How to Build and Design a Restaurant

Building a restaurant gives you a blank canvas to construct and design the restaurant of your dreams. Here is a step-by-step guide to restaurant construction.

“I wish I would have known that before I started…” is all too common a phrase with restaurateurs, particularly those who are designing or building their first restaurant.

There’s a lot that goes into restaurant construction – from charming investors to finding and hiring restaurant contractors– and restaurateurs' minds are expected to be in a million places at once.

When it comes to building and designing a memorable restaurant concept, there are lots of different restaurant designers, contractors, consultants, and specialists that will all contribute. 

There are timelines to consider, lots of stakeholders, and best practices for restaurant construction. We’ll walk through the main considerations for building a restaurant, incorporating strategies to build and design a beautiful, inclusive space for your future patrons.

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How Do You Build a Restaurant?

Restaurants have their own set of rules and regulations that vary from residential or other commercial spaces. Restaurant construction requires a deep understanding of all applicable codes, including building, accessibility, and egress.

When starting out a restaurant construction project, you’ll need to consider the following:

  • Who will your restaurant construction team be?

  • What is your restaurant construction timeline?

  • Where will you build your restaurant?

  • How will you pay for your new restaurant?

  • Will you lease or buy your new space?

  • Are there any permits you need to open your restaurant?

  • What are the local regulations or building codes for restaurants in your area?

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to restaurant design and construction; how’re you supposed to know what you don’t already know? 

Restaurant Construction Cautions + Advice

When you set out to build a restaurant, you’ll be investing all of your time and effort, (and blood, sweat, and tears) into the project. Here are some major challenges that can be avoided with the right preparation and planning. 

  • Get a few different quotes and opinions on restaurant contractors or construction companies, it may save you money and it will give you a sense for industry standards

  • Follow all health, building, or any regulatory codes — we can’t stress this enough — cutting corners will not pay off (think: fines, lawsuits, and the like)

  • Think ahead: how will your decisions in restaurant construction and design work during different seasons? What if you become really popular and have crowds? Experienced restaurant construction companies are familiar with these challenges and considerations and can help you mitigate future issues

  • Create a timeline with the understanding that it probably won’t be exactly right. Construction in general isn’t a perfect science, and building a restaurant requires many different teams and stakeholders, so give yourself a cushion for your launch date and be prepared to make changes

How long does it take to build a restaurant?

Like we said before, building a restaurant that is up to code and embodies your vision can take time. Depending on the type of restaurant, the timelines will look different as well. Building a restaurant construction schedule should factor in your various teams of engineers, contractors, specialists, and designers as well as your budget and resources.

Projects A to Z estimates that building a new restaurant typically takes about four to six months from start to finish. They mention that on average, quick service restaurant construction takes about 12 weeks, while fast-casual or full-service restaurants can take about four months to build.

Now that you’ve thought through some of the specifics of restaurant building, here are 7 steps to  transform your restaurant vision from dream to reality.

Restaurant Construction Checklist

  1. Find a specialized restaurant construction team or restaurant contractor

  2. Pick the right location with a combination of adequate space, foot traffic, physical location and accessibility, and utilities

  3. Review available utilities and services like electrical power, water, waste, and more

  4. Read the lease and review it with your restaurant construction teams and a real estate lawyer

  5. Follow building and regulatory codes

  6. Choose the right equipment layout for efficiency and consult with restaurant design and construction experts

  7. Create a design that suits your restaurant type and factor in your specific customer needs

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1.  Find a Specialized Restaurant Construction Team

According to Cornell University, 26.16% of restaurants fail within the first year of opening. 

It doesn’t get too much better in the years following: the second-year failure rate for restaurants is 19.23% and the third-year failure rate is 14.35%.

How can you avoid becoming a part of the 26, 19, or 14 percent? It begins with assembling the best team possible to physically build your restaurant.

The diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise each member of your design and construction team brings to the table will help you execute on every aspect involved in creating a successful restaurant, from the moment the first shovel strikes the ground.

In addition to a top notch restaurant construction team a restaurant architect can also be a great project manager. As your project develops, you may need to loop in specialized consultants and designers to assist you and your team. 

What Is A Restaurant Architect?

A restaurant architect’s main role is to create a set of documents that shows the design intent, – how your restaurant concept should be built – according to all applicable codes, including building, accessibility, and egress.

Restaurant architects work through every phase of the restaurant construction process. From initial conception through completion of construction, a restaurant architect should be one of the first people you bring onboard your team.

A restaurant architect interacts closely with every vendor and consultant on the team – construction or not – throughout the life of the project; a restaurant architect is the only one who can provide the design perspective across a range of categories, make recommendations, and even suggest specific consultants or vendors that you, the restaurateur, aren’t even aware of.

