opening a restaurant….the reality of budgets

can you afford your dream restaurant?

Waiting for my new client to show up for our first sit down meeting, here’s the text message I got: ‘Hey Leslie. I’m sorry about this. We’ve discussed hiring you, and it’s twice as expensive to hire you than what we can afford (sic)’. This was ten minutes into the meeting they were apparently not showing up for.

check your reality

I’ve talked about this before (here and here).  Restaurants are expensive to open. Begin with a reality check. When I ask about budget, don’t tell me ‘enough’. I’m asking for a reason….I want to help you! If you can’t do it one way, there may be another option. If you want to reach your dream, full disclosure will get you there more efficiently.

This is a relatively small world, so any architect or designer who has done restaurant work knows people who have built restaurants. We will involve whoever we need to verify what you are hoping to do. A GC can give us an idea of cost based on square footage and level of service, I can estimate fees (permitting, architecture and design, etc.) and furnishings, we can throw in some ballpark numbers for equipment, owner costs, the cost of your lease. This is a service that most architects and designers will provide without fee.

Restaurant design and construction is unlike any other retail/commercial work. Ventilation, food safety and life safety targets are higher and thus result in significantly higher costs. Be realistic, don’t pretend that you have endless wads of cash ready to spend if that’s not the case. And do understand that you’re not opening a gift boutique….a much less expensive proposition.

If you’d like to figure this out on your own, here are the items that should be on your spreadsheet. The hard numbers I’m showing are specific to the San Francisco Bay Area, a very expensive area to build. But then, salaries are also high here so there are more bodies who can afford those seats!

1. construction

Depending on your program, this may or may not be your biggest number. These are the checks you will write to your general contractor for all demolition work, construction, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, millwork, finishing. This number should include all of the sub-contractors costs plus the GC’s own labor and materials. When talking with a GC it’s important to be sure this number also includes overhead, profit and insurance.

Here are 3 scenarios that may help you determine where you fall:

  1. You’re leasing a space that is an existing restaurant with enough electrical, an existing grease trap, hoods in place and up to code. You will be modifying kitchen equipment (except hood locations), lighting, hvac, millwork and finishes. Let’s presume this is a mid-range restaurant with table service. Expect $100-150 per square foot.
  2. You’re leasing a space that has never been a restaurant but is a ‘warm shell’. That means that there is electrical and plumbing in the space. Your vision is a fast food or fast casual program. Expect $200-250 per square foot.
  3. You’re leasing a space that has never been a restaurant but is a ‘warm shell’. Your vision is high level dining with table service. Expect $300-350 per square foot.

Take these numbers as base numbers. They can easily go up. And if you plan to do the manual labor yourself, then double the length of your construction schedule (which could be anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months depending on complexity). Remember, every day that you pay rent and are not open is also costing you. Do yourself a favor….hire a general contractor.

2. owner costs

These are wide ranging and will depend very much on your operation. As a start, here are the costs that you will need to research for your restaurant:

  • licenses (business, liquor, etc.)
  • table top: serveware, glassware, candles, condiments, etc.
  • kitchen small wares
  • artwork
  • POS system
  • branding: logo, menu, signage, environmental graphic execution/installation
  • attorney fees: don’t negotiate your lease or partnership agreement without help
  • music system
  • food and liquor
  • staff training
  • rent…for every month you are not open for business

3. kitchen and bar equipment

Grills, ranges, fryers, refrigeration equipment, ice makers, dishwashing, specialty equipment….this will be one of the highest numbers in your budget. You can verify some of these numbers online (if you have a very small kitchen and little equipment). If you choose to use your own online resources, double whatever number you come up with. You likely don’t have enough hand sinks, you forgot faucets, etc. Otherwise, talk with a dealer and get a ballpark number for your kitchen equipment.

4. furnishings and fixtures

This number will include your tables and chairs, light fixtures, host stand, some accessory items. Your designer can put together a budget number for furnishings based on your program and level of finish. Expect somewhere between $300 and $600 per seat.

