design isn’t pretty…sometimes it’s angry


Every so often I become the angry designer. Especially when I hear things like ‘I know what I want it to look like….I can design it myself’. Or ‘it doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs to be good’. One local restaurateur, whose restaurants I no longer frequent, had the incredible lack of class to tell me that all west coast designers are unimaginative and their restaurant designs all look the same. And he and I have never worked together, so I know first hand that he hasn’t experienced ‘all west coast designers’. Beside which what we do is only minimally about what it looks like. Can you hear me growling?

Steve Jobs said it best.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

You don’t need me, or someone like me, to make your restaurant pretty or your website flashy. You don’t need us to use the ‘in’ colors or the latest coolest fonts. You don’t need us to tell you how to be hip and trendy and current.

Design Solves Problems

You need a designer to help you create business solutions so that your business can fly. You need us to have the knowledge to put all of the pieces of your business puzzle together and tell your business story, allowing you to do what you do best: run your amazing business!

Designers know that if you are designing a restaurant you need to consider equipment, acoustics, lighting, style of service, furnishings, ventilation, codes, budget and so much more. We bring expertise in all of these areas and we have relationships with the people who will do much of this work….we don’t just show up at the end and make it pretty!

And designers know that if you are designing a website you need to consider hosts and domains and content management systems and landing pages, CTAs and KPIs and CSS. This knowledge is what we bring. And if we’re talking about a designer who also creates content (like yours truly), we also bring an innate ability to listen and synthesize and build the story of your business. We don’t just make your site flashy!

You don't need me to make it pretty. You need me to make it work. #partinotes Click To Tweet

You Can Do It Yourself

But if you do, understand what you are taking on. Your business needs to work well and look good. So when you are done, and you need to hire a designer to fix what isn’t working, please have the courtesy to treat us with respect. We studied for years before we took our first jobs, and the knowledge that we have amassed to help you build your business was hard won. So next time you are in conversation with a designer, please don’t mention pretty. We are so much more than that.

on authenticity


Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.

~Brene Brown

are you keepin’ it real?

If the story you’re telling about your business isn’t truly authentic, then it won’t ring true for your potential clients (I know, the bell is a little obvious but it’s a very cool bell). You’ve got to find and tell your honest to goodness business story. In your space, on your website, on your facebook page, with your business cards….wherever your business lives and speaks. If what you have out there is not authentic and is not consistent, be real about that and start the process to fix it. Yes, it will be personal. And it will resonate. Then watch your business grow. Authenticity is your greatest selling point.

Authenticity is your greatest selling point. #partinotes Click To Tweet

Have an authentically awesome weekend!

Keep in touch,


you are good at things


Do what you are good at

My daughter gave me a book by this name. It’s one of those gifts that is kind of a joke, but not really. You are good at things. And those are the things you need to do often and do out loud. Don’t do the other things. For instance, if you are great at grilling steaks, don’t open a sushi restaurant. If you love working with people, don’t become a researcher. If you like to sell real estate, don’t get a job at the amusement park.

Do what you are good at your way

It’s more subtle than these obvious examples though. Most of us choose a job that fulfills us in some way. It’s also important to think about how we do those jobs. What are you particularly good at? Are you a great listener, a persuasive talker, a fearless risk taker? These traits are the things that will help you shape the way you do your job successfully.

What is your way?

When I experienced a recent, (momentary dramatic pause) and tragic, web crash a few weeks ago, I took it as a sign that it was time to start from scratch. My website never really looked or felt like me. It talked about what I do, but not about how I do it. So I bought a new framework and spent a lot of time mulling. I wanted my website to be spiffy, of course, but I also wanted to communicate something about me to you. I wanted to communicate something that would matter to you, because you matter to me. There was a great deal of mulling.

Your clients know

Then I remembered something that Tara Gentile said in a recent online course she taught: ask your clients. So I did. I asked a recent client for a testimonial… know, a couple of sentences. She gave me 5 paragraphs! And those 5 paragraphs told me what I needed to know. I shaped my message, my entire website, around her experience of working with me. If you aren’t sure how you are making connections with your clients, ask them. Then build that message into your bigger message. What your clients get from you is exactly what you are selling, whether you are aware of it or not.

