weeks ago in which an architect made a strident case for designing a very linear, straight-line configuration in a dining facility that is now in the planning stages. Several of us tried to explain to him the advantages of creating angled counters so that the food is more visible to the customer; to argue that breaks in the line would help create interest in the traffic patterns; and to make the case for the use of materials that would bring warmth and comfort to the customers who would eventually come there to dine.

The architect’s response was to question why those objectives couldn’t "just as easily be accomplished with straight lines? The food should be the key driver of the dining experience, not the facility."

The only reply I could make was that food is not the only thing that restaurant customers are looking for today. When they go to lunch they want a break from the work environment; they want to purchase and consume their meals in a place that offers a sense of life and exctement; they want "eatertainment." What they most certainly do not want is a dining experience that amounts to waiting in a cafeteria line.

This is not to make a case for a particular design approach—an enhanced dining experience can be created in many different ways. But it must be created with the sort of creative planning that makes the eventual customer experience the true design objective. And part of that objective must be to give the operator enough flexibility so he or she can continue to creatively enhance and modify that customer experience over the life of the facility.

The Eat Street Café at Massachusetts General Hospital is an operation I often point to as an example of an onsite operation that has significantly changed the way its customers perceive a hospital cafeteria.

Twelve to fifteen thousand people dine there every day. It overcomes the disadvantage of a basement-level location by incorporating non-traditional materials and high-impact merchandising to create the look-and-feel of a true restaurant, rather than that of the typical cafeteria.

To achieve results like that you have to operate in a facility designed to deliver a restaurant experience. And you have to think like a restaurateur when managing the operations. That is certainly the way MGH Director of Nutrition and Foodservices Helen Doherty thinks, and is one of the reasons she was voted Restaurant Operator of the Year two years ago by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.

Schools, hospitals, business dining operations and other onsite facilities need to look for design teams that have this same mindset. Similarly, architects and interior designers need to think less about the "photo opportunity" their design will present to their portfolios and think more about the "experience opportunity" it will give its customers.

Those customers are the ultimate client. They are the ones who will return many times, spend more on food and more completely enjoy the total dining experience if a facility is truly designed to meet their needs.

Ron Kooser is senior vice president of Cini-Little International, a Germantown, Maryland-based foodservice consulting firm.