5. fees

It was my fee that sunk that deal that began this article. And if they couldn’t afford my fee, my guess is they couldn’t afford their restaurant. Here are the fees you can expect to have to pay:

  • Architecture and Design: about 10%-12% of construction costs (that was number 1)
  • MEP Engineering: assume an additional 15% of design fee…this doesn’t track with design fees, but it is a decent ballpark number
  • Food Service Design (kitchen design): assume an additional 10% of design fee…like engineering this doesn’t track with design fees, but again it is a decent ballpark number
  • Structural Engineering: this will vary depending on conditions
  • Lighting Design: unless this is extensive, lighting design will come out of the design fee already mentioned
  • Graphic Design: this is the cost for design of logo, menus, signage, environmental graphics and will vary depending on need
  • Permitting: assume an additional 3.5%-4% of construction cost to cover building permit, planning permit, health department permit, signage permit, sanitation permit. Make a few phone calls as some jurisdictions tack on some pretty hefty fees that can be very unexpected. Especially sanitation.

and then

Once you put these numbers together, tack on at least a 5% contingency. 10% would be better. If all of these numbers together add up to less than your bank account, then you are good to go. If not, find some friends/neighbors/investors who also want to own a restaurant. Better yet, find people who want to be silent partners.

If this is your dream, follow it. There are plenty of us out here to help you…just ask.

Keep in touch,

And a giant PS….shout out to my friend and colleague Lev Weisbach, architect extraordinaire, for providing feedback on this post.

who wants tacos?


once upon a time taco bell and i were born…

Have you noticed all the Taco Bell chatter lately? Makes me a bit nostalgic. There was a Taco Bell next to my dorm at San Diego State all those years ago. In the light of day you’d never catch me there, but after midnight all bets were off. Sometime around 1am, when I was done (ahem) studying, those greasy little tacos called my name.

tacos in college

It seems the same is true of today’s college students. My daughter, who avoids dairy and gluten due to digestive issues, succumbed to a Taco Bell burrito late one night recently. I’m sure it was after a long bout of (ahem) studying. Not a good move for her, but she was swept up in the college taco tide along with a group of friends.

And this seems to be the tide that Taco Bell continues to rely on for some pretty sustained recent growth. After graduation I lost track of Taco Bell, aside from noticing they teamed up with KFC in a few locations (an odd match I thought). And that was probably fine with them. Somehow, even with all of the cultural moves toward healthy eating, SLOW food and the like, Taco Bell has managed to maintain the interest of the ever hungry 18-22 year old set.

old taco style: al fresco

When Taco Bell popped up in my feed 3 times in the last month I sat up and took notice. While they have made some effort to offer some healthier options (um, Dorito taco anyone?), what Taco Bell seems to really be focusing on is image. Taco Bell’s original style (if you’re a child of the 70s you’ll recognize that photo at the top of the page) was unique. The brick facade, arches, tile roof and the ever present bell didn’t veer off theme for a couple of decades. If you wanted to sit you did so outside, usually next to a fire pit. Sometime in the 80s the iconic style changed to suburban strip mall and lost most of its charm.

new taco style: beer and wifi

Then last year there was the shipping container store introduced at SXSW. And now Taco Bell is introducing 4 new store styles with an end game, it seems, of getting customers to stay rather than go (slow food rather than SLOW food I presume). Their new concepts include wifi, lounge seating, some have fireplaces, there is natural wood, gray (the color du jour it seems), modern art, mid-century seating, Victorian light fixtures and they’re even testing alcohol in a few locations. According to FastCo, it’s a mashup of every current design trend.

Taco Bell seems to be holding on to just a tiny bit of their own visual history. There’s the occasional pop of fireclay orange. Some of the themes use the textured brick of decades past. But overall, this is a complete overthrow. It will be interesting to see how this generation of Taco Bell fares with the current generation of technology toting college student.

Keep in touch,

slide in to Portland

Partying it up with PhotoShop after a trip to Portland. Check out the nice things I found underfoot. And overfoot. One of these photos is the actual color of my boots….

Sometimes you really need to look down. This is what I found on a plaque on a Portland sidewalk:

We, the citizens of Oregon, recognizing that the future health and well-being of our state depends on the strength and diversity of its people, stand together to celebrate the uniqueness of cultures, lifestyles, ideas and abilities that unite us as a community.

Makes me feel a little better about some of the icky that’s been floating around in these dis-united states of ours. I hope that once this election cycle finishes we can get back to being the actual United States. Portland was, however, a little slice of heaven and a break from all election coverage. And of course a lot of beer and food.

