Business Bits: Restaurant Design is Harder Than You Think

In this series by ICE alum and former Admissions Director, Hillery Hargadine, we explore the ins and outs of the Restaurant & Culinary Management program we have to offer. 

There’s a myriad of reasons for wanting to open a restaurant. For some, it’s years of hosting dinner parties or bringing dishes to potlucks and having everyone insist they should “do it professionally.” For others, it’s having spent years working in kitchens and dining rooms daydreaming about what the place would be like if they were in charge. There are even those folks who have no food and beverage background, but have always fantasized about opening a quaint café somewhere that’s slower-paced, and do some baking and get to know the locals in an intimate way.

And then there are the people who actually do it. My time studying in the Restaurant & Culinary Management program at ICE was the reality check of what following that dream entails. My classmates and I had a broad mix of goals and dreams — some very clear, others a vague sense that this was a plan for further down the road. What we all learned was that there are so many more moving parts to starting from scratch than we could have imagined.

The most fun part of this program was the vision itself. What will my restaurant look like? How will it feel to be a guest? What kind of seating will we have?

Related Read: Why You Should Take ICE's Restaurant & Culinary Management Program

The least fun part is realizing that this vision entails hundreds of decisions you’ve probably never even considered. These are the moments we’re most thankful for the RCMD instructors, who take the time to prepare you for the questions you’ll have to answer later down the road — all with the clock ticking and a limited amount of funds to get it all done.

Questions like, “If your restaurant is in New York and there are no alleys for dumpsters, what will you do with your garbage?” (One of the more interesting — and real! — answers was refrigerated garbage rooms.) Or, “Do you want your guests running into chefs in the bathroom?” (Better carve out extra space for employee restrooms.)

One of the takeaways I remember distinctly from one instructor was “Never forget, your designer wants to be in Architectural Digest, and you want your restaurant to run smoothly.” While that may be the over-simplified version, lectures throughout the program constantly reinforce the fact that there is great help to be had out there, but at the end of the day understanding how all the parts of your business function together is ultimately up to you.

Throughout these classes we heard many warnings about contractors outside of the food and beverage industry. There are endless stories across some of the biggest names in hospitality with warnings about using a “friend who is a lawyer” to help negotiate leases, and “my cousin Tommy is a contractor, I’ll use him for the build out.” But it turns out the friend is an entertainment lawyer, and Tommy has never built a restaurant so he doesn’t realize the importance of acoustics.

Anyone who was part of the New York City hospitality scene in the early 20-teens distinctly remembers the rash of articles that came out about how restaurant noise levels were nearing — or exceeding — those of a jet engine. While I definitely remember the articles, I also very much remember what it was like to try to have a conversation over dinner in those exact restaurants (one friend’s fathers famously said he would pay for dinner anywhere we chose so long as it didn't have a tin ceiling).

While it doesn’t take a professional to know noise levels are a major issue, it was the enlightenment of how to combat them in class that I found so endlessly interesting. From then on when I walked into a dining room, I noticed everything differently. Was there a lowered ceiling with fabric panels? Noise control. Were there giant art canvases on the wall? Noise control. Even sometimes — which meant things had become dire — egg crate foam on the bottom of tables, was a desperate attempt by the restaurateur to try to cancel out some of the noise that was likely bouncing off the floor, which was likely chosen for a mix of durability and beauty, but not for its acoustic effects. As always, the influence of the management program is to consider these things ahead of time rather than trying to fix it later.

While building is one aspect of design, décor is the other. Another instructor once started class by projecting publicity photos of a legendary restaurant that was set to reopen after years of renovation. She simply asked us to look at the pictures and say what we thought of the design. We, of course, focused on the beauty of the color palate, or the uniqueness of the lighting fixtures. Oh how naive we were. The beautiful white banquet, in her estimate, would last approximately two weeks before it was stained by dye from fresh blue jeans, spilled glasses of wine, dropped lipsticks, etc. The mesmerizing row upon row of tables for two? A nightmare for food runners who would cause a traffic jam at the kitchen door as they paused to count “table 17, table 18, table 19” to ensure the meals on their trays made it to the right diner. Similar to now taking note of every noise absorption trick as I walk into a restaurant, I also look for what devices they use to break up tables. A giant ficus? A statement painting? All tools to provide quick reference for anyone on the floor trying to figure out which table number is which.

These stories and tricks provided invaluable insight for me and my classmates — and endless entertainment for my friends — but they were just a drop in the bucket of what we learned in the program. Though the “Facilities and Design” course may be where you would expect these lessons to be, the reality of the program mirrors the reality of the task at hand: no decision exists in a vacuum. It’s a ripple effect. I hope that through these series of blog posts you start to gain a little insight into the endlessly fascinating world of “I never would have thought of that” and “thank goodness my instructor did.”

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