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Dear Future Restaurant Owner,

Yes, you can design your own restaurant. You have a vision and you make a mean (insert amazing recipe that you got from your mother here). You’ve worked in several restaurants or at least you’ve read articles about working in restaurants and you know how you want the dining room to look. And you know how to make (insert that recipe) and understand what equipment is required. So yes, you can design your own restaurant. Here are the things you must learn to get from here to your first day of service.


The building department will have a lot to say about how you build your restaurant. They will want you to meet all of the accessibility requirements and energy requirements. How many restrooms will you need? And how will you arrange tables, bar, wait stations so that someone in a wheelchair can get to the restrooms. And speaking of the bar, where will your accessible bar be located? You want to purchase used equipment? Is it all energy star rated? Have you checked to find out what your local jurisdiction requires? And how many emergency light fixtures will you need to install and where? Right there next to those lovely sconces you want? The fire department will also have two or three cents to add. That beautiful ceiling you want to install…does it have the correct fire rating? And you want to put in how many seats? No, sorry, that’s too many. And yes, you do need a second exit right here where you wanted to put that television. And then there’s the health department. They will have even more to say. Learn about hand sinks because you will need a few. And floor sinks. Don’t forget to study up on lighting levels….50 foot candles if you’ll be using knives. Finishes are a big deal to the health department as well. Make sure you know what’s cleanable and that you understand the difference in slip resistances. And light reflectance. They’ll even care what color you paint the inside of your cabinets. And what about storage? They care how much storage you have, whether your employees have lockers, what size your refrigerator is. Learn this. Don’t forget about sanitation control. They have something to say as well and come up with some pretty nasty fees, so call them early.


You’ve been to restaurants where the lighting is off. Even if you didn’t realize it was a lighting problem, you noticed that the food didn’t look very good or that your date was more attractive before you walked through the door. Restaurant is theater, so lighting is extremely important. You’ll need to understand light levels and what level is required where. Learn about lumens as well since we won’t be talking about incandescent wattages much. If you use LEDs, and most jurisdictions will require them in order to meet energy requirements (see permitting), you’ll need to learn about color temperature and color rendering indices. Same with fluorescent. You don’t want your intimate restaurant to feel like a garage. A restaurant needs to be lit at several levels….you’ll need ambient lighting as well as lighting at tables and the bar. So learn about the various types of light fixtures available: recessed, decorative, strip, etc. Then learn about the types of lamps that you will put in these fixtures: LED, fluorescent, incandescent, HID, low voltage and line voltage. Lighting control systems are also important in restaurants unless you want to dim each fixture separately…that will be an extra 15 minutes every time the sun moves. And the kitchen has its own needs which will be largely directed by code (see permitting again). Don’t forget the bathrooms…occupancy sensors for sure.


Maybe you want an intimate restaurant where your guests can enjoy conversation as well as hear that jazz trio you hired to play during happy hour. And you love that aged wood and stainless steel look. Table cloths are so last century. Oh dear….your acoustics could be a problem. Restaurants are inherently loud places: people are talking, blenders are running, chefs are banging pans, people are dropping plates. Learn about acoustics. You’ll need to understand sound generation sources and sound transmission. How will you build the wall between the kitchen and the dining room? Oh, you want an open kitchen? Carpet is great, but it won’t be enough. Remoting the motors for the refrigeration equipment in your bar is a good idea, but where will you put them? You’ll need to think about finishes to absorb sound and barriers for generated sound. Acoustics are complicated, so plan to spend a good deal of time to get this right or you will spend a lot of money fixing it.


You love the smell of (again, insert that recipe), but your customers may not be in the mood and want to order chicken. All they can smell is (insert recipe). Your HVAC system needs to be balanced. Learn about HVAC systems…your engineer (yes, you’ll need one of these) will design a system and you’ll need to understand enough to give direction and ask the right questions.

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The Kitchen

You know what equipment and space you need to make that famous recipe. Do you know how much dry storage and refrigerated storage you’ll need (see permitting)? What about light levels in the kitchen (see permitting)? There’s also the layout of the kitchen which should really be done by a kitchen designer because they know the latest and greatest in kitchen equipment, so you’ll need to find one and coordinate that. There will be a lot of sinks: pot sink, 3 compartment sink, floor sinks, hand sinks (see permitting). You’ll need space for those. What will be on your floors and walls? (Again, see permitting.) What about grease removal? You can’t just haul it out in a bucket and it can’t go down the drain. Unless you are serving raw veggies only, you’ll need grease traps or interceptors and it will be your sanitation agency driving this. Better make friends and figure this one out because it can get pricey.

The Look

Do you know what type of paint to specify so that you meet environmental codes and health department requirements? How about which fabrics have a fire rating that is acceptable for those lovely curtains you want to hang between the main and private dining room? And who can get you the chairs you like in time for opening? Will they last beyond the first six months? Learn about furniture, wall coverings, ceiling finishes, flooring. Fire and sound ratings for all of these. And you’ll need to find someone who can make that custom bar back you’ve been thinking of. And someone else to do that huge chandelier you want in the bar. And get the UL rating that your city requires. You know that you’ll need several different light fixtures, so you’ll need to figure out which and where to get them. Then get enough lamps for replacement. Do you have a source? Who will you get to sew the cushions for your banquette? You will need to research sources for all of these. Your general contractor won’t be much help here. How big will your tables be? You say you want to do small plates, so that means there will be a lot of dishware on the table. You want those big square plates? Very trendy. You can get those at the restaurant supply house. But how big are your tables? Really…24×30?

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There will be more you’ll need to learn. Most jurisdictions require some level of sustainability, so learn what’s ‘green’. Furniture and finishes will fall in here. Equipment will definitely fall in here. HVAC as well. And lighting. You want to have a patio too that opens into the restaurant with those fabulous roll up garage doors. Your kitchen is open. Hmmmmm. Let’s talk about flies now. Don’t forget your POS system. How will it be wired? And will your servers need stations to enter orders? Or will they be using hand-held devices? What about a sound system? When that jazz trio isn’t playing I bet you’ll want some music. So you’ll need sound. And then there’s that TV in the bar. And the others in the dining room….oh you want those to disappear when there isn’t a big game on? You can figure that out. You’ve found a great space and you’re sure everything will fit just perfectly. So just draft it up on some graph paper. Whatever space you think you need, double it just to be safe. You don’t do this for a living and one of the permitting agencies is going to come up with something that you didn’t anticipate. You’ve already signed the lease. Your first monthly payment is due next week.

So yes, future restaurant owner, you can do this. But you shouldn’t. The $30,000 you think you will save by doing the design yourself (or $10,000 or $75,000) will be spent fixing mistakes, paying rent on the restaurant you still can’t open because you’re having trouble pulling permits, replacing light fixtures that you bought at Home Depot because you didn’t realize lighting takes twelve weeks, retrofitting your restaurant because it is too loud and you didn’t understand acoustics, replacing furniture that wasn’t built to withstand restaurant use, or taking out a loan to support yourself when you have to close your restaurant because people didn’t come back and now you need to find a job. Many equipment suppliers will tell you that they can design your restaurant. But there is an inherent conflict of interest here….they want to sell you equipment. Buy their equipment, but don’t expect them to understand all that’s required (see everything above) to help you create the restaurant that you are dreaming of. Please call an Interior Designer who knows how to design a restaurant. Do it before you begin, preferably before you’ve signed the lease…don’t wait for the pain to start.

Keep in touch,

ps…thanks to foodiesfeed.com for the photos