Figure out how you are good at what you do and build your business around this knowledge. That is the way to serve your clients.

Join my mailing list to get more tips on how to tell your own unique business story. And I’ll spice it up with some cocktail banter about architecture, design and food.



sing your budget out LOUD!


before the beginning

The first step in any interior design project is what we in the field of architecture call ‘Programming‘. That’s where we ask you about your operation, your aesthetic inclinations, how many people will do what and where, etc. But actually, there is a step before Programming. It’s kind of like the prologue to the book you just started reading (of course you read the prologue, right?) The prologue to Programming is the budget discussion. Unfortunately, many clients are hesitant to divulge this information, thinking that if they keep it a secret we will do a better job of designing on the cheap. It doesn’t work that way folks. Construction is big, expensive business and good design does not make it more expensive. Good design makes an expensive construction job worth the money you just spent on it. Keeping your designer in the dark about your budget will end up costing you more in fees and a lot more in frustration and relationships. If you don’t know what your budget is, or should be, your designer/architect can help.

reality check

Construction is booming in most areas and most sectors right now. That’s great news on a lot of fronts. What it means to you the client, however, is that prices are probably moving in an upward direction. So managing your budget is more critical now than ever. And the first step in managing your budget is determining a realistic budget. If your budget is not realistic you will end up spending money on fees to no avail.

I had a client a few years ago who was convinced he could open a frozen yogurt shop for $150k. He priced equipment at something over $50k (remember, it was a few years ago), his inheritance was $100k over that, so peachy. Let’s quit being an IT guy and open a yogurt shop. The good news was that he had a budget in mind. The bad news was that it was not enough for what he wanted to do, and I gently told him as much. He spent a lot of time researching properties until he found one that he felt he could afford. We had already discussed his budget and that it would not cover his needs, but he was pretty determined. So we laid out the space, included minimal cost finishes, and got it priced. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $250k. Due to building, fire and health codes, some of the things that cost the most could not be left out (a restroom for example). Needless to say, he’s still an IT guy with a broken dream and a little less money in his pocket.

research, baby!

Before you pay for design services, pay for some really good advice. Talk to a designer/architect/contractor, lay out your ideas and let them help you determine if you can afford the project you are dreaming up. Do your research. And believe what you learn. That old saying ‘don’t confuse me with the facts’ is a very expensive way to go about business. Rider Levett Bucknall is a giant in the construction management business and they put out a quarterly report that includes cost per square foot in several sectors and several areas in the US. According to their Q3 2014 report, construction costs are increasing, in some markets as much as 3% (ouch Honolulu) in one quarter. Use their numbers to estimate what your construction costs might be. And remember, construction is only part of the picture (more on that below).

share the knowledge

However you come to your budget, share it. Sing it to the heavens and make sure that everyone involved is clear on the budget you have in mind. Work with your design team to understand how your budget will be spent. There are several big pieces that need to be considered.

  1. Construction costs: these are the checks you will write to your general contractor and will most likely be the largest part of your budget
  2. FFE: furniture, fixtures and equipment will include all of your furnishings, also decorative lighting and most anything movable
  3. KE: if this is a food service project you will also have kitchen equipment to purchase
  4. Fees: permitting, engineering, architect/design, taxes, local fees of all sorts, project management fees
  5. Owner costs: computers, signage, accessories, POS systems, that beautiful Ducati motorcycle that you want cut in half and mounted on the wall (I really had to do this once….sigh)

keep your eye on the prize

Your design team and your general contractor will work together to keep an eye on budget.  All information except owner costs will be accessible to them, so you will need to share that piece. And remember that there should be contingencies in every section of your budget. Especially in a remodel. You never know for sure what’s behind that wall….can we all say asbestos? So make sure that as you move through the project and check and re-check the budget, that you haven’t sped through your contingencies and are now seeing your budget in the rearview mirror.

budget busters

Indecisiveness, decisions by committee, scope creep and changing your mind are all okay, but they all have a price. So if budget is more important than adding another fireplace, keep that in mind when you discuss changes. And when decisions are needed, make them promptly. Then stick with them. Unless a poor decision will create an operational nightmare, weight the cost of changing your mind against the cost of living with it, whatever that means. Check with your design team and general contractor about the cost of every decision if you are unsure….they can help you weigh the options.

