By Nancy Wood
When Meyer Davis Studio won a 2017 James Beard Award for best restaurant design for Ford Fry’s St. Cecelia this past May, it was the first time a Georgia restaurant concept won the award.
But it wasn’t a surprise to those in the know – thanks to a handful of talented design firms, Georgia restaurants have been upping their game when it comes to creating an experience for guests.
Especially in Atlanta, where new restaurants are opening – and closing – at a breakneck pace and competition is fierce, restaurateurs know good design can help tip the scales in their favor. And they are increasingly turning to architecture and design firms to help turn their vision into reality.
Why work with a design firm? Because it takes more than that great idea or mouth-watering dish to be successful. When opening a restaurant, the to-do list is long and potentially costly: creating a business plan, setting a budget, finding and securing a location, working with a landlord, finding a contractor, permitting, working with a kitchen designer, determining plumbing and electrical needs, layout, lighting, color palettes, artwork – down to the perfect seating and the size of the tables.
Each part of the process plays a huge part in whether your restaurant will keep its doors open in the long run, no matter what type of place you’re envisioning. And it takes careful planning, smart design, creativity, collaboration – and time.
Billy and Kristin Allin, owners of Decatur-based Cakes & Ale and Inman Park’s Proof Bakeshop found out just how beneficial a good design team could be when they built their latest venture – Bread & Butterfly in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta. For the first version of Cakes & Ale, Kristin Allin says they “started off doing things on our own. When we moved Cakes & Ale into a larger space we used an architect, but he didn’t specialize in restaurant design.”
Admitting that they learned a lot from the first two iterations of restaurants, “when Butterfly came along,” she says, “we knew we wanted to go full-on with a restaurant design and architecture group.”
After interviewing several groups, the Allins choose Square Feet Studio, run by husband and wife team John and Vivian Bencich. The studio has also designed local restaurants such as Staplehouse, White Oak Kitchen and Kimball House.
“If you want to have a restaurant that feels put together and you want to get the concept right and the flow,” Allin says, “it’s important to engage a design firm. I feel like Square Feet got what we were talking about right away,” she adds, “and that’s very important.”
Longtime restaurant designer and principal architect of The Johnson Studio, Bill Johnson, agrees that ‘chemistry’ is a crucial element when restauranteurs are choosing architects and interior designers. “Your design firm needs to be one you feel comfortable with,” he says. “You have to be able to communicate ideas and be on the same page.”
Ideas and Expectations
One of the biggest challenges architects and designers face is unrealistic expectations of restaurant owners. Experienced design firms provide more than the look of the interior. “It’s the foundation that allows the designs to really work,” says John Bencich of Square Feet Studio. “We often help owners finish out their business plans first so they can check the feasibility of their expectations.”
“It’s important that people get in touch with reality sooner than later,” emphazises Bill Johnson, whose Atlanta-based firm has been designing restaurant concepts across the world and in Georgia, such as Atlas, Bistro Niko and Ecco, for years. “Mistakes can be costly. You can have great vision, but it has to be possible and feasible.”
Most owners, according to Johnson, are aware that restaurants are expensive to build and take a long time – generally a year. “I usually tell clients to budget 10 percent for design,” he says. Then costs are put to each line item in a business plan so owners can see the reality of their budget and balance that budget across the vendors and tradesmen needed to complete a project.
“The kitchen is the gatekeeper to the cost,” John Bencich says. Because there are so many variables in a project, owners can assume that the majority of their budget will go toward what’s behind the scenes.
“In the beginning, it’s an investigative process,” says Vivian Bencich. “We have to determine what the project is, and we ask a lot of questions.”
Many of those questions focus on the obvious: How long it will take? What will it cost? What are the expectations from a landlord, contractor or the architect/designer?
Other questions designers want answered include: What kind of restaurant is it going to be? What level of service or formality will it have? What is the price point? How often do you want to turn the tables? What’s the beverage program? Is there a host?
For restauranteurs, it’s critical to collaborate with their design team throughout the process. Discussing what the vibe of a place might be – from the food being served to the potential guests – sets the direction for a project and guides architect/design firms toward the great design ideas and solutions. As John Bencich puts it: “The best projects are the clients who have a strong point of view and want to execute it with a high level of detail.”
