The importance of restaurant design in defining the customer experience  

2020 will be remembered as the year the world went online.

The importance of restaurant design in defining the customer experience  

2020 will be remembered as the year the world went online. Without warning, businesses across the world were forced to temporarily close their in-person offerings and supercharge their online operations at an unprecedented pace. In a matter of months, emerging consumer trends were accelerated, cashless payments became the norm and the move to online resulted in growing demand and higher expectations of digital capabilities. 

This shift created the question of whether physical restaurants could survive the intensified competition with digital, whilst the need to change in-restaurant functions to accommodate social distancing and one-way systems fundamentally changed the dine-in experience. However, the physical nature of restaurants, with food served straight off the grill, is impossible to replicate – and this is exactly what sets them apart from other online substitutes. So how can restaurateurs implement clever design in a way that entices customers to eat-in once more, whilst still catering to a range of different QSR customer touch points?

The post-pandemic dining experience

The widespread disconnection from the physical necessitated by the pandemic meant that when restaurants were able to reopen, consumers craved an experience that was more than simply transactional. Ordering food on an app and having it arrive a short while later has merged with every other online purchase, and, after many months of digital-only experiences, it now lacks its usual excitement.  By contrast, dining in a restaurant offers customers the smells, tastes and, crucially, atmosphere that cannot be achieved elsewhere.

These attributes are what make a dine-in experience so enduringly popular and, at present as we are seeing consumers crave a return to this experience, must be treated with equal importance. A great meal at a restaurant does not start and finish with the food, and successful businesses will recognise this from the outset.  

This has been exacerbated with consumer demand for high-quality experiences as pandemic restrictions on hospitality have lifted. In turn, we have seen interior restaurant design become as notable as the quality of the product itself. Consumers are seeking spaces that are comfortable, spacious and somewhere they want to dwell and spend time in, often with friends they have not been able to regularly socialise with. At the same time, consumers have come to expect greater choice in how they can experience and engage with a brand – demanding that a brand offers convenience and flexibility. In the QSR space, convenience should also mean inviting the customer to choose the order channel that suits their needs at any given moment, whether that is a drive-thru order one day, an app order the next, and then a dine-in experience the next, ensuring all have the same level of customer experience.

This is a shining example of how design can shape the customer experience. For example, a cramped space where the maximum table and seating capacity has been installed is likely to be much less appealing than a restaurant where guests can comfortably gather around a table of food – without feeling squeezed. At Carl’s Jr. we take this one step further by offering table service as standard, which makes the design and comfort of our restaurant facilities even more important, as customers will be spending the duration of their visit sitting at a table. 

Another factor to consider, particularly in QSR restaurants, is speed of service. If customers are forced to wait long periods of time for food to be served, then this detracts from how premium their time in the restaurant feels. This means that the flow of customers and back-of-house design of a QSR restaurant is just as important as the seating areas and decor. There is careful planning behind every in-restaurant interaction at your favourite QSR establishments, all designed to elevate the customer experience. At Carl’s Jr. we strive to ensure that no matter how a guest chooses to experience our restaurant, we are equipped to deliver a great experience time after time, underpinned by premium menu items, premium services and premium facilities.

The key to back of house design

Whilst largely unseen, back-of-house design is the foundation of the customer’s experience. If the kitchen in a restaurant is inefficient, then the restaurant is set-up to fail. The kitchen needs to be designed to maximise both speed and efficiency, and as such, must optimise the space available within the building. This is particularly true now that the ordering process has evolved, with different approaches required to meet the needs of each ordering channel – after all, however a customer orders, the restaurant shares one bricks and mortar presence.

Previously, restaurants would have one flow of orders being taken from staff at the restaurant’s counter, but now kitchens face orders from drive-thru customers, in-restaurant kiosks, online takeaway customers and, increasingly, orders through delivery aggregators.

This impacts the efficiency of the assembly line, and it is vital that modern restaurants are designed with each channel in mind. We have become accustomed to seeing drive-thru orders placed and served separately to those for in-restaurant dining, but designers must now take that approach one step further – or risk alienating customers. For example, many QSR restaurants have retrospectively tacked aggregator deliveries onto their restaurant operations in order to adapt to the needs of the pandemic. However, with improper design considerations, the consequence of this is large numbers of delivery drivers congregating alongside dine-in customers, which impedes their restaurant experience. 

In an industry where a positive customer experience is essential, this cannot be allowed to happen, again shining a spotlight on the need for contemporary and adaptable design. At Carl’s Jr., we very much practice this ethos. In some of our Carl’s Jr. restaurants in France, Spain and Mexico, there is a purpose-built delivery window specifically for takeaway drivers. This keeps drivers separate from in-restaurant diners, enabling the delivery business channel to function seamlessly without impacting the in-restaurant atmosphere. This has proved to be so successful, that Carl’s Jr. is intending to replicate this approach across its future restaurant designs across the globe. More broadly, we expect to see this omni-channel design focus become a key component to all future designs 

Telling a story through design

In addition to maximising customer experience, brands can also benefit from connecting their brand story to their interior design. There is an old adage that people eat with their eyes first, and that is true for restaurant design, just as it is for the food customers are served. Amidst the demand for premium experiences, the ‘feeling’ that customers get when dining in a restaurant and visibly demonstrating what it means to be eating at a specific restaurant is key to their overall experience. 

We pride ourselves on creating a consistent brand look and feel at Carl’s Jr. so that whenever you step foot in one of our restaurants, anywhere in the world, you can expect the same unforgettable experience. However, our ‘California cool’ aesthetic does not mean that we ride roughshod over local design trends. In fact, we work to ensure that the design of each restaurant carries Carl’s Jr. hallmarks, whilst assimilating with local cultures, looks and restaurant requirements. 

The selection of materials is a significant aspect of this and having continuity across a brand’s restaurants enables it to build a sense of familiarity and connection between the customer and the brand. QSR chains previously used a great deal of laminated surfaces and cheap aesthetic seating. Carl’s Jr. moved away from these older trends many years ago leaning towards using higher quality materials, such as woods, metals and other natural materials blended with functional, highly durable materials, to elevate the in-restaurant dining experience. In fact, we were the first QSR restaurants to introduce soft seating for dine-in customers in Mexico, years ahead of our competitors. We never forget we are a QSR brand, so we strive to strike the right balance between great design and keeping our dining rooms functional and easy to keep clean for our operations and guests. 

Simply offering great menu items is no longer enough to thrive in the post-pandemic restaurant industry. Restaurants must offer appealing experiences, quick service and welcoming atmospheres alongside their great food offerings – which makes perfecting and consistently refining restaurant design a vital component of success.

Dom Jones
Dom Jones