Three of us found an adorable place in the Burnside neighborhood of Portland called Slide Inn. Named after an inn owned by the chef’s family when he was a child, Chef Eugen serves American and German cuisine focusing on (of course, this is Portland people!) locally sourced organic ingredients. But what really thrilled my non-dairy gluten free daughter were the wide variety of items that she hasn’t been able to eat for years without severely inhibiting her digestion. Chocolate cinnamon french toast! She’s ready to move. Apparently Chef Eugen’s wife eats a restricted diet, so he cooks for her as well as the rest of us. The menu is diverse, and everything was absolutely delicious. I recommend a shot of Chef Eugen’s homemade ginger syrup in your coffee every morning.

Slide Inn is on a residential street a block from one of the hip breakfast places in Portland that we weren’t willing to wait 90 minutes to try. And thank heavens they had that crazy wait. Because Chef Eugen is a gem. Not only does he do all of the prep, he does all of the cooking, all of the serving, all of the clean-up and he makes everything from scratch. And because I asked, he very kindly has shared his recipe for his homemade ginger beer with me and you.

Chef Eugen’s Slide Inn Ginger Beer (in his own words)

9 cup water
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 cup ginger ground
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 cup cane sugar
1 teaspoon dry yeast

Add the tartar, lemon juice, water, ginger,sugar into a pot and boil for 1/2 hour, turn down to a simmer once it comes to a hard boil. Cool down slightly and refrigerate. Let the temperature drop to 75-80 degrees and stir in the yeast. Place a lid on the pot and let the fermentation process begin. You can let it stand for as little as 3 hours or overnight.

I usually do it overnight so that I have a full day of letting it ferment. I like to start the fill process in the morning so that the process can fully complete. The liquid then get’s strained and filled into glass bottles that have a pop top on them. Fill them no higher than 3/4 so that when you burp them the ginger beer will have the space to rise. Place the bottles in a dark room or at a minimum no direct sunlight.

Open the bottle caps carefully and slowly, never fully open them as they will literally explode in your face. When burping the bottles never point the bottles in your or anyone’s face. If you want a sweeter ginger beer repeat this process for 2-3 days, otherwise 1 will do it. Once you have released or burped the ginger beer 3 times you can refrigerate. The colder the refrigerator the less fermentation happens.

*Remember; if it’s not cold enough the fermentation process will start up again, the more that happens the more it will cause gasses to build.

We managed to fit quite a few meals in between walking as many neighborhoods as we could. If you go, here are a couple more places to try. If you find something else that’s great (especially if it’s not in the guide books), let me know.

Keep in touch,

red hills market

Red Hills Market in the wine country south of Oregon. I got dinner to go for 14 people from pizzas, to salads to sandwiches and a whole lot of tea for $150. The food was amazing and the destination was worth the trip.

kopi coffee

In the Burnside neighborhood, Kopi Coffee makes spicy coffees (try the ginger latte…the bomb!) and teas and serves a unique and really delicious brunch menu. Great things come in small packages.

ruddick wood

Ruddick/Wood: yes it’s Newberg which Oregon’s wine country, but it’s Oregon, so I got the beer. And for heaven’s sake just stop fussing and get the fries.

New Seasons Market is everything a local grocer should be. The Portland version of that other national brand.

New Seasons Market is everything a local grocer should be. The Portland version of that other national brand. I got more than a few meals here to take back to my cute Airbnb.

james (and me)

all photos courtesy Alanna Taylor-Tobin/

The James Beard Award nominees for 2016 were announced yesterday and once again San Francisco and the Bay Area have made a proud showing. Below are links to our local nominees, but before I get to that, here is my own personal nominee in the cookbook/baking and the photography category for next year: Alanna Taylor-Tobin of Bojon Gourmet has created her first cookbook due out in September. It’s called Alternative Baker: Reinventing Dessert with Gluten-Free Grains and Flours. I’ve been following Alanna’s blog for ages and not only are her recipes amazing (and don’t get all hung up on the gluten-free…her gluten-free is not a lesser than substitute for gluten-full, these are recipes that stand up on their own) her photography is out of this world. Her pictures make my mouth water every time. Between now and September, check out Bojon Gourmet and you’ll see I’m right. Come September you can have her right in your very own kitchen.

Now back to James Beard….nominees were announced yesterday right here in San Francisco at the Presidio Officer’s Club. Winners will be announced on May 2 in Chicago. Here are our many local nominees. My next stop is Quince (gotta save a few nickels….this is not for the faint of wallet). Not only is Michael Tusk nominated for Outstanding Chef, but Quince is also nominated for Outstanding Service and you know how I feel about that (here and here)!

