How to design a successful restaurant from concept to creation: Lessons from Chef Kevin Lee
So you decided to pursue your dream of becoming a restaurateur. Congratulations!
Whether you’ve worked out a secret recipe for mouth-watering fried chicken, the world’s best ramen broth or spaghetti sauce that would make Italian grandmas proud the world over, perfecting the recipe for a successful restaurant is a whole other ball game.
Prior hospitality experience is invaluable to new restaurateurs. Being well-versed in inventory management or creating irresistible cocktails will go a long way toward creating success in your new venue. But choosing the perfect location, selecting the right price point or designing optimal work spaces probably wasn't on your daily to-do list.
Luckily, you don't have to be an expert in everything. You can learn from the experiences of other successful restaurateurs … restaurateurs like renowned chef and Food Network champion, Kevin Lee.
We were fortunate enough to have Kevin in The Entrepreneur’s Studio where he shared lessons learned from his personal experiences throughout an 18+ year career as a curator of culinary excellence.
While an expert in the kitchen, Kevin also serves up invaluable advice on how to get your new restaurant from concept to creation without compromising the dream by focusing on the top five things that really matter:
How to design your restaurant for success in 5 steps
1. Develop your restaurant’s concept
Before you put hammer to nail on your new building or pencil to paper on your restaurant business plan, ask yourself this: Who do you want to be as a restaurant?
We know. It’s a loaded question. But a vital one that will inform the way you design your restaurant from here on out.
For Chef Kevin Lee, the concept for his restaurant, Birdie’s, looked something like this:
A casual family style eatery with a colorful, inviting environment and comfort food galore. The type of restaurant where you can bring the whole family, share a table together and eat some really good fried chicken. A place based on an identity of togetherness.
“It's all about sitting together as a family, passing the chicken bucket around, passing the bread basket around. That's what fried chicken is all about. So I want to really create that family environment, right?”
- Kevin Lee
When exploring your restaurant concept, ask these questions:
Who’s your target market?
Do you want to be upscale or casual?
What kind of environment or overall vibe do you want to create?
What sort of dining experience are you going for?
What type of food is on your restaurant’s menu?
While it might seem complicated, here’s what it really comes down to: Deciding your restaurant’s concept is a question of identity — of who you want to be to your community, your guests and your staff. Is your restaurant a place where people will want to dress up and celebrate important milestones like engagements and anniversaries? Or meet up with friends to watch the big game over beers?
Remember, this is the fun part! This is where you get to imagine your dream restaurant, vision board it from aesthetic to menu and architect its personality. Whether you’re a quick-service restaurant, fine dining establishment or fast food phenom, make it 100% yours. Just don’t forget to pair your ideas with market research!
2. Pick a customer-first price point
After you craft your concept, it’s time to crunch numbers to determine the prices you’ll put next to your menu items. Wondering where to start? Deciding your price point links back to deciding who you are.
Depending on where in the country your business is located and the demographics of your specific area, your food cost range (the ratio of cost of ingredients to revenue from food sales) will look a little different.
But in general, you can take a page out of Kevin’s book and approach pricing this way: If your concept is based on being a family restaurant, you’ll want to set your menu’s prices at a level the average family in your area can afford. However, if you’re an upscale, downtown steakhouse, your patrons are going to look a little different — and so are your prices if you want to break even, let alone make a profit. Essentially, let your clientele lead your pricing plan.
In Kevin’s case, he set his prices with a goal in mind:
To bring his skills to the masses at a price point families can enjoy. On his restaurant’s lunch menu, everything is $10-$12, while his dinner menu offers a family style, shareable experience where you can get smaller, cheaper dishes for individual servings or bigger, slightly more expensive dishes to share with a group.
“When you’re going out as a family of four or five or six, every dollar counts.”
- Kevin Lee
Keep in mind, everyone is different. Much as we wish there was a magic number or formula that could give you the perfect price point, there isn’t. The best you can do is try to find a balance that works for your business and your guests.
If you discover you need to set your prices at a higher rate than you’d like (looking at you, inflation), check out restaurant magnate Danny Meyer’s advice on how to keep customers happy no matter the price tag.
3. Nail down the right location
Next up, location, location, location. But how to pick the right one? According to Kevin, there are a few things you should consider.
First, city or suburbs? While you might think the area with the highest foot traffic is your ticket to success, that’s not always the answer. As Kevin would say, the right restaurant location depends — once again — on who you are.
Upscale fine dining joint with ambitions of becoming the go-to date night destination? Downtown nestled among other bars and nightlife is the place to be.
Quick and easy lunch spot? Walking distance from businesses, corporate offices and hospitals with workers looking for somewhere to grab a quick bite on their lunch hour is a good bet.
Trying to break into the family scene? The parent who wants to commute home from the city after work, pick up their kids from school, and drive back into the city for dinner is a rare individual indeed. Keeping your restaurant close to the suburbs will offer the convenience families need to turn into repeat customers.
Next, what’s the parking situation like? While a far cry from the most exciting aspect of opening a restaurant, if you’re asking Kevin, he’d say planning for parking is one of the most important things to think through if you want to design your restaurant for success.
When picking a location, keep in mind those downtown destinations will likely have limited parking, while the suburbs might offer more space for the family minivan. The bottom line? If your guests can’t park, they’re probably not coming in. Especially if they’re contending with screaming, hungry children in the back seat.
Last, what’s around your restaurant? When looking for the perfect home for your restaurant, Kevin advises also taking a look at your prospective neighbors. Contrary to popular belief, you actually want to be in an area with other successful restaurants. Why? Clusters of retail shops, service-based businesses and restaurants make it easier to attract new customers — and incentivize them to come back.
