Ah, But Underneath

Since 2003, McDonald’s has been on a mission to win back customers. It has spruced up its dowdy stores, expanded a predictable menu, and delivered a catchy ad campaign –  parapapapa. The result? Shares are hovering at an all-time high – during a period when the global economy is flirting with the possibility of another recession.

But the start of 2012 has not gone well for the Illinois-based company. A botched social media campaign ended up with the hashtag McFail. And this week, McDonald’s announced it would remove ammonium hydroxide or “pink slime” from its recipes in the U.S. It’s a victory for the company’s critics and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who lobbied for its removal.

Oliver has praised the U.K-arm of McDonald’s which uses free-range eggs and organic dairy in some items.  The U.K. business operates on a different business model than it’s U.S. counterpart. Come to think of it, most countries where McDonald’s does business operate on a different platform. Japan. India. Germany. Australia. NPR wrote a perfect and so aptly titled piece – “Why McDonald’s In France Doesn’t Feel Like Fast Food.” Gee golly, I wonder why? Well, ladies and gentlemen, the key element between markets are the consumers and their expectations.

As Americans, we tend to play catch-up with the rest of the world on some critical issues. But society is often a reflection of itself and what we expect. For the last decade, our standards have been in the gutter when it comes to food quality. We want food to be fast and cheap – no questions asked. Didn’t I say no questions? I said no questions. Period. But slow change is arriving in the form of fast-casual restaurants. The quintessential example of fast-casual is Chipotle. Fast-casual eateries offer better food and a more pleasant dining experience than fast-food, but are cheaper than full-fledged restaurants. This segment of the dining industry has grown at an astronomical rate. We can thank Chipotle for making us Yanks aspire to eating better quality food and thus offer to you this quote by CEO Steve Ells via Fast Casual – “The food culture in Europe is based on local, sustainable and artisanal foods, which are all core values of Chipotle and we have been instrumental in bringing this kind of thinking to fast food in the U.S.”

Photo Credit: Thaddeus Briner/Architectural Outfit

Chipotle Goes Minimal: Part II

Here’s part ii of my interview with Thaddeus Briner.

Is the new look being rolled out to older restaurants, and what qualifies a store for receiving a new look? (I know one or two in my area could do with a transformation).

Chipotle is currently building only ‘new designs’ from here on out, but we’ve yet to develop a strategy for retrofitting the old ones. I think as more of the older restaurants require more serious maintenance or restoration efforts, we’ll be able to develop a technique for doing this. Obviously it would be difficult to accommodate any serious construction on the stores, so many of them are doing so well, so we’ll need to be very surgical in how we go about it. Based on what we’re doing with the new trade dress, it will need to be more than just surface treatment.

Are there lessons to be learned from this project that other restaurants/chains should consider?

This is the first project like this that I’ve been lucky enough to work on, and has been the biggest one in my young office so far, and I must say it’s been a pretty fun ride. However, the old adage for architects “a good client begets a good project” certainly comes into play here. Chipotle has been very willing to discuss new ideas and challenge themselves  to accommodate a new design which is a big deal, (we’ve made some mistakes along the way, and we’re still getting there). After 17 years, there’s also a comfort level there that is difficult to peel away from understandably.

One thing that happened concurrent to working on our new trade dress design was that Chipotle re-vamped their logo by a company out of San Francisco called Sequence. It was redone by the same guy who did the first one on Evans Street,  and it’s now something more contemporary and more legible, and more readily transferable between different mediums and scales. It was probably helpful to have this roll out sooner than the trade dress, because customers had strong feelings about the old one,  and perhaps it softened them up a bit for what we’re doing. It was hard for a lot of people to let go with the old one,  but now everyone loves it.  

The support from their development crew has been essential, and they have a good, committed team of architects working for them as well, and they all seem ready for a change. Hopefully the new design, although perhaps streamlined in terms of the tools they had before, allows them to still have some fun, which I think is essential to maintain quality going forward.  

I also think what has helped us, and something I’d hope to bring to any other project like this, is to continually think about how the design supports the general principles of the company – and when you get stuck, or things seem to take on a life of their own, try as much as possible to refer back to these and test what you are doing against them. In Chipotle’s case this has been easier than others perhaps: ‘do a few good things and do them well’ is a fantastic inspiration for both us.

Photography: Courtesy of Thaddeus Briner/Architecture Outfit

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Chipotle Goes Minimal: Part I

Businesses competing against Chipotle have another reason for being jealous. The Colorado-based company has unveiled a new interior design that is sure to give the competition a run for it’s money. I caught up with Thaddeus Briner, the design wizard behind the new look, and asked him to share his experiences on the project that is sure to make waves in the restaurant design industry. Chipotle Dulles and Chipotle Verizon Center are currently sporting the new design.

How did you get involved in the Chipotle project? I believe you are good friend’s with the company’s CEO.

I’ve known Steve for about 12 years now. My father designed a house for him in Denver where they both lived at the time, and I got to know him a bit then. (As a young architect, I actually built a wood model of the house for some extra money.)

When Steve moved to NYC a few years ago, we reconnected and became friends. I was able to learn more about how he thinks about food, how much he loved making it, and how he sincerely thinks that his restaurants can change the way people think about the way they eat.   

