Fit-outs fit for the future and your finances

By David Chenery, Founder of Object Space Place

When it comes to the design of a restaurant, doing it sustainably and saving money do not always go hand in hand. On the equipment side, more energy efficient kit often has a higher upfront cost (although there looks to be an increasingly good second-hand market being developed). Insulating a building to minimise heat loss, investing in energy saving technologies, specifying sustainably sourced materials, using local labour and doing things ‘properly’ all cost money. And whilst I would argue that this does not mean a sustainably designed restaurant needs to be more expensive than a non-sustainable one, if you just ignore the question of sustainability completely, it is perfectly possible to make a much cheaper fitout. But there are hidden costs to this approach.

It might be helpful to make a quick comparison with eggs. Some people would say that organic, free range eggs are expensive, but really this is a matter of perception. Actually, it is not that this way of doing things is expensive, but that caged, non-organic eggs are artificially cheap. And they are only cheaper in a financial sense, because they do have a higher cost when it comes to animal welfare and the environmental ecosystem.

Similarly, many inexpensive interior design solutions will have unseen consequences; buying non-FSC plywood is cheaper than FSC plywood, but this is because it is not being sourced from sustainably managed forests.

So, given that you do not want to cut corners on sustainability (after all you are reading an article from the Sustainable Restaurant Association), is there any big opportunity to drastically reduce cost? Yes, there certainly is and it is one that has only increased as a result of the pandemic.

The opportunity

The opportunity lies in taking over previously fitted out restaurants and starting from the position of retaining as much as possible. Some shrewd operators have been taking this approach for years, but as we have developed our Restorative Design Framework, we realised that this has huge potential to reduce the environmental impact of a new restaurant whilst also minimising the fitout cost.

The Restorative Design Framework is a flexible design approach based on the principles of a circular economy. The circular economy, if you are not familiar with it, is a model that sits in contrast to our current linear economy (sometimes explained as the take-make-waste economy). It is a way of working that aims to eliminate the idea of waste, keep resources in use and regenerate natural systems.

As designers, this means we have to approach projects quite differently. Often there is a perception that everything has to be thrown out and started from scratch to meet the vision of a new restaurant….but this does not need to be the case. In fact, it’s important that we don’t just start again. It’s important because the average life span of a restaurant fitout is just 5 years. This is either due to the failure of the concept or in response to the constant innovation required for brands to stay relevant.

Our first foray into this was with Karaway, where we developed a design with owner Nadia to reuse the majority of joinery items she had saved from her previous fitout. The outcome was richer as a result of the old items and new design elements being woven together. It also saved money on the fitout in this instance. Bonus.

In a similar fashion, the first stage of any project should involve auditing the site to see what can be kept. The early design phases should work on retaining as much of this as possible whilst delivering both a good operational layout and an excellent customer experience. Inevitably, it will not be right to keep everything, and it is important that you then ensure these elements can be taken away and recycled at their most valuable level. We are working on establishing a network of partners to help us with this, but companies like GlobeChain are a great resource in this area. Local charities and scrap dealers should also form part of the solution.

In terms of potential cost savings, in our experience it is often possible to save 50% of the fitout cost, depending on how operationally aligned the previous restaurant is with the new one coming in. If really closely aligned operationally, you may even be able to save up to 80%.

As an example, we worked on a coffee shop recently on Kings Road in a site which previously traded as an EAT. In this instance the operational alignment was so close, that the fitout cost was only 15-20% of what it would have been to fully fit out the space from scratch. Budgets and timings on this project did not allow for an assessment to measure the sustainable performance of the design, but the fact that 90% of the previous fitout was retained and new elements lent heavily towards secondhand furniture and reclaimed materials means it is obvious that the carbon footprint of the project will be much, much lower than it would otherwise.

We are currently working on live projects where we are running assessment metrics on Carbon Footprint (and also a bespoke circular economy measure of Tonnes of Lifecycle Waste produced) and will share the results as soon as we have them.

Things to watch out for

In our experience, there are some very important things you should keep in mind when taking this design approach. There are definitely 3 major pitfalls to be avoided.

1 – Don’t compromise your brand DNA

This is really important; you must not compromise your new concept’s chances of succeeding through the retention of what you have inherited. Your brand values, look and feel and offer have to shine through so that your staff and customers get the best version of what you do. Because if your concept fails, then all of the energy and resources that have gone into making it happen will have been wasted. As with all design, there is both art and science involved in this. You need to understand what aspects of the fitout will have the largest effect on the customer experience.

You should also understand the role that your restaurant design will play in your overall customer experience. You can find an article on “How to map your customer’s dining experience” on our website here.

2 – Customers will notice how much effort you put in

How much money you spend on a fitout is actually a red herring, this is not what most customers respond to (high end, status driven concepts aside). What people respond to, what they warm to and reward, is how much effort you put in. As human beings we are irrational and emotional in our decision making. Everything you do will give off signals to your customers and subconsciously tell them whether you are doing something selflessly or selfishly.

The new design CANNOT feel like the old restaurant. If it does, this gives off the signal that you are trying to do just enough to win someone’s business. Most customers have a very sophisticated, subconscious understanding of this even though they probably wouldn’t be able to articulate it. Doing seemingly unnecessary things is actually very necessary.

For example, rather than simply replacing the signage panel on an existing projecting sign, you might fully replace it with something much more bespoke. As one of the first things your customers will see, this communicates an early message about your intent as a brand. Or you may retain the majority of the floor finish, but creatively replace specific sections of it with new tiles. Both of these examples are not expensive, but they are an extra effort. And that is exactly the point.

If this idea really interests you and you’d like to know more about the psychology, I’d recommend reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Alchemy (The Power of ideas that don’t make sense) by Rory Sutherland.

3 – Associations with the previous operator.

There is no guarantee that customers will pay attention to the things you want them to. We live very busy lives and things we have done once or twice before, quickly get pushed into subconscious habit so we can do them on autopilot. So, you should be aware that customers that came to your restaurant when it traded as another operator will have a ‘muscle memory’ retained from their previous experience.

One chicken wing concept told me a story about a new pop-up site they took in Clerkenwell last year. The previous operator was also a chicken concept, albeit quite a different one, but they were surprised at how many people would come in and despite the completely different look and feel, the different menu graphics and the different shopfront signage, they would walk up to the counter and ask to order food from the previous shop’s menu. I asked if the shopfront door, the counter and the positioning of the menu were in the same location and they confirmed that they were….and here in lies the issue, as the physical experience of coming in and walking up to the counter to order is so familiar that there is nothing to knock someone out of auto-pilot.

You may not want to move the counter or alter the shopfront but be sure to think about what you can do to encourage people to physically notice that something has changed.

I hope you find this useful when looking at any opportunities in the year ahead. If you’d like to read more about our Restorative Design Framework, you can read about it on our website here.

And if you’d like to get in touch, email me on [email protected], connect on LinkedIn (@davidchenery) or follow me on Clubhouse (@davidchenery).

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