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A Glimpse Into the Design of a New Restaurant

by Etienne Coffinier and Ed Ku

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 restaurant concept.

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 interesting ways.

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 and accents.

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, ultimately, disappointment.

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 way.

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.

This 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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