There, now we have had the least romantic discussion we will have on your project. Let’s get on with the fun stuff!

Keep in touch,

restaurants in relationship

loris diner

photo courtesy

My first apartment in San Francisco as a recent college grad was about 200 square feet. I had one window, a tiny little kitchenette, a mattress in a drawer (that when pulled out crashed into the couch so I had to sleep with my feet inside the drawer), and a beautiful old tiled bathroom. It was in a barely post-1906 building with a bird cage elevator and a view of the back of the buildings on the north side of Sutter Street. I loved it. The cable car took me to work at Scott’s Seafood at night and the train took me to my day job at a design office in Sunnyvale. Needless to say I wasn’t home much and couldn’t cook anyway, so local cafes became my dining rooms. My favorite was the original Lori’s Diner on Mason which was practically brand new. It wasn’t so much the food as it was the cute boy who worked the grill overnight on the other side of the counter. I’d sit at the counter and try to look alluring or interesting or cute or whatever I thought might turn his head away from his grill. And eventually we became friendly. No romance or happily ever after, but that relationship was one of the first I created as a newcomer to San Francisco.

photo courtesy The Chronicle/John Storey

That’s what diners have always been good at…connecting customers with the people making their food. Creating relationships. The last few years have given us a plethora of open kitchens with the hope that showing customers the kitchen would do the same thing. Yea….not really. All this has done is elevate the chef to a pedestal that the rest of us can’t possibly access, nor do we really want to. Large egos wielding big knives don’t build great friendships. But lately that tide seems to be shifting. At the really high end, Saison makes their attempt at relationship by circling the kitchen with diners and even having the chef who makes each dish (they serve a tasting menu) serve it tableside. Unfortunately I haven’t experienced this first hand as hubby is still recovering from our last expensive dining event. But I certainly appreciate the intention and see it happening, slowly, in less stratospheric price ranges as well.

photo courtesy Michael Short/The Chronicle

photo courtesy Michael Short/The Chronicle

A few weeks ago I went to dinner with a friend at The Commissary in the Presidio. We sat at the kitchen counter, on the grill side and thoroughly enjoyed chatting with the two cooks making our food. All of the watching and talking and smelling even inspired the addition of a couple of items to our bill! Of course the food was delicious (with a team like Traci des Jardins, Robbie Lewis, Reylon Agustin and Bon Appetit Management Company it’s hard to go wrong), but what made the meal special was the engagement we got to experience with the staff. And our new friends were kind enough to share a few cooking pointers!

Even the bakers of the world seem interested in bringing their customers into their bakery kitchens. Dominique Ansel (of Cronut fame) is opening a new bakery that he’s calling ‘Dominique Ansel Kitchen’ in New York’s West Village. Says Dominique: ‘When people walk into the shop, I want them to feel like they’re in the middle of the kitchen. A lot of fine dining restaurants will invite you into the kitchen at the end of the meal. I remember being at Daniel, and watching people walk into the kitchen, being amazed by it all. I’ve always wanted to invite people into the kitchen, so our layout is a whole open kitchen. There will be mirrors above the kitchen, so you can stay and see the action.’ Get me a plane ticket….I’m in!

Keep in touch,

about restaurant lighting

You’ve been out to eat, right? So you know the difference between eating at the local fast food joint and that fancy white tablecloth place downtown. Aside from the food, the furnishings are different, the colors, the art and probably most significantly the lighting. Restaurant is theater. As a designer, I am tasked with creating a space that meets the aesthetic and operational needs of the owner/operator whether this is a fast food place, fast casual, casual or formal. Based on these needs I recommend where the POS stations will be, how the floor staff will interact with the kitchen staff to communicate and pick up food, where tablecloths will be stored so that they are accessible to staff, where the host will be located to greet guests and guide them to a table, choose furnishings and finishes that set the stage, help with art, etc. The single most important part of restaurant design just might be lighting, because if that is not done well and effectively, everything else will be diminished at best and a massive failure at worst. Lighting a service area is accomplished very differently from lighting at table tops, and this is not just about light levels: it’s also about the type of lighting, the color of the light, the orientation and location of the light, the quality and quantity of light and even the special effects of the lighting.

