Designing a restaurant from scratch can seem like a herculean task—with so many small details to remember, all the spreadsheets in the world can’t guarantee that something won’t slip through the cracks. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when starting a business, but it’s also important to remember to enjoy the process. After all, you only start your first business once.
When you’re opening a restaurant, there are plenty of less creative tasks you have to take care of, like getting permits and obtaining restaurant insurance. But one of the more fun things you can look forward to is deciding how to design your restaurant.
Between color schemes, floor plans, kitchen design, decor, and more, there are many things to consider when designing a restaurant, but creating a space that reflects your style and makes your customers never want to leave is priceless.
“Play to your strengths, but acknowledge your weaknesses and surround yourself with people who can fill in the gaps,” says Victor Cardamone, chef, president, and CEO of Mise Designs, a restaurant kitchen design company.
In this guide, we’ll dive into the details on how to design a restaurant, the different aspects to consider, and tips to help make the process easier. Let’s get started.
When you’re designing a restaurant for the first time it might be easiest to think of the space in terms of the different areas you need to design. If you’ve ever eaten in a restaurant, you probably have an idea of where these areas might be: the bar, the waiting area, the dining area, and the bathrooms. But you also need to consider the behind-the-scenes areas, such as the kitchen, the staff room, and storage spaces.
Below, we’re going over tips for designing each of these spaces and some things you definitely don’t want to forget.
This is the first impression your customers will have of the interior of your restaurant, and it’s also vital to your success. After all, if your waiting area consists of a hostess stand and no seating or standing room, people likely won’t stick around for a table to open up—they’ll find somewhere else to eat.
You want the entrance to be clearly designated so customers have no problem finding it, and you want a degree of separation between the entrance and waiting area and your dining tables. The last thing you want is for customers who are comfortably seated to get blasted with cold winter air every time the door opens or to be crowded by hungry people anxiously waiting for a table. You also want your guests to have a comfortable place to wait if their table isn’t quite ready yet, with a few benches or other communal seating solutions, as well as standing room.
If you’re designing a bar restaurant, you’ll want to put some extra time into designing the bar area, as this can be a destination in and of itself. Some people might choose to wait for their tables while ordering drinks at the bar, they may decide to eat their dinner at the bar (if you offer your full menu), or—if you design it well enough—they may only come for the bar.
Either way, there’s quite a bit that goes into designing your restaurant’s bar. Similar to your waiting area, you’ll want to think about how much seating and standing space you’ll need to keep people engaged. Also, consider the flow of your restaurant and if it makes sense to have your bar in the front of the restaurant, the back, or off to the side. If your restaurant has a theme, consider how the bar decor can support it.
This is the largest and the most important area of your restaurant because it’s where customers will spend most of their time.
While you may decide to design your own restaurant floor plan, it might be easiest to get an expert involved—especially if this is your first venture. “Everything has a cost associated with it, including the owner’s time, so using experts in their respective fields saves them both valuable time and money,” Cardamone says.
You need to examine the space you have and balance it against how many meals you can make per service and how many people you can comfortably get through your doors. Few things are worse than being too cramped in a restaurant so draw up plans before you start ordering furniture.
Your overall theme should also help inform these decisions. Do you plan to have standard tables, bar tops, booths, a combination? How many people will be able to sit at each? Can you push tables together to accommodate large parties? Will it be well-lit and vibrant or cozier and candle-lit? As Cardamone recommends, this is a good time to consult an expert—whether an interior designer or someone well-versed in restaurant design.
Bathrooms are a necessity in any restaurant, but they also pose a challenge, since areas around them (as well as the kitchen) are typically undesirable for dining tables. One of the best parts of designing a restaurant is that you can design it so that these problem areas don’t exist, or so that they’re at least set up in the best way possible. Remember that bar we were talking about? Consider putting the bathroom or kitchen somewhere near the end of the bar where people likely aren’t sitting and there’s limited opportunity for your servers to bump into customers.
Space will ultimately play a role in every element of your restaurant’s design, but make sure if your bathrooms can only accommodate one person at a time, there is room for patrons to wait their turn.
The key to good service is happy employees. If your employees have their own designated area where they can safely store their belongings during their shift, have a bite to eat while on break, or just have a second to themselves away from the chaos, you can help them enjoy their job more and better serve your customers. This area can also be great for any staff meetings before shifts and can serve as storage for extra uniforms, supplies, and more. You may also want to consider an employees-only bathroom in this area, so they don’t have to use the same space as your customers.
Besides the dining room, this is probably the most important part of your restaurant and it is by far the most difficult part to design.
Designing a kitchen is no easy feat, and there’s more to consider than what kinds of appliances you’ll have and what flow works best for cooks, dishwashers, and servers. You also need to make sure everything meets health and safety regulations, or you won’t be able to open.
“I’m a chef by trade, so my expertise is in operations, flow, function and the equipment options available to execute any menu; not the mechanical complexities of an exhaust system,” says Cardamone. “On my drawings, I literally draw a box and call it ‘exhaust’… I provide my operational requirements to the exhaust system manufacturer, and they specify the best configuration for me to implement it, in the most cost-effective way possible.”
The takeaway here is, while you’re likely skilled in many aspects of the restaurant industry, you can’t know them all. Cultivating relationships with suppliers and other professionals in your industry will help ensure you have the guidance you need while also getting the most for your money.
When you’re designing a restaurant, there’s plenty to consider that doesn’t have to do with the actual construction of the space. Here are some additional considerations to keep in mind when creating your restaurant’s overall theme and ambiance.
If you’re opening a restaurant that serves a certain type of food, like Italian or Mexican, you may have already decided to play music from the same region. However, if your music selection isn’t tied to an area, you should consider who your target customer is and what music they’ll enjoy most, as well as the atmosphere you want your restaurant to have. Do you want songs people will be able to identify and sing along to, or are you looking for background melodies? You may want to check out similar restaurants in your area to see what others are doing and how diners respond to it.
When thinking about the lighting in your restaurant the first thing to consider is the natural light it already gets along with when you’ll primarily be open. If you’re going for a romantic vibe, you might opt for dim lighting and a lot of candlelight.
This is the part of the design process you can really use to make your restaurant stand out. Your decor might seem like an afterthought, but it should really tie your whole restaurant together. The decor is your place to shine and make the restaurant picture-perfect for Instagram-enthusiasts and Yelp users alike.
Designing a restaurant from the waiting area to the bar and kitchen is a huge task. Just the kitchen alone can take weeks or months to design.
“In a perfect world for me, should all the stars align and I get the information I need when I need it; I can typically design and develop a full set of restaurant kitchen construction documents in about two to three weeks, start to finish. When I started in this business, however, the same amount of work would take me about one to two months to complete,” says Cardamone.
In addition to being a task that may take quite a bit of patience, you’ll also need significant capital to pay for the raw materials, contractors, designers, and more. Luckily there are several restaurant loan options to help you reach success. You may want to look to other restaurant owners who have had success to see what tips you can use in your own business, as well.
Nina Godlewski is a former staff writer at Fundera.
Nina worked to help make complicated business topics more accessible for small business owners. At Fundera, she focused on complex topics ranging from payroll management to launching a business. She was previously a staff writer at Newsweek covering technology, science, breaking news, and culture. She has also worked as a reporter for Business Insider and The Boston Globe.