Best New Restaurant

Liholiho Yacht Club
871 Sutter Street, San Francisco

Outstanding Baker

Belinda Leong and Michel Suas
B. Patisserie
2821 California Street, San Francisco

William Werner
Craftsman and Wolves
746 Valencia Street and 1643 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco

Outstanding Bar Program

Bar Agricole
355 11th Street, San Francisco

Outstanding Chef

Michael Tusk
470 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco

Outstanding Restaurateur

Michael Mina
Mina Restaurants (Michael Mina, Bourbon Steak, RN74, and others)
San Francisco

Cindy Pawlcyn
Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Cindy’s Waterfront at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Napa, CA

Outstanding Service

470 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco

Best Chef: West

Matthew Accarrino
1911 Fillmore Street, San Francisco

Dominique Crenn
Atelier Crenn
3127 Fillmore Street, San Francisco

Corey Lee
22 Hawthorne Street, San Francisco

So now make like the Oscars and go eat at all of these fine places before the judges announce their decision. See if you agree! And if you need a date let me know….I may need to borrow a few more nickels.

Keep in touch,

food tv


Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, the Galloping Gourmet and Martin Yan, those are the chefs I grew up with, the chefs who taught me what I enjoy in a cooking show. Current food television offers a much wider variety than days past, much of which makes me want to run screaming from the room. Kind of the way you’d run from the kitchen of a crazy chef. I’ve worked with chefs who rip phones off walls and throw pots. I don’t want to hang out with them in person or through the TV screen. So if you do enjoy that style of food drama, you should probably click away right now.

If you do enjoy a good cooking show, or entertaining romps through neighborhood restaurants, or info about where food comes from, then stick around. Now that it’s raining in California, and I’ve binge-watched all my current dramas through, it’s time to catch up on food. Check out my list…and send me yours too. Hopefully it will rain for a very long time and I’ll binge-watch my entire list while the drops are still falling, then move on to yours!

restaurant shows

I’ll Have What Phil’s Having: Phil Rosenthal is funny. He’s a writer, an actor (well, he was), a producer and the creator of the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond. And he apparently loves food. So he travels the world with his friends (some of whom you’ll know) and he eats food. He’s done shows in Tokyo, Italy, Paris, Hong Kong, Barcelona and Los Angeles. He will take you to amazing places to eat good food. And you’ll even learn a bit about cooking.

Check, Please! Bay Area: 3 regular joes and a host anonymously visit 3 of their favorite restaurants then discuss their experiences. Very homey and a great way to stay in touch with the Bay Area food scene.

cooking shows

The Mind of a Chef: How do great chefs think? And what do they cook? Crawl right into their creative brains and learn what real chef-ing is about (and no one in this series will refer to themselves as a ‘celebrity chef’, but they are all the best of the best). David Chang, Sean Brock, April Bloomfield, Magnus Nilsson, Ed Lee, Gabrielle Hamilton and David Kinch. Brilliance in the kitchen.

Julia Child: PBS release has released a selection of episodes from various Julia Child’s series. It’s a potpourri of Julia and a lovely way to spend an afternoon! Learn, cook, then see if you can do the voice. ‘Chello….Ihhhhh’m Jhooolia Chaaaiild….’

Good Eats: cooking with Alton Brown, well kind of. Alton Brown isn’t a chef. He’s kind of a geekyscientist who applies his mad science to food. And teaches us how to cook things in a really nerdy but effective way.

more food

Food Forward: Food rebels in the 21st century and beyond. I can’t possibly say it better than they do…‘Food Forward goes way beyond celebrity chefs, cooking competitions, and recipes to reveal the compelling stories and inspired solutions envisioned by food rebels across America who are striving to create a more just, sustainable and delicious alternative to what we eat and how we produce it. Created by a veteran documentary film making team led by Greg Roden, Food Forward explores new ideas of food in America as told by the people who are living them. Each episode will focus on a different theme–school lunch reform, urban agriculture, sustainable fishing, grass-fed beef, soil science–and spotlight the real people who are creating viable alternatives to how we grow food and feed ourselves.’

Enjoy our rainy weather and happy watching…

Keep in touch,


can you hear me now?


noise vs sound

NOISE: that would be the down side of sound. Restaurants generate an inordinate amount of it….kitchen pots, dishwashers, bus tubs, clinking silverware, conversation, ringing phones, music, etc. In restaurants some sound is sound and some sound is noise and all of it is part of the acoustics of your restaurant. Acoustics is one of the invisible design elements that many restaurateurs ignore until they start getting complaints. STOP IT! Ignoring the acoustics of your restaurant until after you open is more expensive than addressing acoustics during the design process. In both dollars and lost customers. And as we, your customers, continue to age, we get more and more sensitive to noise.

