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The Art of Designing Dining Environments

Insights & Innovation |  7.24.2018

At any trendy new restaurant in Philadelphia, you may see Aramark’s Senior Food Service Designer James Thorpe walk in to observe the operation with wide eyes and open ears. He’s taking notice of the variety of seating options, the smells wafting from the kitchen, and the vibe the music conveys. Thorpe does this as often as he can in his hometown of Philadelphia, a city known for its restaurant scene, to take note of how we can provide an environment that enhances the experience of a meal. This informs his work in designing dining locations for us by helping him stay up-to-date on the latest trends. More than ever, restaurants are curating their environments in a way to keep customers coming back. According to Gensler, today’s top innovative companies have two times more access to environment-focused amenities such as an onsite café with specialty coffee. Understanding the science and art behind the environment is a must for winning over consumers in today’s marketplace.

Whether we’re creating dining environments on college campuses, in hospitals and wellness centers, or at a corporate location, there is much more to the interior design than the decor and furniture. According to Dan Muenzberg, Director of Concept Design, a great dining environment brings people together around food while fulfilling their needs: “by giving people options and an ability to customize the environment to meet their particular needs, you’re creating a space they can be engaged with."

For Muenzberg and Thorpe, designing the right environment is about understanding the client’s culture, the audience’s needs, and designing it in a way that provides an experience that responds to how that environment will be used throughout the day. That overall experience, beyond the food, will play a big role in how likely they are to return, and how often. Nurses may be looking for somewhere to take a quick breather from a hectic day, while a student may want to set up camp to study for a few hours. When we work to meet these needs, the satisfaction of the consumer increases.

Betsy Rapport, Associate Vice President of Brand and Innovation, collaborates closely with Muenzberg and Thorpe in order to design new environments. In her mind, environment creates an opportunity to break down the walls between the consumer and the food. Creating open environments where the consumer sees their food being prepared delivers an authentic experience. “It’s not just about creating great food and beverage solutions but creating something different for consumers and staff alike.”

The three share their insights below that can be applied to any new or evolving dining location.

Creating a Multi-Use Space

Consumers are looking for a modern and comfortable place where they can dine, socialize, and get work done. They want to be able to go to a dining location at different points in their day, when their needs are different, and have those needs met. “We're trying to create an environment that breaks the consumer’s mindset of ‘I’m only here to grab something quick to eat’ with a space that has a level of comfort where you feel like you can stay awhile; maybe hold a meeting or even get some quiet time and work on your laptop.” Thorpe explains. Muenzberg describes this as creating a “hackable” environment, “one that's able to function differently across different parts of the day. There's different types of seating, there's areas for socializing or working. It's really the idea of looking at our dining spaces as more than a place you go to eat, but rather as a place you're going to be using throughout your day.”

dining environment

Artistic rendering of a prototype environment that shows how consumers can use the space across different times of the day and for multiple uses.

Embracing a Community of Diverse Needs

While every consumer has one motive for visiting in common—hunger—their expectations for their meal can be vastly different. Are they using their lunch break to unwind? Have they been standing all day and want a plush chair to plop into while they sip on a smoothie? Though consumer behaviors such as these are difficult to predict, you can meet the numerous desires of multiple consumers through focusing on the setting which all of these people are stepping into. 

In addition to appealing to the various needs and desires of a single consumer, your space should also appeal to varying types of people. The music, for example, should be acceptable to differing tastes. In a study from HUI Research, it was found that carefully selected music that fit the location’s brand led to a 9 percent increase in sales over playing random, popular songs. Thorpe agrees, “you need to choose the right kind of music for different times of the day. The music has got to appeal to somebody who is younger, someone older, and everybody in between.” 

Just like the kitchen is seen as the heart of a home, a dining location can be a place that welcomes collaboration and moments of group bonding. Particularly in higher education, many people like to eat a meal with a group of friends or colleagues, looking to refuel themselves not only with food but also with social interaction. Rapport notes that the dining environment across higher education, health care, and business dining should “create a sense of community and a sense of pride in where you work or go to school. It’s a place you can chill out and a place where you can take taste adventures with your friends or colleagues.”

The Road to the Right Environment

Our teams conduct research on how consumers feel about the environments we’re building. We look at the culture of the account, the population, and the type of work that's being done there. Muenzberg explains, “we start with an understanding of who we're designing for and go from there. It's really looking at the culture and how a space is going to be used by our customers." In an ongoing effort, we look to wider industry trends, “we're looking at what the best restaurants are doing. Their innovation inspires us to find ways we can translate those experiences into what we do,” says Muenzberg.

Thorpe has noticed trends through working with well-known Philadelphia restaurateurs and reading up on trends in magazines. “I’ve seen a lot of innovation with restaurants trying to do something new and different. As we see across the country, there's a big restaurant boom everywhere. Everybody is trying to succeed among so much competition, so they need something that works, or at least gets somebody in there to try the food” says Thorpe. Designing a great environment can help you stay ahead of the other options available to your consumer. 

Acknowledging the importance of the surroundings your consumer will be walking into—whether they’re eating a meal, having a meeting, or studying—is all about stepping back to look at the bigger picture, at how things work together. After all, the look and feel of the place is the opening act for the food you serve. “When the place looks nicer, it gives you a better feeling about the food you're about to purchase” says Thorpe. When someone walks in and smells that aroma of chicken on the grill or squash roasting in the oven, “their mindset changes, because they can feel the vision and vibe of everything being freshly made,” notes Thorpe. At the end of the day, “we want to make your day easier or better by giving you a space where you can get a great meal in a great space and go back to work relaxed and ready to go,” says Rapport.

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