There’s a lot of homework that the smart restaurant owner should do
before calling a designer. The most important thing is to understand your
potential restaurant. Have clear goals and concepts. Who are your patrons?
Where are they eating now? How does your restaurant fit into the dining environment?
Are you trying to be one of the best restaurants in the city? The best French
bistro? The best neighborhood Italian? Will you be chef-driven? Is there
a concept that you want to explore? What are your price points? How many
seats? Will you have lunch and dinner service? Also, identify potential spaces.
Restaurants do not get designed in a hypothetical sense unless you are creating
a prototype for future restaurants.
Choosing the right designer
First, you need to choose a designer who is equipped to deliver what you
need for this particular project. If your project requires major construction,
don’t hire a designer unless he or she has executed projects of that
magnitude. Designers who are successful residential designers are not necessarily
going to design a great restaurant if they do not understand space planning,
service needs, and commercial material requirements. Make sure that you and
the designer see the project in a similar manner. Look for some spark and
passion for your project.
We got a phone call from Michael Cetrulo, the chef/owner of Scalini Fedeli
in Tribeca which was recently awarded a Michelin star. He had seen a restaurant
we designed a few years before and tracked us down. We met and discussed
ideas for the restaurant. Michael looked at our portfolio and we talked about
how we worked. There would be major construction in the main dining room
so he had to understand that we had extensive experience in designing and
supervising this kind of job. Luckily, we were just completing a year long
construction of Frederick’s Lounge which was the complete renovation
of a 4000 square foot space. We took Michael to Frederick’s so that
he could see our work and talk to our clients. Always do as much homework
as possible for any designer you might hire.
Don’t forget that the designer is also making the decision if this
is the right project for them. Potential designers are also doing their homework.
They are calling any designers you may have worked with and they are visiting
your existing establishments. For us, it is crucial that we have respect
for the chef as well as the business plan. We liked Michael, the space, and
his ideas for the restaurant so we made a reservation to eat at his existing
restaurant. Halfway through the starter course of poached egg raviolo, we
decided that we had to work with this chef.
Looking at potential spaces
If you have identified a space, call a designer and have them take a walk
through the space. They can help identify hidden problems or potential to
add seats. There is no such thing as the perfect space. There are spaces
that can be perfect for your concept but that would fail miserably for another
Michael Cetrulo had been looking for a new restaurant in Midtown Manhattan.
His research had shown him that much of his clientele downtown worked in
the Midtown area and he felt that the Midtown area lacked a restaurant that
served the kind of refined Italian food that is his specialty.
Michael showed us the space that formerly housed Palio in the Equitable Center.
This space had been empty for four years, not necessarily a very encouraging
sign. Etienne and I knew the space from its Palio days with especially good
memories of the bar with its 25 foot ceiling and its wraparound mural of
the Palio race in Siena by the artist Sandro Chia. Even empty and abandoned,
the bar still seemed alive and filled with potential. The dining room is
on the second floor. This was less memorable. The main dining room looked
more like a corporate dining room than a major restaurant. There was an overpowering
amount of light wood paneling and the long room seemed endless. But we saw
potential and liked that there was an existing private dining space. It was
very encouraging that Michael knew what he wanted in the restaurant and the
space. The space felt right for his concept of Piano Due, which translates
to the Second Floor in Italian reflecting the fact that the main dining room
is on the second floor.
Sharing information with your designer
Most good designers want to know as much as possible about your restaurant.
We end up asking everything: target, cuisine, price points, favorite ingredients,
menu structure, favorite colors, favorite restaurants, hours of operation,
waiter uniforms, lease terms, noise level in the restaurant, presence of
music, desired comfort of chairs and banquettes. You may not understand why
your designer is asking these things, but sometimes the results appear in
When we were designing Aix in New York City, the chef Didier Virot shared
his cooking philosophy with us. His cuisine would reference the South of
France, but would use a sophisticated blend of unusual flavors and textures
that would be very far removed from traditional Provencal food. With this
knowledge, we created a restaurant design that took some visual cues from
the South of France but twisted them in a fresh manner. We employed a blend
of 25 different and strong paint colors in this one restaurant, creating
a seamless whole much as the chef’s use of disparate and unusual ingredients.