#2 customer complaint? noise!

This year’s Zagat survey puts noise as the #2 complaint of restaurant goers (service was #1….and we’ve already talked about that). I’ve gotta agree. Hubby and I ate at a local restaurant a couple of weeks ago, one that we really enjoy most of the time, and nearly had to walk out. It was early and the restaurant wasn’t very crowded. So the large table of women at the front of the restaurant, who were apparently having a very good time, were painfully audible. Their shrill laughter bounced off the brick walls, ricocheted off the very high plaster ceiling, and reverberated with deafening clarity in our eardrums. The server kept apologizing, or at least that’s what it looked like she was doing since we couldn’t actually hear her. Once the dining room filled with more diners, the sound level evened out and, while this table of women didn’t quiet, the ambient sound of the room backfilled the sound of their laughter. Those in the world of acoustics call this masking.

don’t wait till noise is a problem

So, would you have known that what was needed was more sound to ease our pain? Guessing probably not. One restaurateur had the good sense to realize that what he knows is food and service, and he hired the experts to deal with noise BEFORE he opened his restaurant. During the design process John Paluska, of Berkeley’s Comal, hired engineers to create a system to dampen, move and adjust the sound of his restaurant. While this is a very sophisticated system and may not be necessary in your restaurant, you do still need to address your room’s acoustics. That is if you want me, or anyone like me, to eat there more than once.

Back to our local eatery, as a designer I would recommend the owner hire an acoustical engineer to work with a designer (yes, me) to create something to ease the acoustical pain. If even that is too big an order, then at the very least hire a designer who has done restaurant work (again, me) to at the very least put some bandaids on the pain. We can add acoustical panels and sound absorbing materials to dampen and separate some of the sound. And do it soon….because you have some of the most delicious green chile stew I’ve ever had!

good acoustics is part of good design

When you open your next restaurant, be a hero. Hire whoever you need to get your acoustics right…this may be an invisible design element, but your customers care about their auditory comfort. They may not compliment you on your acoustical brilliance, but they’ll certainly complain if you ignore their ears. And we all hate whiny customers, right?

Keep in touch,

ps….you can totally ignore my blatant self promotion, but please don’t ignore my message. You are an amazing restaurateur, hire someone with amazing acoustical chops to deal with the sound of your restaurant.

let’s talk about cell phones in restaurants

food tech (1024x683)

Last summer my oldest uncle, my mom’s big brother and the last of his siblings, died at the ripe old age of 102. Imagine the changes he saw in the world over the course of his lifetime. The mass production of the automobile, invention of radio broadcasting and then television broadcasting, widespread use of the telephone in households, computers of any sort and then personal computers, and now cell phones (one of which he wore on his hip until the day he died). Such remarkable technological growth. And with each invention a fair amount of grimacing and fear and anger about the changes that new technology wrought. In 1865 the UK Parliament regulated automobile speeds to 4 mph and required a man to walk ahead of the auto waving a red flag. When the telephone became commonplace, people worried that telephone operators would listen in on their conversations (they did). And when computers moved into our homes we worried that strangers would hack in to our personal lives (they do). Now we carry our computers in our pockets but we call them phones. They are also cameras. And credit cards. And game consoles. And there is more grimacing and fear and anger.

Last week I ran across this article about complaints in restaurants. The bottom line is customers are so busy with their phones that they take longer to order and eat their meals, slowing the entire dining experience. Then they complain about the quality of the food (that has sat in front of them getting cold while they photograph it for their yelp review), the length of time it takes to get their server’s attention (while he/she is helping the diners at the next table connect to wifi), the length of time it takes to be seated (because the whole process has slowed). So what to do?

Some restaurants ban cell phones. I suppose that’s an option and will work about as well as ‘disconnect day’ or whatever they called it a week or so ago. In so doing we accept that the devices are in control and try to manage their devilish power over us. Because that worked really well with the automobile, the telephone, the radio and the television. And certainly the personal computer. Or we can decide that we are in charge and figure out how to make a place in our world for technology that allows its benefits and minimizes its deficits.

