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Designing for Fast Casual: An Architect’s Perspective

Fast-casual restaurants continue to take off day after day. Unlike independent restaurants, though, they require their own set of considerations and techniques when it comes to designing in that space.

lowresTGJose--Jim-2Jim Cronenberg (left) and José Tohá, principals of Grupo7 Architecture + Interiors“Fast casuals are doing their part to attract customers by keeping costs lower, but also by bringing value and uniqueness to the dining experience even if you’re just buying a $6 falafel,” says Jim Cronenberg, principal of Grupo7 Architecture + Interiors based in Washington, D.C.

Here describes to FE&S four considerations Cronenberg and his team take into account when working specifically with fast-casual restaurants.


Part of the effort begins with the external design in order to draw interest from the street. For example, with client Taylor Gourmet, a hoagie and sandwich fast-casual chain in the D.C. area, Grupo7 built a light configuration out of drywall buckets like a dense arrangement of what might appear to be glowing lightshades. The installation impressed so many passers-by that it made a regular appearance on Instagram and Pinterest boards, helping to expand the chain’s visibility in the marketplace.lowresTGExterior-Taylor-GourmetThe external design of Taylor Gourmet works to draw interest from the street.


With fast casuals, Grupo7 pays even closer attention to the flow of the space. “Chipotle definitely developed something brilliant and very efficient where you have customers walking with the food and not standing around,” says Cronenberg. “But the challenge for startups and those who don’t precook anything is that customers have an expectation for speed, but in reality, there is some wait time, so you have to manage that.”

To manage standing crowds, he’ll position the self-serve beverage and condiments station at the end of the line where customers can congregate while waiting for their food. But in doing so, he makes sure to allow enough segregation and space between this station and the seating area so customers don’t stand over tables where customers are enjoying their meals. In cases with longer ticket times, table runners might make more sense, and it’s easier for customers to justify the wait because of the lowresTGInterior-Taylor-GourmetThe light configuration built from drywall made many appearances on Instagram and Pinterest boards.stepped-up service.


With modern fast-casual restaurants, it’s important to keep the story of the food and concept alive throughout the space, and thoughtful design can help. “If you order and walk away, you still have to communicate messages about the food and talk about the freshness of the experience,” Cronenberg says. An open kitchen can support that by allowing customers to see staff making their food, but so can other design elements.

For example, Mamoun’s Falafel,  showcases its various pickled and housemade items in jars on shelves that are on display prominently throughout the space. This reinforces to customers the brand’s promising of making most of the food from scratch.

Fast casuals housed in food courts or halls usually find their operations tucked between other restaurants or businesses and that can make the challenge of promoting their promise of freshness even greater. At Mezeh Mediterranean Grill, a large prep table showing all the food preparation at work helps express the story of freshness and made-from-scratch items.

The other part of the story to tell is the history and culture of the brand, Cronenberg says. “In urban markets, there is a completely understandable aversion to any chain restaurant coming in so the challenge for them is how do you tell the story of their history and make that part of the visual language,” he says.

Mamoun’s started as an institution in New York, so locations in New Jersey and Connecticut feature interior design details that harken back to the chain’s roots in the city, from a custom wallpaper mural showing different old photographs of the family owners in the 1970s to material cues like steel and hand-painted tiles to represent the Subway structure of Manhattan. At the same time, colorful textiles from Syria, Middle Eastern lamps and arches hint at the immigrant story of the father and founder who came to New York from Syria through Spain.


In fast-casual restaurants, just as in any restaurant these days, “lighting is super important and often under-considered,” Cronenberg says. Rather than simply blanketing the space with lighting, he prefers to add dramatic accents in the form of spotlights and different fixtures to thoughtfully shed light on different areas of the restaurant.

At Taylor Gourmet, a large, 50-gallon oil drum hangs from the ceiling with lights pointing upward and downward and other directional lights at the tables, hitting in the right places.

Natural light is a “bonus,” Cronenberg says, but at one Taylor Gourmet store in Virginia there was almost too much sunlight during the day. The team added a custom-made, wood slat system along the windows to screen out some of the light and create more mood rather than letting the sunlight wash out the space.

Cronenberg’s work shows just how intricate a role thoughtful design plays in today’s modern fast-casual restaurants.