F&B Magazine, September – October 2009

WHEN FAST FOOD LOOKS LIKE FINE DINING by ADOLF ARAN, JR.

An experienced design team shows how customer experience is driving fast-food restaurants to update and upgrade their designs.

Flashback to the early 1980’s. The era of quick service restaurants dawned upon the Philippine dining scene. The proponents of quality, service, cleanliness, and value changed the face of cafeteria and canteen dining. Fast-food brought dining out to an aspirational level and created standards for the over-the-counter ordering process, color schemes, ventilation and lights and food packaging, and all other customer points of contact.

Enter the 1990s. Almost all quick service and fast casual restaurants, both new and old, were starting to look incredibly similar, particularly the tables and chairs (the good old reliable monoblocs), colors of interiors (red and yellow, anyone?), the children’s play area, menu boards, and even restrooms. The industry standards became undeniably boring, monotonous, and needed a reinvention, fast.

Fast forward to the new millennium. Customer tastes have become more sophisticated and diners are more exposed to a gamut of dining choices. The faster-the-turnover mode for fast-food is no longer the market theme. Now, customers would rather linger, thereby leading to cushioned seats, drop lights, huge in-your-face murals, sofa booths,  and up-to-the-smallest-details in restrooms. The overall look has elevated all restaurants, from quick service to fast casual to fine dining, to a level that encourages differentiated individuality, design and operations synergy, and the enhancement of the restaurant brand essence.

WHY CHANGE?

Architect Gene Go, Managing Partner of GSN+p Architecture Design Studio, saw these design trends and capitalized on them. “Nobody did huge lifestyle murals during early- to mid-2000, but once we started proposing this to McDonald’s, it became sort of standard,” he relates. The initial reaction was not immediately acceptable, but this dramatically changed. Slowly, everyone followed suit. And a new dawn of restaurant design was upon us.

What prompted the changes, in an industry where red and yellow colors were staple and associated with the food business? Definitely the changes were not exclusive to the Philippines. The rest of Asia was undergoing dramatic changes too. Customer’s lifestyles were a major factor (i.e., the intense need to be connected, the 24/7 breed, the on-the-go individualism, the upwardly mobile attitude). The growing café industry, with its “unique” approach to design, was also a boost. The competition landscape, in general, yearned for a much needed differentiation.

Gene Go, together with Ronald Soriano, Alberto Nepomuceno and partners, has helped fuel this design transformation among their impressive roster of restaurant, including Kenny Rogers Roasters, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Tokyo Tokyo, Gotti’s, Kimono Ken, Bo’s Coffee, Congo Grille, Fish & Co., Hooters Bar, North Park, Super Bowl of China, Makansutra Asian Village, and Mrs. Fields Cookie Cafe. Although they also handle corporate, commercial, retails, and residential projects, more than half of their revenues are generated from restaurants.

DOES IT WORK?

Architect Go believes that it takes the collaboration and integration of four key ingredients to complete a good design: the architect, the kitchen planner, the menu developer, and a concept. This is where the design meets functionality. And it starts with the client brief containing very clear parameters on how this is to be executed.

Here’s a compelling reason why others have to reinvent their look and immediately undertake the much needed renovation: some studies show that restaurants which spend a great deal on renovation will stand to gain 20-35% increase in sales. It clearly justify the expense. What used to be a practice many years ago, painting retouch here and there, no longer does the trick. Wallpaper changes is not enough. New, bold, and exciting design concepts have to complement the brand values and the functionality that go with it. It’s now time to change the mindset of some fast food and fast casual players.

However, design monotony will eventually creep in. And we might witness again the homogenization of restaurant design, because of the similarity of their looks and design. With customer experience as the main driver for design, the most logical question is, how will tomorrow’s be different?

A CASE STUDY: TRANSFORMING MCDONALD’S

McDonald’s Philippines is acknowledged to be among top three countries in terms of new designs. So when McDonald’s threw a design transformation challenge a few design agencies, GSN+P was one of those who took it to heart and explored possibilities. McDonald’s ranks its design agencies annually, with GSN+P ranking among the top five at the time. After they were awarded the project, the architects took on a localized design approach, although they were still largely regulated by the Singapore Head Office.

With the McDonald’s Libis Branch (beside Tiendesitas) as their initial test ground, the partners asked, “What was wrong with McDonald’s existing design?” Architect Nepomuceno thinks, “They were too clinical,” which served the purposed then of projecting cleanliness. So, Architect Go and his partners began their research in the toilets of fine-dining restaurants. They asked, what amenities are available here that can be applied to quick service restaurants? Vanity life-size mirrors, diaper-changing contraptions, toilet bowls and urinals suite for kids? These were the start of redefining the customer experience.

The next change was to soften the mood and evoke a cool atmosphere, instead McDonald’s signature bright colors. More subdued yellow lighting was installed to encourage lingering, and to bring the dining experience somewhat closer to a fine dining ambiance. Also, the Party Place, usually reserved for kiddie birthday parties, was reinvented to cater adults, making it open to the public during weekdays, and no longer exclusive to kids. The addition of McCafe, McDonald’s upscale cafe concept, provides strong band pull in line with the new design paradigms.

What about the exterior facade? Brand icons, like the golden arches “M” and Ronald McDonald statue, were retained because of brand’s recognition and their strong pull factor. Some periodic icons though, like the french fries on the building, had to go, giving way to a more streamlined exterior. Al fresco dining was added on the roof deck, now a standard feature among most restaurants.

The end result of this design transformation is a fast-food outlet like no other – where one can enjoy a burger and fries in a cozy, relaxing, and even luxurious setting.


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