This is something we try to wrap our heads around in our household as our children are learning to face their world in ways so different from ours. They don’t use the phone to talk, they use it to text. They don’t write letters, they post on Instagram or Facebook or SnapChat. They don’t write period….they type. So we can be the parents that try to drag our children back to the world that we grew up in (was it really so much better?), or we can embrace the changes and guide our children to a productive and balanced future that includes technology that we are still learning. Honestly, is there a choice here? Has anyone ever successfully turned back time (and don’t give me the Amish example….I’ve already thought of that and I think it is a special case)? And do we really want to?

So back to the world at large, I think that we are in need of some big design thinking here, and it would be my suggestion to include people under 21 in the conversation. This is their world and they understand things that we haven’t even thought of yet. Let them help to guide us. We need to move restaurants into the 21st century and that doesn’t mean we ban technology. Complain all you will about your yelp ratings, people photographing their food, texting rather than reading the menu. And alienate both your current and future customers. Those photos of your food? That’s free advertising. Those complaints on yelp? Those are opportunities to improve. Slower turn times? Maybe this is an opportunity to sell more food and drink. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, and haven’t even thought of all of the questions. But I think it’s time to begin a productive conversation here. Don’t you?

Keep in touch,

an abundance of tufting

My favorite design contest, Restaurant and Bar Design Awards is gearing up with entries due before April 19. Out of only 37 entries to date here are the 5 from the US. I’m seeing a lot of tufting and nailheads this year. And an abundance of wood finishes. Check these out and get your entry in if you’ve got one this year…let’s show the world how brilliant we US designers are!

Hootan & Associates Design Studio (Southern CA) created Bosscat Kitchen and Libations featuring whiskey and southern style cooking in Newport Beach, CA.

Heitler Houstoun Architects (NYC) created Gypsy Kitchen featuring Spanish cuisine with a dose of Moroccan influence in Atlanta, GA.

AvroKO (NYC) created Momotaro featuring a collision of Japanese cuisine and mid century American style in Chicago, IL.

CCS Architecture (SF and NYC) created TAP (415), an upscale burger bar with a wall of, you guessed it, taps for beer wine and cocktails in San Francisco’s Westfield Mall.

And finally, another entry from Heitler Houstoun Architects (NYC). The Southern Gentleman is a gastropub that features a modern take on southern hospitality in Atlanta, GA.

Keep in touch,

no kids in restaurants….really?


once upon a time

Several years ago, in my pre parenting age, I was visiting a friend in Germany who was already sporting a toddler. We spent many an hour in the local cafes and bars in her Berlin neighborhood enjoying a quaff or two and it never occurred to me that her son, and the service personnel who attended to us, were anything but pleased with our adventures. He ran around the spots we visited, enjoyed the jungle gyms out back, and deftly dodged the waiters legs and they his adorable little noggin. He drew on the old menus they provided and discussed his various needs with very patient staff members. Eating out with him was such a non-issue that it never occurred to me, when I returned home and began pro-creating a few years later, that it would be different on this side of the pond.

us vs. them

Or maybe the difference is just in my perspective. Back here at home a few years later, once our little angels were up and about, our dining out lives crashed into a painful reality: there are restaurants for adults and there are restaurants for children. The restaurants for children are bright, loud and scary if you are over the age of about twelve. And if you deign to take your super minors out to the adult establishments, be prepared to desert your date and take your toddlers outside to burn off energy in the parking lot while waiting for the food to arrive. Then dash back in, gobble down your meal, pay your $100 tab and make a run for the door all within the space of a single episode of your favorite sitcom. And even with all of this dashing about, expect more than a couple of glares from staff and table neighbors. Then there are the restaurants that won’t even allow kids….at least not if they make noise or want to sit somewhere. Fun, right? I quickly learned that doing the dishes at home after dinner was a much more pleasurable experience.

can’t we all just get along?

Is there not a way to create an experience that is pleasing to the short set, the tall set, and the staff who serve them? Fast casual is always an option, but what if you’d like to enjoy a full meal and a glass of wine? In the US the trend seems to be to create themed restaurants or restaurants for children that parents are welcome to visit. I appreciate the effort, but can’t we designers come up with a solution that serves the needs of all concerned? Do we adults really need to dine in a playroom if we don’t want to cook and we want to spend some time with our children? In my search for answers, I found Fiii Funhouse in Buenos Aires, Argentina (h/t Design Milk) and Kukumuku in Vilnius, Lithuania that were tasked with creating a dining experience for all. Both seem to be making the effort, but adult comfort is still the sacrificial lamb.

