photo courtesy Boka Group

Where do you find new ideas for decorative tiles, carpeting, fabrics, bar furniture and more? At HDexpo, the design trade show hosted by Hospitality Design magazine. This year lighting is huge (or small depending on your needs) and comes in every color, shape and material imaginable. Anything green (living plant walls and light fixtures/plant containers) or relating to the outdoors was also trending with innumerable booths featuring fun outdoor furniture, planters and shading, plus the more practical heaters and fans. Wall coverings were also big, dominated by textured wallpaper and mural walls that take one into mythical regions.

Beyond the trade show floor, there were presentations from design industry experts with one of special interest titled: “Recipe for Success: The Making of a Great Restaurant.” This panel discussion was moderated by Kevin Boehm, co-founder of BOKA Restaurant Group (BRG) out of Chicago. Kevin, and co-founder Rob Katz (also on the panel), opened 16 restaurants in the Chicago area in less than 15 years. In 2019, together they won the James Beard Award for “Outstanding Restaurateur.” They have Michelin stars, other James Beard nominations and wins, and many, many other recognitions for their achievements.

Also on the panel were designers Karen Harold, principal of Studio K Creative (MB Steak at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, La Cave at Wynn Las Vegas and Crush at MGM Grand); Adam Farmerie, partner at AvroKO (Rose. Rabbit. Lie. and Block 16 Urban Food Hall, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas); and Jimmy Papadoupoulas, executive chef at Bellemore, a BRG restaurant in Chicago.

One of the main concepts was that imagining a restaurant required a “deep dive” into story and soul. The location, the building itself, and even the chef’s style of food, should start designers and investors alike on a hunt for images, historical references, themes and ideas. Through many discussions, a storyline that resonates with everyone slowly emerges and tangible design concepting can begin. For Herold, part of that process may include “looking at the classics and twisting it up a bit.” She also likens the process to set design, seeing in her mind’s eye people moving through the spaces.

Boehm suggested that in the past food was the predominant ingredient for a successful restaurant followed by service and décor. He now believes that these three items attract customers equally, and that possibly décor—read that as ambience—is growing in importance. Katz added that he wanted people to visit one of their restaurants four, five, six times with the hope that they would see something new and different each time they visited.

Boehm and his team at BRG have established a ritual that takes place prior to the opening of a restaurant. They place a table in the middle of the space, and throughout a multi-day period of time, everyone working in the restaurant must serve those at the table, speaking in theater voices so all of the employees can hear. This way, they start creating the language, the culture of the restaurant. For example, he said that in one of their early restaurants, they were serving food family style, and didn’t really know how to describe that. One of the waitstaff, during his time to serve, described it as, “the food comes out in waves.” Waves! That phrasing appealed to everyone and that became the accepted way to describe the restaurant’s style of service.

They talked about expectations that people get from the initial designs of a restaurant space and then having to grapple with the costs. Katz, looking at the designers to his left said, “They show us our dreams, and then rip our hearts out.”

During one project, the design/construction team kept putting off the “big reveal” for BRG. When it finally came, there was no wow factor. Even though a date for opening had been announced, and staff was hired and in training, Boehm and Katz stopped the finishing processes. They redid more than 20% of the interior, because as Katz said, “You only have one chance to fire the opening canon, and we couldn’t open a restaurant that just didn’t work.”

Finally, Herold shared that one of her initial processes when designing a building is to create a “Not to Do” list. This may include something like “do not use recycled barn wood,” which is one of her standards. She does this to help ensure that each project is new and fresh, and not just a remake of something she has designed in the past.

All of the participants in this panel were passionate about their work, even after completing hundreds of projects. It spoke to the passion of many in the hospitality industry for creating what they imagine.