Great designers are all about the lighting no matter what type of restaurant they are working on. Based on the design, they create and coordinate a lighting scheme that enhances both the design and the operation. And just as they don’t build the furniture that they specify, they will hire and coordinate a consultant to craft the lighting design. When this partnership is done well, you won’t even notice. When it’s not done well, you can’t miss it.

all photos courtesy Yabu Pushelberg/Evan Dion

At Yabu Pushelberg they get lighting. They created The Clement at The Peninsula Hotel in New York and the lighting is gorgeous. (Restaurant & Bar Design has a nice writeup). Check it and remember how important lighting is when you do your next project. Your guests will thank you.

Keep in touch,

proposals are not jobs….chicken counting



Someone contacted me last week regarding a project that is a perfect fit for me. So I visited the job site, met the General Manager, spent hours learning about the project and walking the site, and quite honestly made a new friend. By the end of the day we were talking freely and I think getting on famously. He won’t be the final decision maker about which designer is hired for the project, but I’m certain his opinion will be counted. So do you think it’s time to start counting chickens? Maybe not.

After the meeting I went back to my desk and uploaded photographs, organized notes, and began my proposal. I have a standard format that I use, substituting information as necessary to customize it. I finished take 1 then sat back to read email and lo and behold there was an article about writing proposals and why we don’t win projects with our proposals. Thank you Jeff Archibald! Here are a few of Jeff’s thoughts, some of which might have cost me this project had I sent out my first draft (don’t worry….I didn’t send it).

  • The client isn’t a good match: do you have the skills and experience to provide what the client wants?
    • check
  • You didn’t set expectations: during your face to face did you tell the client how you work? What information would be in your proposal? What steps you would follow and why you are a good fit? Did you let the client get to know you as you were getting to know them?
    • check
  • No chemistry or bad chemistry: one of my favorite sayings is ‘never work with someone you wouldn’t share a meal with’. You need to build rapport from the first meeting.
    • check
  • Talk about the budget: it’s part of the project, and one of the most important components to your potential client. If they don’t have one, help them make one.
    • check
  • Don’t forget value: what will you bring to the project? Don’t just tell them what you cost…tell them how that cost translates to value. Will your design bring more customers? Higher prices therefore a better margin?
    • dang….missed this in the first draft
  • Differentiate yourself from your competition: what can you provide that your competitors won’t/can’t/didn’t think of? Why you and not them?
    • missed this one too
  • See the proposal from the client’s perspective: what will they get? How does this benefit them specifically? Be clear about their gain.
    • uh oh…missed that one too
  • Don’t disappear after the proposal goes out: check in once, twice, maybe more. Offer to talk through sticky items or anything unclear.
    • yes, as soon as I finish the re-write and send it out

The biggest change I made in the first draft was to add a cover letter that was personable and responded to those items that are missing in the nuts and bolts of the proposal. My proposals are long and wordy and full of minutae that describe the project. What they lack is me. So I added a heaping bowl of me, since in actuality it is me that will be doing the work and me that needs to get along with them and me that they are entrusting with their project. Seems like a no-brainer now that it’s done, right?

Keep in touch and I’ll let you know what happens,

so you want to build a restaurant…..

photo courtesy ed schipul, creative commons license in place

photo courtesy ed schipul, creative commons license in place

My father in law, a retired engineer, is very involved with his community’s activities and so was asking me questions about the process of building a new clubhouse and restaurant on their golf course. He’s truly one of the brightest people I know, and answering his questions about the process of building, especially where food service is involved, tells me that if he knows this little a lot of people could benefit from a bit more understanding. So I put together a list, then I added to it and expanded a bit, and probably told him way more than he and his cohorts in this project wanted to know.

