Recently, I was invited to a gathering of chain restaurant operators and the support centers of said chains.
A subject discussed was restaurant margins, often a hot topic of conversation given the labor and inflation issues of the last two years. A close second topic was box size, meaning the total size within the four walls of a restaurant. While supply chain and minimum wage represent issues beyond the control of many, the size of the building is not. It is something all restaurateurs can manage.
For many years, there was the idea that a larger front of house (FOH) compared to the back of house (BOH) was better for the brand. Essentially, a dining area larger than the production area meant the restaurant could welcome more customers under its roof thus improving the unit economics of the brand. This was generally true for non-QSR or non-fast casual concepts. In this post-pandemic world, though, consumers continue to opt for dining flexibility, which means off-premises dining will remain really important. Indeed, despite consumers flocking back to restaurants for many concepts, we have noticed dining rooms still appear underutilized across various segments. It begs the question: should dining rooms remain the size they are with respect to the back-of-house area?
As restaurateurs continue to innovate, they and their project teams should take another hard look at space allocation. Given rising construction costs, it is more important than ever to make sure space is properly allocated based on how the business operates today and not based on pre-pandemic patterns. Nowadays, if the BOH is twice the size of the FOH, it doesn’t necessarily discount the design. If the concept’s off-premises mix is sufficiently high, a BOH that can produce enough for speed is warranted.
Many non-drive thru concepts are executing – some successfully, some not – a significant amount of off-premises sales. Therefore, should they adhere to the rules of the past? The goal of any concept should be improving unit economics. If those same economics dictate a smaller box, due to a larger off-premises mix, should all units be designed equally? The short answer is no. The design principles of the past are just that – the past. Nowadays, it is margin driven and operators should remain on the lookout for ways to improve those margins. An important method to manage those margins is understanding how the box size can affect them. From a designer point of view, a smaller box size affects three major areas: construction cost, utility costs, and labor costs necessary to staff the box. A smaller, more cohesive box provides opportunities to reduce construction and operating costs. This being said, the back-of-house may need to change to account for the uptick in sales due to off-premises mix.
The idea of a larger FOH to BOH may not be appropriate for all. Most concepts I’ve worked with in the last three years have been trying to right-size their building due to changes in foodservice, which has not led to an immediate smaller box, but rather a reallocation of space. Restaurateurs, as you design your space, rethink the norms of yesteryear, and focus on 2023 and beyond.