How Technology and the Pandemic are Changing Restaurant Design with Allison Cooke

With a background in interior design, Allison Cooke always found herself drawn to the creativity of restaurant design. So in 2007, she joined CORE, a multidisciplinary architecture and interior design firm that stands as a leader in the hospitality sector. Today, Cooke is now one of three principals and partners at the firm, as well as CORE’s director of hospitality design. She’s played a hand in designing over 50 restaurants, ranging from high-end fine dining to fast casual spots, to coffee shops, distilleries, food retail spaces, and beyond. 

We sat down to chat with Cooke about the latest trends she’s noticing in restaurant design and how the pandemic and technology are changing restaurant layouts.

I’d love to hear what excites you most about specifically designing restaurants.

I really enjoy that it allows you to play with a lot of different styles and themes. Whether it’s focused around cuisine or experience of the space, you can really create something unique. People don’t come to CORE because we have a specific design style. Our design philosophy is that we really are designing for our clients’ guests, and figuring out what aesthetic is needed to support our clients’ business and the experience they want to create. 

I also enjoy the artistic and the technical balance. You know, the throughput needs to be supported at the fast-casual. The wayfinding is super important to get people through quickly and intuitively. And then you've got the complexity of the back of house and all of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing requirements that need to get incorporated into a restaurant. 

You design a wide style of restaurants, and I’m wondering what’s your approach to the process at the start?

We start out with what we call a visioning session. It sounds ethereal, but it kind of is. Usually by this point, we’ve given the client a proposal and have a general sense of what the goal is, but we really want to dive into their inspiration for the restaurant. What is the desired customer experience, and what are they envisioning for the style of service? If they’ve gathered any inspirational imagery, we start from that point. And then at the same time, we’re talking about the technical side. What do you need your cooking to look like? Is there an open kitchen? How much is your customer seeing? It’s really creating a list of spaces that they need to achieve their floor plan, and then we merge the artistic and the technical. 

Based on what we’ve heard from them, we’ll pull a lot more imagery – lifestyle or architectural imagery. Then we come back and have a big identity session, and we narrow that down to a singular mood board. Design can be so subjective. Especially if you have a number of stakeholders on the client side, this helps to unify the team and their goals around a grouping of images that we can always tie the design back to. 

We’ve seen the industry drastically change in the past couple years. What are some of the major design trends you’re seeing emerge as a result?

The HVAC systems in restaurants, of course, have really come into focus – installing new units that have a higher level of filtration, or being able to cleanse the air with UV light. The space that a restaurateur takes could be limiting in those factors. If they’re dealing with existing mechanical units, and they're strapped for cost, then sometimes they can't put in more robust filters. So it’s a trend, but it’s something that a client has to have the budget for and space, and that they want to prioritize.

The other big trend, even before COVID and especially now, is the movement to outdoor dining. When people are considering new spaces, they're looking at what’s my potential to have an outdoor cafe space or courtyard? What’s my potential to have an operable storefront to create more indoor-outdoor space. We’re seeing operators start to have a different outlook on seasonality. They want to know, what’s my flexibility to extend the outdoors in? 

I imagine with outdoor space, and also indoors, maximizing flexibility is now more important than ever.

Yeah, and I think that applies to different business models, too. Even if you’re full-service, the percentage of carryout business that you’re doing now is making a lot of people struggling with staging space. So we’re looking at building more flexibility into new spaces, and helping people evolve their floor plan to manage that. 

And from a kitchen volume perspective, some people are finding, “Oh my god, I still have to fulfill all of the UberEats orders, but now I’m back to a full dining room.” When planning spaces, operators now have to decide how much flexibility they want to build in for that based on their revenue sources.

Are you seeing a lot more operators asking for more staging space?

Yeah, absolutely. With fast-casual, before it was all about the Chipotle method of queueing customers through, and so the queuing process was the focus. Now, the UberEats driver is the customer, from a spatial planning perspective. So it’s like, how do I get them to know where they're coming to pick up an order, and on a micro level, if I have something that needs to be prepared, let’s say I need to dispense a milkshake that can't fit in holding, how am I facilitating that interaction? That has shifted the focus quite a bit. Even in full-service restaurants, [operators] are talking about, “Alright, how do I have this staging area for to-go but not put that front and center”, so we're looking at a lot of secondary entry points to facilitate that.

Are these additional factors making the design process more expensive or is it more about reassessing priorities and thinking outside of previous norms?

I don’t think it’s really adding to the complexity of the design process, but the operator has a lot of decisions to make. In your full-service restaurant, for example, dedicating more space to facilitate food pickup could mean taking away space that you’d use for dining chairs – so that becomes more of an economic question for the operator.