Chefs and owners even go as far as sharing potential menus with their architects and designers, which can set the tone for the look and feel of the space. While a chef might be more specific about the food, an owner may be more concerned with the type of patron he or she is trying to attract or how many tables will fit safely in a space. The frequent conversations that help define the details of a concept often include ideas from other restaurants both the owner and the designers have seen.
“One of the things every restauranteur in the world does,” says Bill Johnson, “is look at every other restaurant. They study what other people do to see what’s new, what’s successful and what’s not.”
“Getting inspiration from what’s happening in other cities and bringing that back to Atlanta adds a certain level of sophistication to design,” says Vivian Bencich. Adds their client, Kristin Allin, “A lot of what we’ve done comes from our travels and places we’ve lived. When we see something that we wish we had here, that usually starts driving the whole process.”
Concept, Location and Look
Another important factor is how a particular location will work with a certain concept. A space that may already be set up for a restaurant can dictate the layout of a new concept and potentially save money in the long run. However, undeveloped spaces offer owners, architects and designers a blank canvas – and a lot of options.
“In some spaces,” says Bill Johnson, “it’s very clear that the front door needs to be here, the bar in this area, the kitchen here and so forth. We like to look at as many options as we can,” he says. By working through the process with his clients, Johnson says, “We can narrow the focus. By the time we’ve gone over the options several times, everyone has been part of the process and understands why we are where we are in terms of the style of the restaurant.”
At Bread & Butterfly, for example, the space was small and intimate, and the Allin’s wanted a French café feel. By working closely with Square Feet Studio, the design ended up with a smaller kitchen and a ‘layering effect,’ with one of the dining rooms featuring glass doors that could be open to the street.. “They were upfront about the food and the feel,” says Vivian Bencich. “and very collaborative.”
For another one of Atlanta’s current popular restaurants, Ford Fry’s The Optimist, the design team led by Smith Hanes turned an old-school fish house into a seafood paradise, complete with a casual oyster bar. And a review of the firm’s design for Richards’ Southern Fried in the Old Fourth Ward area of Atlanta touted the retro, glitzy look of the food stall complete with marquee-style signage.
It’s important to take the existing space into account when designing a restaurant, too. For Edgar’s Proof & Provision, located in the basement of the histori Georgian Terrace Hotel in Midtown Atlanta, Seiber Design used exposed brick walls to reflect the century-old building and contrasted that with concrete floors and industrial elements scattered throughout the space.
And good design is not reserved just for high-end, fine-dining types of restaurants. Seiber Design also helped convert a former service station in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood into Yeah! Burger. The restaurant’s dedication to environmentally friendly principles and sustainably sourced food is reflected in the reclaimed, recycled materials used throughout the interior.
For some restauranteurs, there’s a particular brand recognition they need, says John Bencich. “For others, they just need a place they can serve good food. Fast casual is not the same as fine dining or small-format food stalls. There are different challenges associated with each of them.”
In a clever approach, the team at ai3, run by Lucy Aiken-Johnson, her husband, Patrick Johnson, and Dan Maas, literally built the interior of Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow on-site in full-size cardboard first. By working out the details this way, they fulfilled the celebrity chef’s vision of a fine dining experience in a sparely designed space.
Matching concepts to locations is nothing new for another famous chef in Atlanta, Kevin Rathbun. One of the instigators behind the now booming Krog Street scene, Rathbun took a twist of his own by opening his newest location, KR SteakBar, at the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center (ADAC).
Inspired by a restaurant he saw at the Miami Design Center, he remembers thinking, “it was a weird location for a restaurant, but the place was packed.”
“It was kind of location that a lot of people wouldn’t think of,” says Rathbun’s long-time design collaborator, Bill Johnson. “It has great access and that great outdoor space.”
“My other restaurants, Ratbun’s, Kevin Rathbun Steak and Krog Bar, were all off the beaten path,” says Rathbun. “I thought I could redevelop that concept in town, and I wanted something accessible with plenty of parking.”
After studying the location, Rathbun and the team at The Johnson Studios created a warm, inviting space that felt like a comfortable, neighborhood place. “I knew I wanted to do Italian meets steak,” says Rathbun,”and Bill and his team can take a few key words and go to work.” Like all of Rathbun’s spaces, KR SteakBar includes a private room behind the kitchen for guests who may want a quieter experience.
“Anybody can have an idea and throw something together, but people don’t realize it’s not that easy,” Rathbun says. “There’s a reason they’re the architects. Food and service may be the first focus, but the design is what makes people come back.”