Renovation nation

America’s restaurants are getting an extreme makeover. Sure, old brands have gotten face-lifts every decade or so. But the latest changes in design go more than skin deep. When the most iconic image in fast food—the golden arches—gets updated into a swoosh, you can see it’s not remodeling as usual.

Virtually every major restaurant company is reinventing its basic units right now. This reimaging is a response to the lingering recession; the profit pendulum has swung from adding new stores to squeezing more revenue out of existing ones. “They can’t afford to open new restaurants,” says Juan Martinez, principal of Profitality in Miami. “They have to improve current locations.”


The tower in Red Lobster’s Bar Harbor design suggests a New England lighthouse, enhanced by nautical lanterns.

For chains with deep pockets, it’s also a chance to gain ground on troubled competitors, says Fred LeFranc, founder of Results Through Strategy in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Lots of restaurant companies found themselves flatfooted when the recession came. McDonald’s and Darden have used it as an opportunity to grab market share.”

On a deeper level, the whole quickservice segment is suffering an identity crisis. “The success of fast-casual has taught consumers that a lot of the older chains are outdated and less relevant,” says Darren Tristano with Technomic. “So companies like Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King and Chick-fil-A are now upscaling.”

What does relevance look like? We asked the chains themselves, along with architects and interior designers. Here are some key features of the new wave of restaurant design.

“Studies have been done on how much is imprinted on your mind in the first five seconds of entering a place,” says Jeffrey Sheppard, design principal of Roth + Sheppard Architects in Denver. “If you walk up to a cheap storefront door, it’s telling you something about what’s going to happen inside.”


Spot lighting adds touches of color to a Longhorn Steakhouse.

As a result, many new entranceways are literally towers, with stonework that suggests a castle minus the drawbridge. After dark, accents of lighting add drama. Longer awnings give more depth, while an updated and larger-scale logo crowns the parapet.

“Many concepts are creating a very substantial and recognizable element as an entrance, a modern gateway,” says John Miologos, executive vice president of foodservice and retail at design consultants WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio. “It has clean lines, but it’s strong and colorfully impactful. When you look at it, you know what you’re coming into and what it stands for.”

Even less-than-monumental changes in colors and materials can emphasize a doorway, says Sizzler CEO Kerry Kramp. “We change the outside to inform people that what’s inside is something unique and different.”

The Euro look

Many an existing restaurant was built back when plastic and fiberglass were cutting edge. Notes Cozette Koerber, VP of communications for Johnny Rockets, “What was hot in 1986 is not hot today.”


McDonald’s mixes its old golden arches with the new “brow.”

By contrast, newer units look more like IKEA stores. For Millennials, cutting edge is European style: functional shapes with clean lines, curves and little ornamentation.

At one extreme, the look can be futuristic and industrial. Burger King’s 20/20 model is heavy on polished and corrugated steel and open ceilings. At the retro extreme is Olive Garden’s Via Tuscany design, with materials like wood and stone.

Perhaps most striking is McDonald’s deconstruction of its golden arches. New units feature a flat roof straddled by a yellow half-arch the company calls a “brow.” “The inspiration was based on our golden arches,” says Max Carmona, senior director of U.S. restaurant design, adding that McDonald’s still uses the arches, too. “The symbol infers movement and speed, an important part of our business, and the color provides energy and optimism.”

As QSRs have upscaled their menus, their décor has not kept pace. Says George Michel, CEO of Boston Market, “We were serving food that was worth $7 and was perceived as being served in a $5 manner.”


Taco Bell uses both hanging and recessed lights to illuminate muted reds, oranges and yellows.

Now, color schemes and lighting are catching up. “Rich and dramatic, not overly aggressive,” is how Jim Fay, VP of restaurant development, describes a new Jack in the Box. “We use earth tones with accent colors, greens and reds.”

Gone, along with primary colors, are glaring fluorescent tubes. “If you have fluorescent lighting, it says it’s fast food,” says Susan Pitaccio, president of Maxey Hayse Design Studio in Montclair, New Jersey. Instead, recessed cans and pendant fixtures spotlight tables to create an intimate air. As a bonus, the lower-wattage bulbs cut electric bills.

Besides ambience, a restaurant’s palette sends messages about its food, says Miologos of WD Partners, the firm that redesigned Fazoli’s. “The aspect of freshness is key. The use of greens and yellows and oranges in color schemes suggests lettuce and bright sun. It’s not brightly lit, but it’s lit to the point where it emphasizes the freshness, crispness and correct color rendition of the food.”

Fast food was founded on the idea of eat and run. Now, it’s recognizing that different diners have different needs. Says Carmona of McDonald’s, “Every part of our business is important: kids, families, young adults. We want to provide something for all those groups.”


Jack in the Box offers tables and chairs in a variety of sizes, for single diners, couples and large gatherings.

His response is to break up the dining room into three zones, marked by changes in lighting, flooring, ceilings and furnishings:

  • The Fast zone provides high counters and barstools for single guests in a hurry, some with flat-screen TVs.
  • A Social zone appeals to families and groups, with booths of assorted sizes and moveable furniture. “We know from experience that tweens and 20-somethings like to travel in gangs, in big groups,” says architect Sheppard. “I see restaurants responding with communal tables or flexible banquette seating.”
  • The Linger zone offers lounge chairs and sofas for enjoying Wi-Fi connections. The hope is that customers who hang around will make extra trips to the counter.

Other chains are creating their own linger zones. The experimental Subway Café, with 15 locations, adds espresso drinks and pastries to the chain’s sandwich fare. The concept does double duty, explains John Filipiak, VP of development for Subway of Washington. It draws customers to breakfast and non-peak dayparts. And, “It provides opportunities to get into some office complexes and lifestyle centers.”



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