I’ve been asked to write an article giving “5 top restaurant interior design tips to attract new customers” and I can’t. I know these types of article are well circulated and have high engagement rates in the content marketing world, but the challenge for me is that whilst there are rules of thumb and go-to methods for improving the customer experience, the reality is much more complicated and success is tied to deeper factors that lie at the heart of your hospitality business.

The risk of an “interior design tips” type of article is that people skim it and feel that they have the literal answer to their ‘problem.’ They then copy and paste design solutions with the expectation of a certain result. Take the craze for flower arches as an example. They are highly visual, relatively inexpensive, Instagram-friendly additions that grab attention. People see other successful restaurants using them, ascribe a portion of that success to the flower arch’s appeal and add one to their restaurant to encourage people to take photos of themselves and post on social media.

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Tailor your restaurant interior design to your brand DNA

The important point to remember is that the design solution you need, should be completely in tune with the DNA of your brand. For Elan café and Peggy Porshen, a flower arch is perfectly aligned with who they are – elegant, aspirational feminine places where people come to see and be seen.

A little further down the road from Peggy Porshen near Victoria, London is Dominque Ansel, he of Cronut fame and a fantastic artisan baker. The store design has a slightly quirky, contemporary feel to it that makes it feel very much it’s own thing… But then the marketing team have added a flower arch outside the front door to attract attention. From a brand built on creative innovation in baking that is both stylish and has substance, this is not in keeping with their DNA. They would be better-served by something that is a creative twist rather than the default copy-and-paste solution.

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As a slight tangent, designing for something to be ‘Instagrammable’ also causes me some concern. No doubt marketing is very,  very important and a restaurant’s digital presence on social media can have a big effect on their success. But getting attention on Instagram is not a panacea. At best, this type of marketing can generate short term spikes in interest and activity. You might become new and noteworthy and some people might seek you out to come and experience it. However, creating “raving fans” is a more important goal for long term success.

To quote Ray Dalio “New is often overvalued compared to great”. Is the experience they get at your restaurant great? Is the food fantastic? Will they come back and tell their friends? I would argue that very few people are coming back to take that photo again.

So I won’t offer you tips. Instead, I will offer you a few principles to keep in mind as you develop your restaurant design.

Develop your restaurant interior design – key principles

Know your purpose

This is what Robert Bean calls your ‘single organising principle’. In short, know what you are about and, importantly, what you are not about. This might be large or small in terms of scale. Is your desire to bring vegan food to the masses? Do you want to be the best local coffee shop and serve your community? Or are you obsessed with creating the perfect doughnuts? For the best chance of long term success, this should be something bigger than you as an individual. Something that can galvanise a team and give you mission.

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As an example, our company’s purpose is “To set the stage for the best hospitality in the world”. Purpose is important as it gives heart and energy to your business. If you aren’t convinced, then consider what the opposite of purpose is….. aimlessness and apathy.

Define your brand DNA

Alongside your purpose, you should define your brand DNA. What is the personality of your concept? How will it look and feel? Define a creative concept and direction as tightly as possible. Often this is done as a combination of a few key words or values (e.g. surprising, eclectic, authentic, minimal, layered, rich). It should feel like a natural fit for who you are and the culture you want to build.

Try to avoid generic words like ‘quality’ and ‘service’, you want to create something ownable and relatively unique (don’t get too hung up on the word unique though, it can be a never-ending quest). It should feel authentic and exciting at the same time, like you have uncovered something rather than made something up.

Filter and assess

Now you have these two key aspects, you can use them to filter and assess any possible marketing ideas and design solutions. What type of seating do you need to deliver the best doughnut eating customer experience? If being ‘surprising’ is a core part of your DNA, then how might this be reflected in each part of the design?

As an example, our client Pasta Remoli has a DNA based on a warm, authentic Italian energy. This comes through in many ways, from the Italian street artist Mister Thomas commissioned in each restaurant,  the Emergency Tomato Sauce Removal Kit in the toilets and the self-deprecating humour of “I’m not shouting, I’m an Italian chef”….they take their pasta seriously, but not themselves.
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Think About Your Customers

In addition to your DNA, design solutions should be tailored to the types of people who will be your customers. A very tangible example is if you have a lot of families coming in, make it easy for them. Make sure there is a shelf next to the baby change table to put a change bag on rather than having to balance it on the toilet. Install a wall-mounted baby seat for the single parent to strap in their toddler whilst changing baby number two. Ensure you have enough circulation space for multiple buggies and high chairs. Have colouring kits (or more creative solutions) to help distract the kids.

Another area is how you approach your shopfront design. The vast majority of restaurants would do well to give passers-by a chance to know what you do in the 3-5 seconds they may glance in your direction. If people have never heard of your restaurant and do not get an idea of what food/ drink you offer as they walk past (as simple as having a subtitle of “Japanese bar and restaurant” and a visible menu to look at without having to commit to crossing a threshold), you are asking for everyday courage that in all probability will not be there.

Most people avoid putting themselves in a potential situation where they could have to choose between feeling embarrassed by walking away or feeling pressured to try something they now know doesn’t appeal to them. However, if mystery and intrigue are key to your brand DNA (and your marketing is so good that you don’t need passing trade), then you might opt for the totally opposite approach as has been born out with the rise of Speakeasy-style bars on the last few years with anonymous doors and no signage.

So there you go. No simple tips, here but hopefully some food for thought on how you might generate a design direction for yourself.

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