“Hey, they can come in and have an appetizer at my restaurant, but go have a drink at the other restaurant and come back for desserts. But it kind of creates that synergy of where people want to go hang out.”
- Kevin Lee
Situating yourself around good neighbors ensures you’re not the lone restaurant on the far side of town that requires an exclusive trip to get to without other stops nearby to make it worth the drive. As the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind … Plan accordingly!
4. Design your restaurant for efficiency
While not groundbreaking, it still merits being said: Creating a successful restaurant that guests want to return to depends heavily on its ability to serve its guests in a timely manner. The good news? You don’t necessarily need more manpower to get your guests fed on time. The actual answer is simpler than you think: design your restaurant for efficiency from front of house to back.
When sketching the blueprint for your restaurant’s layout, think through these logistics:
Does the flow of your floorplan force your servers to trek back and forth between multiple inconvenient locations to do tasks that should naturally be grouped together?
Will the layout cause traffic congestion or collisions between servers?
Where will your restaurant point of sale (POS) stations go if you’re not using tablets or mobile devices?
Have you allotted space for enough stations?
If you’re looking for a template that delivers efficiency, here’s how things look at Birdie’s:
The designated area to drop dirty dishes is right where you enter the kitchen, so servers can ditch empties immediately, then hit the server station where they can refill sodas or ice. After empties and refills, on the way toward the kitchen exit (a different door) they can pick up new dishes or takeout boxes before heading out to the dining room. Essentially, it’s a tight circle of drop off, pick up, go out that eliminates any unnecessary steps.
The overall outcome of that great design flow? One is headcount. If you’ve got your kitchen set up inefficiently, the job will take longer. So you’ll need more employees to serve the same number of guests — let’s say three extra workers who each make $30,000 a year. But if your restaurant is efficiently designed as a business and space, it’ll take less employees to operate. So you can cut that $90K a year down to just one employee, who by the way, you now have the budget to pay more. (A bonus for elevating employee happiness.)
Another benefit is table turns. A layout that allows your staff to be more efficient means you’ll have the capacity to serve more guests per shift while reducing customer wait times. That all adds up to a better customer experience and more loyal customers.
Pro-tip: The efficiency of your restaurant design extends beyond layout. It also includes the technology you place inside your walls. Consider how to streamline your everyday operations, make your staff’s lives easier and provide convenience for your customers by adding efficiency-boosting fintech like self-service kiosks, tableside ordering and payments, and mobile and online ordering with intuitive order balancing.
5. Build your brand with intention
In Kevin’s words, your brand is so much more than your logo. If you want to create a holistic experience where everything in your restaurant flows together, it all comes back to branding. But what exactly is “brand”?
“Every little detail counts. To me, even the to-go menu, the website, it all has to flow together.”
- Kevin Lee
Yes, brand is your restaurant’s logo. But it’s also your interior design, the layout of your restaurant website, the way you show up on social media, your menu design and font, the “open” sign you hang over your door, the silverware you lay on the table, even the music you play on a Saturday afternoon. Most importantly, it’s how you treat your customers, speak to your staff and present yourself to your community.
Remember that identity you established as part of your concept back in step #1? Branding is how you bring your identity to life.
To outsource or not to outsource: As far as your marketing plan and physical brand materials go, you have the option to do it yourself or hire someone else to do it for you. If you (like many other entrepreneurs, including Kevin) have decided branding is not your forte, or you simply need to focus your energy elsewhere, the gig economy can be a great place to find the help you need to build a brand you’re proud of.
While we’re on the topic … Knowing when to do a job yourself vs. delegate it to someone else (whether it’s to a gig worker or a staff member) is an important skill that extends beyond branding. Try as you might, you can’t have your fingers in all the pies. Kevin’s two cents? Decide your most important work. After that, be aware of what your team is capable of, put in the training to set them up for success on the tasks you’re delegating, and then trust they’ll do a good job.
Ready to design your restaurant?
Now that we’ve reached the end of this list, it’s time to design your restaurant for success. But before you go, Kevin has some parting advice.
Be self aware. The best, and frankly one of the hardest, things you can do as a restaurant owner is to avoid excuses and embrace being self aware. If customers aren’t coming, don’t blame the weather. Be honest with yourself about what’s not working and make changes quickly to keep your restaurant on the path to success.
Know when to ask for help. Breaking into the restaurant industry is hard. But you don’t have to do it on your own. Be like Kevin and ask for help when you need it. Unsure about your menu? Having a hard time deciding price points? Give your mentors a call. You might be surprised by how eager your fellow entrepreneurs are to share their expertise with a first-time restaurateur.
Never stop learning and adapting. Finally, designing your restaurant is only the start. Once you’re up and running, expect things to change. If you want to maintain your success in the foodservice industry, there’s no resting on your laurels. You’ll have to keep learning and keep adapting from here on out.
“You can't just say, ‘I'm done,’ and be done with it because you know what? If I do that, this restaurant will be gone in five years. Then I have to do it all over again. Why do that? You got to keep on going and stay on top of it, and that's the only way.”
- Kevin Lee
Opening your first restaurant is likely one of the most exciting things you’ll do in your life — and the most challenging. But with an eagerness to learn, a bit of self-awareness and some guidance from trusted mentors, it’s possible to get from concept to creation without compromising the dream.
Best of all? Once you really know what you’re doing, you can stamp and repeat with a second location.
Check out the full Kevin Lee episode over at The Entrepreneur’s Studio and explore our growing menu of podcasts featuring business owners like you who have faced challenges, come out the other side and are sharing their treasure trove of lessons learned on the road to success.
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