When looking to create the ultimate design team, the following are some you may add along with your architect, engineers and general contractor:

  • Commercial Kitchen Consultant - a Commercial Kitchen Consultant designs, and assists in the implementation of all the equipment in your restaurant's kitchen

  • Interior Designer -an interior designer will help you bring the vision you have for your restaurant's design to life; they're especially adept at weighing out a restaurateurs wants and what customers want

  • Commercial Furniture Vendor - Commercial Furniture Vendors, consults on which furniture is best for your restaurant concept and implements your agreed upon design

  • Lighting Consultant - a commercial lighting consultant helps you decide and design which restaurant lighting is best for your space.

  • Acoustical Consultant - an acoustical consultant specializes in installing acoustical ceilings, walls, and the like to make sound travel best in your space

  • Millworker - Different from a carpenter or contractor, a millworker specializes in designing and installing any wood products that come from a mill – doors, molding, trim, wood paneling, crown molding, etc.

  • Graphic Designer - a Graphic Designer will create all of the design assets you need to market your restaurant, including your logo, promotional materials, content for your social channels, and the like

  • Web Developer - a Web Developer will consult on, design, and code your website.

Though some of these consultants may never interact with each other, they will work together using their understanding of your vision to create a unified and cohesive concept and design.

2. Pick The Perfect Location

With rent prices what they are these days, you better understand the building, the site, and the neighborhood before you make the hefty investment.

There are many factors that go into selection of a space: the address, the area around the location, the building’s aesthetics, the space’s size and shape, etc.

restaurant designChoose the Right Location for Your New Restaurant

You may fall in love with a space because of its tall ceilings, natural light, and adjacency to a university and public transportation, but what if the space has no provisions to exhaust the hood from your cook line?

Some concepts may thrive in a dense urban area where local workers and students walk over for lunch, yet the same concept would fail as a pad site at a suburban mall. 

3. Review Available Utilities & Services

Does the building have sufficient utilities to run the equipment you need for your restaurant concept?

Once an engineer is hired they can calculate and engineer the exact utility requirements your restaurant concept will need to be successful; this doesn’t help you, though, while you are still looking at a space and trying to evaluate whether it will be suitable for your restaurant.

In the early planning stages, your restaurant construction teamwork closely with engineers to review their sketches and plans and have a sense of what your restaurant will need to operate successfully, helping you and the restaurant architect make informed decisions when considering potential sites and locations.

When touring locations, find out about the size and location of each of the utilities. Some of the items to look at are:

  • Electrical Power

  • Water

  • Sanitary and Grease Waste

  • Gas Service

  • HVAC

  • Hood ducting, venting, make up air

  • Fire Alarm System 

  • Sprinkler System

It is crucial to understand upfront what your restaurant concept’s utility requirements are, whether the space you’re considering has all of it, and if not, who is paying to bring it to the space. 

If any utilities needed to run your business – electric, sewage, water, etc. – are not present when you sign the lease and are required to be brought to the tenant space, a landlord will sometimes pay for it or cover a portion of the costs if the utility in question could be useful for future tenants. 

Typically any distribution or addition of services – like WiFi, cable, etc. – within the tenant space would be covered by the tenant, as these additions will be unique to your layout and you are the one modifying the space.

restaurant floorplan designConsider Restaurant Layout and Utilities/Services

Once you decide on a location, your restaurant construction team will use the engineer’s insights to compile a list of missing, necessary utilities and put a plan together to make them a reality.

4. Read the Lease

Like architects, lawyers have different specialties, sometimes even specialties within a specialty. Such is the case with real estate lawyers.

Have a real estate lawyer review the lease and run through it with your restaurant construction team or restaurant general contractor. They may identify ways in which your lease can affect your day to day restaurant operations, or have suggestions for ways that design could be impacted by your restaurant design plans.

For example, within your lease there should be the following two exhibits: a lease outline drawing (LOD) and a work letter.

A lease outline drawing is a mapped out floor plan of the space and will show the “lease line;” the lease line determines your leasable square footage, which is what your rent should be calculated on. Having a lease outline drawing will also help you anticipate any zoning or licensing laws you may come up against when building your restaurant. 

The work letter is a written statement that is signed by both the landlord and the tenant detailing the issues related to the fit-out of a tenant’s space. The Watchdog, a popular real-estate project management resource site, defines a work letter as,

“... a written statement that is signed by both the landlord and the tenant detailing the issues related to the fit-out of a tenant’s space. It will define the building’s standards and break down details such as the number of light fixtures, doors, the size of partitions and all other interior elements that the landlord will install for a tenant. The work letter may come as a separate letter or it is sometimes an exhibit to the lease. Typically, the lease is signed before all items on the work letter are negotiated and agreed to.” 

Review your lease thoroughly, looking specifically for line items that could hinder production or progress, and will make suggestions for any addendum that maximizes what you're allowed to do within your space.