He’s very articulate and persuasive if you get to talk to him about Chipotle, but the foods so good, in the end it doesn’t matter what he says! I think he likes it like that; where the medium is the message. It’s also one of those things where the ideas truly parallel the product – the food tastes great, and it’s very thoughtfully made. I also realized that he never stops wanting to makes things better. Although the menu is pretty short and hasn’t changed much at all since he started it, he’s constantly in the kitchen refining, tweaking, finding fresher, better ingredients. He’s never really satisfied.  

At that time there were several stores in New York City. Although the designs were by far the most striking of any ‘fast food’ type of chain around, it seemed that perhaps there were steps they could take to better align the very powerful ideas associated with the food – for instance: ‘do a few things and do them well’, with the design of the trade dress.

The atmosphere in a typical restaurant was usually quite vibrant, with whimsical uses of materials, lots of sparkly halogen lighting, and always reliably good music. The general design sensibility came from Steve’s first store on Evans Blvd in Denver, where he built and designed everything from scratch, from whatever he could find at Home Depot, and for $70,0000.

The sincerity of that first design is undeniable. However, when you’re building 100 plus restaurants a year, it’s hard to replicate that kind of thing and not have it be diluted by corporate budgets and schedules, and several different hands participating in the design – the ideas can stray and get perhaps a little muddled.  Having been able to not only better understand the food methodology, but also Steve’s aesthetic sensibility through the art and architecture he surrounds himself with, it seemed like there was room to maneuver.

I also know that Steve had been tinkering with ideas on how to push the design further for some time, and so when I showed some interest, his development team picked out a site in NYC and let me have a go at it. That one is on West 45th St. in New York.

How did you want the new restaurants to look, and differ from the old design?

Chipotle offers a great platform to dive off from in terms of thinking about how things ‘look’ ; they have a wonderfully simple product, they have a sense of humor but at the same time are also dead serious about not giving up quality in anything they do.

Funnily enough, regarding the older design, it seemed in some respects that the project was really about ‘undesigning’ the restaurants. The food they make is a perfect example of performance based design – all the parts of a burrito do something, (often times more than one thing….).

There are no extraneous decorations or non-functioning garnishes in a burrito or a taco… So we went about dissecting the restaurant into what we’ve been calling a ‘kit of parts’ : a set of design tools that can be used by the designers to solve the variety of different programmatic challenges, (meaning queuing, fast or slow seating, acoustics, etc….) that every new site has.  

We also knew it was imperative to keep the focus on the kitchen, where the real action is, so often the front of house will defer to that by being a bit more humble.

With this restrained design, you realize that there’s a slippery slope between ‘clear and restrained and ‘severe and sterile’; we obviously want to maintain the vibrancy and fun that many of the older restaurants had –  but perhaps just with less ‘moves’. The new look will I’m sure be seen by some as modern and perhaps too minimal, but the care we’re putting into the things we’re building, the effort at getting the lighting to be more intimate, the variety of spaces, all these things will hopefully work together to create comfortable spaces to eat in.

For instance with materials, we’re using a warmer, caramel colored A-C construction grade plywood, as opposed to the  pale, flatter, birch veneer), and a darker hot rolled steel, (as opposed to the galvanized corrugated metal), that even though is flat, still has a kind of lustrous depth to it. We’re trying to get as much ‘sparkle’ and texture as we can out of the perforations in the lighting fixtures and wood paneling, and the tile at the kitchens offers some texture and reflectivity as well. The components of the ‘kit’ are also used like big or small pieces of furniture in a room, so you often get  interesting and hopefully dramatic  spaces without having to do a whole lot to them, (Fulton Street for instance).

I should add that Chipotle obviously has a very strong ethic towards the environment as seen in their support of small farmers, their use of organically grown produce,  etc…and they had already begun to develop a culture committed towards  design sustainability.

This is something we’ve been able to participate in at a couple of different scales: On one level we’re doing this by just trying to ‘build more with less’: Chipotle doesn’t own any of the real estate that their restaurants are in, and all of this stuff will likely end up in a land fill somewhere. To that end, it’s better to just have less stuff in there, and stuff that can be recycled or will more easily degrade, (so for instance, no more galvanized corrugated metal), and things that are easily demolished and carted off. We’ve also been experimenting with recycled cotton panels for acoustic absorption and even recycled nylon carpet reconstituted into hard floor planks.

On the infrastructural side, by reducing the lighting loads with fluorescent and LED lamping, we’ve been able to dramatically cut the load requirements not only for power but also for mechanical systems. With this comes a reduction in maintenance hours, etc…We started out wanting to use fluorescent lights exclusively, (similar to most other ‘fast food’ establishments), but realized we needed to have more color rendition and accuracy on the food. The combination of these with the LEDs though works really well, and we have them throughout the restaurants, and we’re now at about 30% below Energy Code Requirements.

The old halogen lighting looked great, and made everything in there look warm and rosey, but it’s just not realistic to use that type of light fixture anymore. I think we’ve arrived at a good alternative though.

In addition to front of house trade dress, John Knight at Maverick Quisine has redesigned the kitchen to not only to get the action closer to the dining area, but also has reduced the power requirements by about 20% in equipment changes and reductions.  

In part II, Thaddeus shares his view on what lessons other restaurants can learn from this collaboration.

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