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5 Most Overlooked Foodservice Design Details

Fresh thoughts on how to improve the overall guest experience.

Bill Bender, FCSI, founder and principal at W.H. Bender & Associates.Bill Bender, FCSI, founder and principal at W.H. Bender & Associates.Research shows today’s consumers crave that true hospitality experience when they dine out, much like we enjoyed pre-pandemic. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2024 State of the Industry report released in February, the majority of consumers (64%) still prefer traditional service experiences versus high tech-enabled ones at sit-down restaurants.

One might argue that any detractions from said experiences could heavily impact whether diners come back. That’s how Bill Bender, FCSI, founder and principal at W.H. Bender & Associates, sees it. “Service is still so important, and it seems sometimes that younger generations are having trouble delivering that service,” he says.

Of course training plays a huge part in a foodservice operation’s ability to provide service at a high level, but design can also play a significant role in facilitating a path to great service or making it a more challenging one to travel. “Design can really make or break an operation,” says Bender. With rising inflation costs, consumers are very particular about where and when they spend their money — and restaurants are at the forefront of that. “Even if you design a beautiful kitchen and space, if these other things are not thought through, it won’t bring customers back and the project will ultimately fail,” he says.

Good operations, Bender suggests, have a clear tie-in to good design. Going above kitchen design, here are some other, lesser-though-about areas of design that have a significant impact on the whole picture.

1. Entryways and Host Stands

First impressions are huge. “The guest sequence of service starts when someone walks through the front door,” says Bender. “When you walk in, where the host stand is positioned and how you’re greeted is so important.”

If you’re getting really detailed, everything actually starts with the facade and exterior elements of the restaurant or operation. “It’s important to consider exteriors and entryways; landscaping and how you lay out that entry is critical,” Bender says, noting that when he visited a restaurant recently, there was a lot of rain, and everyone came in with umbrellas and nowhere to put those. “To be fair, this was in Phoenix where there’s not a lot of rain and it’s more important to have shade and misters, but it’s important to think through every contingency like this to add to the guest experience.”

2. Steps to Service Points

Front-of-the-house ergonomics are just as important as back-of-the-house ones. Just like operators don’t want to have cooks bending over too-low prep tables and having back problems that interfere with their work, they also don’t want servers taking more steps or literally dodging tables and other obstacles just to do their jobs.

“It really impacts the employee morale — the less steps, the better service they deliver, the happier the customer and the happier the team members,” Bender says. He makes it a point to do a walk-through as servers or other front-of-the-house staff might, calculating how many steps it takes to travel from the host stand to the tables and from the tables to the service/POS stations.

Even as more restaurants provide servers with handheld tablets to take orders, designers still have to consider their movement to beverage and server stations and to the kitchen and back.

3. Consider Sight Lines

From fine dining to fast casual, sight lines are everything in those operations that strive to offer a good on-premises dining experience.

“Every designer should sit down at every single table and look around,” Bender says. “You don’t want to see a bus station full of dirty dishes or a beverage station that’s unkempt and unorganized. Who wants to sit and see that for an hour or however long? Even at a fast-casual restaurant, you can’t have that. Sight lines are crucial to creating a great environment and add to the overall guest experience.”

Take, for example, counter service at fast-casual operations — designers should consider what guests see as they walk up to place their orders. “Are they seeing a dirty, unorganized countertop beyond the register?” Designing counters with a lot of smooth, connected surfaces and no grooves or nooks can help staff keep and showcase a clean appearance.

When it comes to self-serve beverage stations, operators need to constantly maintain these spaces or they risk suggesting a dirty, unsafe environment, Bender adds. “That’s why I’m seeing more [operators] actually getting away from self-service beverage because they don’t want all these touch points getting contaminated.”

4. Don’t Forget the Restrooms

Many designers enjoy flexing their creativity when designing restrooms, but that’s not always the case. “These are places that tell you how good and clean the operation is,” Bender says, aside from host and service stations. Anything otherwise “suggests they’re not taking care of sanitation and hygiene, and that’s a huge warning sign to customers.”

Automated faucets and dispensers can help send a message of sanitary conditions, as can the use of hand dryers versus paper towels. “But what happens when you put the hand dryer on the other side of the room opposite the sink?” Bender points out. “Then you’re walking across the tile with wet hands and the floor is all wet now and someone can come in and slip or just see water all over the place.” These are the little details often forgotten about.

5. Create Lasting Impressions

Not every restaurant or operator has the space to do this but, when possible, Bender suggests carving out space for retail or other merchandise and branding for when guests leave.

“You don’t have to create a whole retail store, but you could have a small area with cookbooks, wearables and other opportunities for some branding,” Bender says. “Even just a couple hundred square feet devoted to a space like this near the entry or exit can have lasting effects and introduce another revenue opportunity,” he notes. Better yet, if a staff member is in or near the area, that’s just another opportunity to thank guests for coming in and wish them well on their way out. “I went to a beautiful, top-of-the-line steak house the other day with my family for a birthday and we had a huge group and ordered quite a bit, but no one bothered to say, ‘thank you so much for coming in,’ or anything like that on our way out,” he says. “No one said anything. After a nice night, that was what we were left with.”

Delivering great hospitality remains at the core of the restaurant and foodservice industry. “None of our work as consultants matters if the guest experience isn’t there,” Bender says. “We’re not just there to be salespeople or put in equipment or teach operators how to do something with AI. We still have to consider hospitality and look at service as an art form.”