5. Follow Building Codes

You don’t want to mess around or skirt building codes, especially egress codes and accessibility codes.

Egress codes outline how many ‘means of egress’ – ways of exiting – a building must have for those inside to use in the event of a fire. There need to be a certain number of means of egress in a room, which is based on the room’s square footage; these means of egress will also need to be a specific size, based on the room’s dimensions.

The state egress codes are for commercial spaces are e different than residential egress codes, so be sure to consult with a restaurant building expert to make sure you’re up to code.

Accessibility codes are the requirements a space must fulfill to be considered wheelchair compliant; examples include installing a ramp adjacent to any customer-facing stairs, making hallways a certain width, and ensuring flooring materials don’t impede wheelchair wheels.

Seriously, don’t cut corners when it comes to building codes – it could cost you some BIG bucks.

Here’s an example: “If can we squeeze that corridor down to three feet wide and reduce the restrooms to six feet by six feet, we can gain some extra space for the kitchen and seating.”

follow building codes when designing a restaurantFollow Building Codes When Designing Your Restaurant

Sure, sounds easy enough, who will know? Here’s what could go wrong: two years down the road, you’re being sued for discrimination by a patron who is physically challenged and can’t make it down the hallway to the restroom. Kiss your beautiful business goodbye.

There is real danger in skirting building codes. A restaurant construction expert will be able to assist in making sure you meet and exceed standards, helping you to avoid future loss.

6. Choose the Right Equipment Layout

Operational efficiency isn’t the only factor to weigh when visualizing and planning your kitchen equipment layout.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg scenario between kitchen layout – covered by your kitchen equipment vendor– and the balance of the design of the layout, which can be accomplished by a restaurant architect or designer. You have an open space, who designs first?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, so long as your kitchen equipment vendor and restaurant architect are coordinating and communicating openly.

There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen when designing and building a restaurant; fostering an open and frequent dialog will create the perfect balance between your various vendors and your restaurant architect, ensuring the many moving parts will stay true to the original vision you had for your restaurant. 

Here’s an example: you work with a kitchen equipment company to come up with the perfect layout, then they hand it over to your restaurant architect or restaurant construction team.

As the potential layout stands, the different kitchen stations and their proximity to prep, storage, and warewashing may be ideal, but your restaurant architect points out that the BOH still needs a manager’s office, employee lockers, and space for a water heater. They also find that the layout has noncompliant dead ends and egress paths that are too narrow.

Back to the drawing board? No way. Leaning on the kitchen equipment vendor’s expertise and the restaurant architect’s expertise, together you’ll be able to create a layout that meets every requirement in the book, from all corners of the business.

To find the perfect balanced layout, an open and frequent dialogue is key.

 7. Create A Design That Suits Your Restaurant Type

Here’s a multiple choice question. Is your restaurant a:

  • A) Fast Casual Restaurant

  • B) Quick Service Restaurant

  • C) Fine Dining Establishment

  • D) Other

Your restaurant type will greatly affect your restaurant design. There are design features inherent and unique to a fast casual restaurant versus a quick service restaurant versus a full-service restaurant, causing the layouts to be drastically different.

design for your restaurant typeDesign For Your Restaurant Type

Fast casual restaurants should be designed to promote a natural revolve customer flow. Create a space where your customers will naturally progress from the door, to the service counter, down the service line as their order is completed, then on to payment, to beverages and seating.

Quick service restaurants – or QSRs – can operate with a smaller footprint overall, which drastically reduces restaurant real-estate overhead. When designing a quick service restaurant, you’ll need to create a kitchen layout that maximizes the amount of kitchen equipment you can fit within a smaller amount of square footage. You’ll likewise need to do the same for the customer-facing seating area: most amount of seats in the smallest area possible, without feeling cramped.

Full service restaurants do not have a service counter or an area where the service line forms; the floor plan in a full service restaurant devotes the majority of the space to customer seating with server stations placed in close proximity. Prominent walkways should run throughout the floor plan – including to and from the kitchen – so servers can quickly and easily run food and drinks to their tables.

Create a floor plan that’s suitable for your restaurant type. Ask yourself: “When someone enters my restaurant, what’s the first action I want them to take? Where’s the first place I want them to go?” Design and construct your space in such a way that your customers will naturally flow through the different points of service in your restaurant.

If You Build It, They Will Come

The entire restaurant design and construction process can be long and arduous, but having the right team in place will make the experience of watching your vision come to life unforgettable.

Though you may be the brains behind the operation, the most important thing is to understand that you can’t do it all when creating a restaurant.

Rome wasn’t built and designed by one person, nor was Gramercy Tavern, Jaleo, or Toro; it takes a village.

Do your research, talk to people in the industry, find the restaurant construction team that  is right for you and your project, trust in your team, and you’ll put your restaurant in the best position to succeed before it even opens.

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