We also avoided the use of traditional Provencal fabrics for more sophisticated
fabrics and used the recognizable regional pottery only as touchstone references
Michael Cetrulo cooks with a traditional Italian vocabulary but updated for
a cosmopolitan audience. He also told us that he loved the vaulted ceilings
that he had in his Scalini Fedeli restaurant and asked us to design vaults
in the main dining room. We knew that vaulted ceilings could work very well
in this concept of a refined, yet traditional Italian restaurant. Etienne
ended up designing intersecting barrel vaults for the ceiling that were then
finished with a creamy Venetian plaster and the columns were upholstered
in an ultra suede. But the furniture, lighting, furnishings, and window treatments
that we designed remained clean, avoiding any fussiness that could be associated
with an old-school Italian restaurant.
Getting the most from your designer
Be honest. Let your designer know what your wildest dreams are for this restaurant.
Try to make your dreams their dreams also. Make your designer a true part
of your team and your ally so that you use them to the fullest capacity.
The reality is that your designer has other projects. And if that designer
is any good, chances are that they will be slightly overcommitted at any
given time. So you have to somehow make your designer want to work for you
more than some of their other clients. If they love you and your restaurant
concept and if they think they can do exciting design work for you, you can
bet that someone else’s project will get shortchanged. And if they
really truly believe that they can execute a design concept that they love,
then you are in a great bargaining position. It is a truth in the restaurant
world that there are a lot of designers who are looking to make their name
with a great commission. For them, the true reward may be having a showcase
for their talent. However, be careful in negotiating fees because you don’t
want to end up with designers who feel like they are doing too much work
for too little money. The end result of that won’t make anyone happy.
When you see work from your designer, let them know what you do and do not
like in the most specific terms possible. Try to offer indications of what’s
wrong rather than solutions. Importantly, try to articulate your goals as
much as possible before they even start designing. Designers are paid and
trained to find solutions to your goals.
When Michael Cetrulo discussed the first floor bar with us, he told us that
he anticipated that the bar/lounge business would be very significant to
the overall success of the restaurant. He loved some of the sexy lounge spaces
that we had previously designed and wanted to transport some of that feel
to the somewhat corporate feel of the existing bar. Our solution was to replace
all traces of the light wood paneling with red leather panels reflecting
the vibrant red in the mural overhead. We also installed red velvet banquettes
and bar stools and designed lighting that we had made in France to soften
the overall feel of the space. When customers now walk into the space, they
see this famous mural in a better environment and feel welcomed into the
bar by the warm atmosphere.
Surviving construction and renovation
No matter what anyone will tell you, construction is not fun for a restaurant.
Invariably, the construction costs are more than what you budgeted, and the
process takes more time than anticipated. Make sure that you and your designer
do as much homework as possible before the construction begins. Your plans
must be as comprehensive as possible. It is of the utmost importance that
you and your designer have faith and trust in your contractor. The contractor
is responsible for the execution of the job but it is the job of you and
your designer to provide everything needed to a contractor so he can work
properly. But just as importantly, it is you and your designer’s responsibility
to effectively monitor the progress of the contractor. Regular meetings are
mandatory for any job. These meetings should be with the daily supervisors
of the work but also with the higher management of the contractor who will
see a bigger picture than his site supervisor.
The most important thing is to understand your conditions as best as possible.
Is this a union job or a non-union job? If it is a union job, clarify with
your landlord the degree of strictness of the unions for your restaurant.
Are there landlord issues that are unclear? What compliance and filing is
required? Does the location have an existing Certificate of Occupancy? Do
you need a new Place of Assembly? Is there any issue in obtaining a liquor
license? If you want outdoor seating, do you have the proper permits in place?
Do you require a community hearing for any of these issues? Are there Landmarks
issues that will restrict your renovation? What is allowed in terms of your
façade? If your location is part of a development or zoned area, you
may have to adapt your signage and face to fit into their guidelines.
Having discipline regarding the construction is also crucial to your successful
construction. Determine what is necessary for your restaurant’s success
and try to stick to that program. Is a cosmetic change enough for the space?
Or is a full renovation needed? Your designer will show you ideas that you
fall in love with—some big and some small. It is up to you to be disciplined
in looking at these ideas and evaluating them from a cost/benefit point of
view. If you have the budget for a nice cosmetic renovation, don’t
approve any design, no matter how appealing it might be, that requires major
construction unless you are prepared to assume the additional cost burden
and associated payback time. On the other hand, don’t necessarily reject
a startling idea that may seem too big without full consideration because
it may change the business proposition of the restaurant, allowing you to
significantly increase profit potential.