If you’re embarking on a building project, especially if it involves food service, you may be interested. Here’s what I told Bob….

Dear Bob… For a $5.5 mil/12,000sf project I’m sure you want this done right. That’s not a very fat budget (although it sure sounds like a lot of money!), so you’ll need a team that can work efficiently together. They should all be involved at the very beginning in order to fold the various disciplines’ work product in without having to make major changes due to surprises. Surprises always add to the budget (ie: the lighting designer didn’t realize a duct would be required RIGHT THERE, the mechanical engineer didn’t know you were using THAT very hot piece of equipment, you want to remote the motors WHERE?). The architect can coordinate most of the disciplines. You should have an owner’s representative as well who works with the architect to manage the project (not a committee if it can be avoided….that will add time to every decision which ends up messing up your schedule and usually even affects budget). Also, who will run the facility? Ideally a representative for the food service operator will be involved from the beginning of the project as well. They will be able to shed light on operational needs that the owner may not have in mind.

Here’s a list of the people you will need involved in your project

  • Owner’s representative
  • Operator/operator’s representative
  • Architect who has done food service projects
  • Interior Designer who has done food service projects (may be employed by the architect or work as a consultant to the architect)
  • Lighting Designer (can  be coordinated by Interior Designer)
  • Kitchen Designer
  • Acoustical Engineer if necessary (work with architect and interior designer to determine if this is needed based on your program)
  • AV Designer (this is becoming more and more a specialty)
  • Engineers: electrical, mechanical, plumbing (great if they are LEED accredited as this is where you’ll need super efficiency) and they must be versed in food service projects
  • Structural engineer will be needed and should also be involved early. You don’t want to find out down the road that a structural column is required in a terribly inconvenient location
  • Since this is a ground up project, you may need additional engineering. Your architect can help you to determine additional needs

Your architect/design team can bring consultants. We’ve all worked with many consultants and will have opinions on who is easy to work with, efficient, knows their stuff, can creatively solve complex problems. Food service projects are always complex since there are so many moving parts and so many regulatory agencies to deal with: building department, planning department, health department, sanitation, etc.


Your architect/design team can also help you to create a budget. There are essentially 5 pieces to a food service project budget: FFE (furnishings, decorative light fixtures, etc), KE (kitchen and bar equipment), fees (architect/designer, consultants, permitting, etc), owner (POS system, art, signage, accessories, landscaping, table top, etc), GC. In order to stay on budget everything needs to be taken into account from the beginning.

Hiring a GC

Something that always comes up is how to select a general contractor. There are basically 2 methods: bid or relationship. Many people choose to bid  (in my opinion mistakenly) which means that a very complete set of drawings needs to be put together at the beginning of the process, several contractors bid the project, and one is selected. This leads to contractors trying to outbid one another by guessing and can lead to much higher costs (change orders) and difficult relationships. My recommendation is always to interview several contractors (your architect/design team can make recommendations based on the type of project and will even aid you in interviewing) then choose the contractor that you feel most aligns with your needs and communicates with you well. Then you can use your contractor to price the project at various intervals allowing the clubhouse to be designed and built within budget and hopefully avoiding change orders.

I hope this helps. I know it’s a bit more than you asked for, but figured you’d rather have too much info than too little. Let me know if you have questions or want any more info.

Same to you out there in the blogosphere…if you have questions, send them. Your project may be smaller than Bob’s (most are), and may not require the same list of consultants. But you will require someone to corral the project, not just make it pretty. That can and should be your design/architect team.

And if you have anything you’d like to add I’d like to hear that too. This business has a never ending learning curve.

Keep in touch,

dear future restaurant owner

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 […]

dear restaurateur….whine

Dear restaurateur, The good people at Consumer Reports surveyed 1003 people (I know, why 1003?), in March of this year to find out what customers gripe about when it comes to restaurants. And very few of the gripes are about the food….so listen up! Most of your customers’ complaints are very very fixable. Here they are in order, […]