photo courtesy Southern California Restaurant Design Group

Restaurant design, construction, equipment procurement and installation are a complicated ecosystem that involves a lot of time and up-front costs. It’s important for restaurateurs to not just complete the journey through these requirements, but to dedicate proper care and attention to each step as it pertains to their specific business needs. 

Whether starting from scratch or remodeling, the process is rarely done right alone. No matter how small the business, getting the right people onboard will make or break a restaurant’s success. 

Michael Benson founded Southern California Restaurant Design Group with these ideals in mind. With nearly 30 years of restaurant design and product manufacturing experience, Mr. Benson has worked with clients including Habit Burger, Café Rio, Steak ‘n Shake and Urban Plates, as well as a myriad of independent and chef-driven restaurant concepts spanning the development spectrum. 

Benson shared some of his methodologies, as well as tips for restaurateurs looking to build or remodel their establishments.

First, how can design make an impact on the bottom line, both front and back of house?

For the back of the house, if the kitchen flow isn’t efficient, that’s a restaurant that’s not going to make it. We’ve been involved with time and motion studies of existing kitchens, and have redesigned new generations of kitchens based on the results of these studies. 

Determining how much space to dedicate to front of house is very important. It’s actually better to have too little space than too much. It’s a perception issue. You don’t want your restaurant to look empty.

And what are some of the most common mistakes that restaurateurs make, from a design and equipment perspective?

For front of house, costly millwork. You have to ask yourself, ‘Are the aesthetics worth the extra money?’ Other materials can be used to accomplish the same goal. Same thing with investment in furniture. You should do your due diligence…look at some of the most successful restaurants in your area and the tables and chairs they’re using. 

For back of house, it’s dedicating too much space to a kitchen and not enough space to refrigeration. Also, purchasing equipment that’s not user-friendly. There’re lots of great control systems that run on software, but with high staff turnover, do you want to keep training new employees on highly technical systems or just keep it simple?

You stress the importance of bringing the right people onboard, and that restaurant design isn’t often something an owner should do alone. Can you elaborate on this ideology?

My suggestion to owners involved in a restaurant development project is to make sure that you have an architect with a strong restaurant background, a kitchen designer, an equipment company with a proven track record and a construction company with a high level of experience and knowledge in building a restaurant.

The architect is your quarterback. It’s important to have someone who doesn’t just stamp the plans, but who stays with the project from start to finish. For construction…allow the architect to oversee the bid. Choosing a construction company on price alone could cost you a lot more in the long run. Many times I’ve seen projects go in the gutter because the owner tried to handle bids on their own.

What if you’re not even sure on a location?

Owners should work in conjunction with a real estate expert, an architect and a kitchen designer. Those are the three best parties to discuss with before you sign for a property. They can provide an accurate financial assessment of what [owners] are getting into. This includes design needs, FF&E [furniture, fixtures and equipment] and other elements that ultimately factor into a restaurant’s startup budget.

Okay, so it’s critical to pay a premium for the right people. What about expensive kitchen equipment?

The equipment industry is like the car industry. You have 3 tiers: high-end, comparable to BMW and Mercedes; middle level, like Ford and Chevy; and lower-end, like your economy cars. Clients have to make decisions based on their budget.

There’re a lot of middle and lower-tier equipment brands that are about as good as the high-end names. Especially if that high-end brand was sold off or no longer managed in the same way, the quality may not be what it was 20 years ago when the brand first got its reputation. Make sure that whatever brand you purchase has a warranty service and a local service agent with good product knowledge and availability of parts. That warranty should last at least one year, but we’re seeing warranties up to 2 – 3 years.

There’s definitely a lot to consider here. So where does Southern California Restaurant Design Group fall into this mix?

We handle restaurant projects from the design phase to value engineering, procurement of equipment, installation and construction. We assist clients with board of health and warranty issues. Virtually all of our clients stay with us throughout the project since we can scale equipment costs.

The biggest problem in construction projects is a lack of communication. It's always better to over-communicate [with your team] than to risk a project being delayed or resulting in failure.

To have one company handle all of your design and implementation, to me, is the way of the future. Relationships are built on communication, and when you have too many parties involved in a restaurant construction project, it can lead to problems.

For more information on Southern California Restaurant Design Group, visit SoCalRestaurantDesign.com.