You can only [include] so much flexibility in the design. Early in the process, [operators] have to figure out, how much am I going to prioritize these different aspects of my business? When we know the factors, we can plan for that, and it doesn’t really add to the expense, besides the physical aspects of, for example, adding a second door. 

So we know the pandemic has brought a greater focus to outdoor dining and delivery. What about technology – as operators increasingly embrace technology, how is that playing into new design trends and concepts?

Operators are overwhelmed by the choice, or the burden, of picking which platform they want to use for delivery, or which multiple platforms they want to use. So we’re now having to find space in a fast-casual restaurant, which already has a small footprint, to manage four or five screens to manage all these delivery platforms

Then we're talking through all of those customer touch points and how to also make it intuitive for the pickup driver. Is your host the person that's facilitating both interactions – the dine-in and dine-away guests – and how do they do that? 

Operators are also increasingly looking at streamlining staffing. When they look at their kitchen, it’s about how [to] accomplish more labor at one station and streamline equipment and number of full-time employees who need to perform a specific task. 

Given there are a lot of logistics that operators need to decide on, do you have any advice for how they can best prepare in advance of initial meetings with their designer?

Get educated at least on what you want the customer experience to look like for a dine-in customer versus the carryout customer. Once you can visualize that experience and explain it to us, it’s very easy for us to draw some conclusions about how we should layout the space. Part of this can be based on your financial model, but also on the environment you want, and then that gives us some clues as well about your priorities. 

Then, understand how much flexibility you want to build in. Some food operators want not just fast-casual, but also food retail. Taking a look at all the different parts and pieces of your business, and prioritizing that, can give you a better perspective of what tech platform you want to use to streamline those parts of your business together, too. 

You're also LEED certified. Is this something you strive to incorporate in every design, and do you see the trend of building green continuing to grow?

It’s really become incorporated into our overall design process because local codes in many cases have caught up to the baseline of a LEED-certified project. With lighting, for example, and Energy Star food service equipment, there are bare minimums we need now in order to meet local energy codes, which is great. To the extent that it doesn’t cost the client more money, we try to do sustainable design inherently. Sometimes the client’s not even aware it’s happening, but then we have some clients where it’s really front and center. 

What’s one of the most exciting projects you’ve worked on recently?

There’s one restaurant that we just completed called The Point here in D.C. It’s a waterfront restaurant, and the client is very huge into sustainable seafood sourcing and are seafood purveyors as well. They wanted the space to represent that and to emphasize wellness through things like access to daylight. So they've got great views out towards the water, and a shading system that they can pull back and retract to let in more daylight. They've got this greenhouse room that has layered areas of storefront that they can open up to increase the outdoor space through the interior and vice versa. They've also got a lighting control system that you can change the color temperature of the light, and they've got plant material inside the space to cleanse the air but also to enhance that feeling of connection to nature. And it's all an open kitchen – they really want to connect the customer to the seafood sourcing and the sustainability aspect through the space itself. 

They’ve also got this amazing outdoor terrace and bar, and this really robust outdoor seating part. We designed this pre-COVID, and they were pushing the envelope on creating a sustainable space that allows the blending of indoor-outdoor space, and as it turned out they were ahead of the curve. 

Can you talk about some of the specific challenges you often face when it comes to designing a restaurant?

Budget is a huge one. Sometimes you come across restaurant clients who are really well-funded, but we love working with independent operators, and for them, cost is generally a huge concern and we understand that. Trying to create a unique design that fits a budget is challenging, especially now. Construction costs are up 50-percent or more, and it’s really restricting a lot of people from moving forward with projects. 

Also the technical components – when I was doing office interiors, you try to understand how the end user is going to use their workspace, but there’s only so much optionality you can have in workplace design. With restaurants, there’s all the moving parts and pieces of how the kitchen needs to function, and how it marries up with the front of house experience – it’s almost like building a submarine. But that’s also one of the exciting differentiators.

Any final thoughts on where you see restaurant design continuing to evolve in the future?

If you’re designing a first-generation space, I think we're going to see more restaurants moving towards putting in a heavy filtration system. I also hope there’s more transparency around technology. That’s something operators struggle with so much. I’m hopeful moving forward that operators will understand that the space and the technology need to be married hand in hand as you’re moving through the design process. 

I expect to continue to see a heavy focus on outdoor seating opportunities. In some instances, that may mean taking more space away from cars and giving more space to these streeteries. And I’m hopeful we’ll see this movement in not just urban spaces, but everywhere, to allow that connection to the outdoors to continue. 

[Photo courtesy Greg Powers]