With construction, it is important that you and your designer speak with
one voice regarding the work. If the general contractor is receiving conflicting
direction, the work will become slower because of confusion and will likely
have more mistakes in the build. Any changes should be made with the full
understanding of cost and timing implications. Of course, make sure that
your budget and financing is in place for the full construction. You never
want to run into a situation where your suppliers are not working because
they have not been paid.
Watching your money
The best way to be responsible for your money is to properly plan the project
upfront. The more time given to planning before you begin any work the less
likely you are to have financial surprises. The two worst words when you
are in construction are “change order.” It’s probably impossible
to avoid change orders, but extensive preparation can avoid an onslaught
of unforeseen changes.
You can also save costs by being open to unlikely sources from your designer.
Designers spend their days looking for new resources and building their stable
of suppliers who are reliable and cost efficient. Like many designers, we
purchase directly from the manufacturer rather than from a showroom or a
retailer. That can have significant savings by eliminating a middleman with
his own profit margin. For Piano Due, Michael Cetrulo was very surprised
that we recommended sourcing the chairs and light fixtures from France. Even
with the shipping cost of transporting a large container with 150 chairs,
chandeliers and sconces, we were able to provide superior quality products
at a fraction of the cost for comparable products found in the United States.
But we did have the time to allow for the production and shipping from abroad.
There are three components to every job: cost, quality and speed. These three
have a delicate balance, making it impossible to optimize all three for any
given project. You can choose two of the three, but there must be some flexibility
for the third. For example, a fast job of high quality can be achieved but
at a cost. We were able to source high quality chairs and lighting at excellent
prices because we had flexibility in the timing. It is important to determine
which of these components is the most important. Insisting that all three
are equally important will only lead you to unrealistic expectations and,
One other important way to cut your costs is to listen to reality and not
just to what you want to hear. It is great to be optimistic, but it can be
a costly mistake if you are unrealistic. If you would ideally love your restaurant
to open in September, push as hard as you can. But if it looks like September
is slipping away, that should be discussed with your designer. On many jobs,
we have been pushed to deliver something earlier only to have items sit in
storage for two months. Avoid rush changes and unnecessary angst by facing
the truth—even if it’s not what you always want to hear.
One other way to feel better about your costs is to charge your designer
to be accountable for the costs of the project. When preparing your budget,
they should obtain firm estimates from suppliers and contractors. Do not
rely on fuzzy numbers that are placeholders in your budget. Request to see
actual invoices and know what the real costs are for all items. Understand
that most designers receive up to 30% off the list price of items purchased.
If your designer is having a hard time finding actual invoices, that is not
a good sign.
Unfortunately, there is no miracle way to save money. Just be prepared and
do as much work upfront as possible.
A few last words
Designing a restaurant should be a true pleasure for a designer. I know that
it is for us. However, the components of a successful restaurant design are
a delicate balancing act. We are always surprised by how small, seemingly
unimportant changes can drastically alter the appearance of a restaurant.
It may be something as simple as different vases and flower arrangements
or rearranging the seating layout.
We always try to remember that it’s not our restaurant. We are here
to help you realize your vision and see possibilities that may have been
unclear. At some point, we will move on to another project while you will
continue working and living in the space. However, we will always love our
previous projects. If you want to make changes to your restaurant, pick up
the phone to your designer. Any good designer will make the time to ensure
that one of their restaurant designs evolves for your needs in the best possible
Coffinier Ku is located at
249 East 57th Street, 2R,
New York, N.Y. 10022
They can be reached at (212) 715-9699
Coffinier Ku Design is a collaboration of the principals, Etienne Coffinier
and Ed Ku. This article will help restaurant owners identify some of the
major issues in designing a new restaurant through the experience of Coffinier
Ku Design and their latest project, Piano Due in New York City.
New York-based interior design firm divides its work between high-end
residential work and restaurant design. Some of its more notable restaurant
designs in New York City include Frederick’s Madison Restaurant, Frederick’s
Lounge, and Aix on the Upper West Side from Chef Didier Virot . Outside of
the United States, the company has designed the Restaurant Gastronomique
at Les Violettes in Alsace for Chef Jean-Yves Schillinger. Their work has
been featured in Hospitality Design, Contract, The New York Times, New York
Living and has received raves from restaurant critics in The New York Times,
The New York Post, Crain’s New York Business among others.
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