all photos courtesy iris cantata arquetica

all photos courtesy Kukumuku/Leonas Garbačauskas/ArchDaily

here’s the problem

With many young adults waiting longer to have children, and if our school district’s growth is any indication, there is a large segment of our population with both money and children. These parents work long hours and would love to have someone cook for them. This market seems pretty valuable to the savvy restaurateur IMHO. So how do we please this very large demographic? Of course part of the issue is addressed by management and staff’s attitude toward children. And design can step in to offer some solutions……because that is what design is about. Defining problems then solving them. The problem here is parents want to dine out with their children without being in a fifty footcandle playroom full of hard surfaces that bounce the babble to a deafening pitch. It’s time for some design thinking, and I’m starting with a brain dump. You can take it from here. Call me if you want my help.

let’s solve it people

Engage the children.

  1. aquariums
  2. videos/tv (silent would be nice)
  3. a playroom with supervision….over there!
  4. roll around space, wiggle room
  5. pleasing colors that don’t hurt adult eyes
  6. climbing structures (again….over there!)
  7. a view into the kitchen

Quiet the roar.

  1. sound absorbing materials on ceilings and walls
  2. cork or other sound absorbing flooring
  3. carpet (cleanable)
  4. upholstery (cleanable)

Entertain the children.

  1. books on tape
  2. music
  3. crayons and paper
  4. nice, patient servers

Create a safe environment.

  1. higher lighting level in play areas (not in dining areas!)
  2. supervision (in addition to parents)
  3. safe toys
  4. multiple seating options to accommodate various ages

Dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets are not the answer.

  1. create an interesting children’s menu (duh)

And to keep servers happy…

  1. slightly higher prices and tip-free dining (so servers aren’t paying their bills on a wish and a prayer)
  2. children’s discounts on nights that would otherwise be slow
  3. supportive management

We can do this….and it seems to me it would benefit everyone. The key words here are dine and children. The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. What do you think?

Keep in touch,

it’s ON….eat out now!

sf restaurant week2

image courtesy golden gate restaurant association facebook page

SF Restaurant Week, Dine Around Town. I know….I was confused at first too. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association has taken over what the SF Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, more recently called San Francisco Travel, began 13 years ago as a way to boost sales in an ever so dismal restaurant month. Not only does the 10 day long event have a new name, SF Restaurant Week, but it also has a benefactor (SF-Marin Food Bank… apropos) and seems to be oh so much better organized. There are more restaurants involved, there are better restaurants involved, there are more menus available and they are posted online. Duh….we need that information to make good decisions! There’s even a contest to win some cash so that you can go back to your favorite restaurant and eat off the regular menu.

Okay, so a few deets:

  • SF Restaurant Week lasts for 10 days….a week is 7 days, but no matter
  • choose lunch ($25), dinner ($40) or discovery ($85, which includes wine pairing for heavens’ sake)
  • check out this eater sf article to see the best deals and worst deals
  • check out this list of participating restaurants
  • review menus, and look at what the restaurant is NOT including (like the 4% for ‘sf employer mandates’ that they might tack on to your bill)
  • make reservations through OpenTable…every reservation nets the SF-Marin Food Bank 25¢…you have ten days to eat out a lot and help out a little, or click here to help out a lot
  • once you arrive take a pic of the menu, your food, and your smiling face and enter to win some ca$h

I’d suggest you get on it now. I just went online to make Saturday night reservations at a couple of little neighborhood places and can’t eat until 9:30. Don’t wait people! You have 10 days to eat your heart out.

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,

cobweb sweeping



Happy 2015! Yup, I’m back all rested and refreshed from a couple of weeks of sleeping in, making things and eating way too much. With the new year I’ve been cleaning out closets and cupboards and, of course, my overloaded inbox. Before I head full on into a new year I get to read my favorite whiny columns from the food experts of the world. One of my favorites is Marcia Gagliardi’s The Bore. Every year she cracks me up…this year one of her rants is about chefs leaving decorative skid marks on her plate. Truth people. Eater also has a great list with quotes from various food critics. Not as sweetly/tartly written as Marcia’s, but yes, the $17 cocktail has to go. Moscow Mules may be the go-to cocktail, but don’t ask me to pay for that pretty copper cup every time I order one (unless you’ll let me take it with me when I leave). I can make my own at home for a buck fifty thank you very much.

I have my own rant which you will probably hear about more than once this year. Service. What is with the ridiculously crappy service at so many of our restaurants? Is no one doing training these days? I’ll admit, if I’m spending over $50 for an entree the service is usually good. But in the $20 entree range I’m getting Denny’s service. Check this out….these are actual events that I actually experienced:

  • As the server walked by to tell us he’d by right with us he was holding a couple of used water glasses from the recently vacated table next to ours. His fingers were inside the rims of the glasses. A few moments later he walked over with water glasses for us with those very same fingers holding the rim of my water glass. Ew. Keep your fingers out of my stuff. At least when I can see you.
  • The server delivered some un-ordered guacamole to our table at an upscale Mexican restaurant. Of course we ate it, who wouldn’t? When the bill came I mentioned that we hadn’t ordered the guacamole which was included on the bill. Had she apologized I would have smiled and said of course we’d pay for it, because we ate it and it was pretty good too. Instead of apologizing she grabbed the bill and removed the guacamole without any acknowledgment. We’d caught her padding our bill. Wow….seriously. Must have been a guacamole contest that night.
  • Walking into a nice dinner house with a group of about 14 for a holiday dinner, the hostess greeted us with ‘what can I do for you?’ Awkward pause. ‘Um, feed us perhaps?’ It was a small restaurant and we were a large party. Pretty obvious why we were there. Don’t ask stupid questions at the door people. Try being gracious.
  • I ordered my favorite old-timey cocktail in a martini glass. When the server brought it to me she lost her footing and splashed it on the back of my friend’s jacket. She set down what was left in front of me. No fresh cocktail for me and no dry cleaner’s slip for my friend. Sloppy sloppy sloppy. Mistakes happen…fix them. She should have fixed hers.
  • Four of us had dinner together at that same upscale Mexican restaurant. When three of us were done the server cleared all but the remaining diner’s plates so he sat there with the only plate of food still on the table. What has happened to clearing the whole table at once when everyone is finished? Has that become passe? Shame.
  • Eating with my family recently we finished our meal and were presented with a check of about $150. We were not eating on the cheap that night (2 kids well under the drinking age). When the server dropped the check she also cleared the table. By stacking every plate in a pile on the edge of the table then heaving the whole tower of mess over to the scullery. What the f*ck? However the plate is delivered to the table should be how it leaves the table. Plates up the arm people and if you can’t handle that then use a tray.

So yes, can we up the training everyone? There are so many places where the food is remarkable and it is completely ruined by the service. Good service should be the easy part. We’re talking about manners here. Thank you for listening.

Wishing you an awesome  2015….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,

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,

dining with dead presidents


photo courtesy

photo courtesy

Washington DC has a new restaurant group in town that really likes presidents, at least the dead ones.  Alan Popovsky, who did his share of restauranting prior to Lincoln, opened Lincoln in 2011 and followed it with Teddy and the Bully Bar. Rumor is he’s reviving another dead president as restaurant…maybe JFK or Thomas Jefferson, although I can’t find anything in the restaurant rags since Teddy and the Bully Bar opened. Maybe two presidents are enough to keep him busy.

We visited Lincoln while in DC this summer and while the food didn’t knock my socks off, the artisitic design was a party for my eyes.  The artist Maggie O’Neill pulled it off with some pretty creative concepting that keeps the place fun and light….no deep thinking required. There are pennies on the floor, pennies tufting the big chair that mimics the chair at the Lincoln Memorial, pennies on the wall in the shape of the DC flag, glass jars hanging from the ceiling (the story goes that union soldiers ate from glass jars during the Civil War), the Emancipation Proclamation emblazoned on one wall backlit by color changing LEDs (that thankfully don’t rotate). a textured Jasper Johns’ flag on one wall, paintings of Lincoln. And the servers wear t-shirts with Lincoln quotations. Our server was wearing a most apropros quote: Avoid popularity if you would have peace.

And I want to give not just a nod but a deep bow to Lincoln’s restrooms….they are awesome. Deliberate and detailed and definitely in keeping with the design of the restaurant. Both Abe’s room and Mary’s room are covered in custom murals. Mary’s lean toward the pretty socialite, Abe’s toward men and their tools. Use your imagination. The bar program makes use of house infused liquors, so there is a ‘library/infusing room’ for just this purpose. Quotations a la Abe himself are reminders down the mirrored back hallway. There is not a breath of this place that hasn’t been thought through from an aesthetic and artistic perspective. Hopefully the operation was given as much attention as the artistry….from the customer perspective, definitely fun.

Keep in touch,

1110 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, DC