When it comes to restaurant design, doing it sustainably and saving money do not always go hand in hand. Insulating a building to minimise heat loss, energy saving technologies and doing things ‘properly’ all cost money.

If you ignore the question of sustainability completely, it is perfectly possible to make a much cheaper fitout - but there are hidden costs to this approach.


To make a comparison with eggs, some would say organic, free range egs are expensive - but really this is a matter of perception. Actually, caged, non-organic eggs are artificially cheap. And this is only in a financial sense, because they have a higher cost to animal welfare and the ecosystem.

Similarly, inexpensive interior design solutions have unseen consequences. Non-FSC plywood is cheaper, but it is not being sourced from sustainably managed forests.

So, if you do not want to cut corners on sustainability, is there still an opportunity to reduce cost? Yes, and it is one that has only increased as a result of the pandemic; taking over already fitted out units.

The opportunity and approach required

Shrewd operators have long known if they can work with much of what they find, it will save substantially on fitout costs.

For many people though, this is seen as a compromise and it is better for everything to be thrown out and started from scratch to meet the vision of a new restaurant. But this does not need to be the case and nor should it be if we genuinely want to pursue an agenda of sustainability.

The first stage of any project should involve auditing the site to see what can be kept, retaining as much as possible, whilst delivering a good operational layout and excellent customer experience.

It will not be right to keep everything, but those elements not required can be taken away and recycled, and charities and scrap dealers can form part of the solution. We need to avoid landfill and incineration.

How much can you save?

In our experience it is possible to save 50% of the fit-out cost. If really closely aligned operationally, you may even be able to save up to 80%.

We worked on a coffee shop for the Real Eating Company recently on Kings Road, which previously traded as an EAT. The operational alignment was so close the fit-out cost was only 15-20% of what it would have been to fully fit out the space from scratch. The fact 90% of the previous fit-out was retained, and new elements lent heavily towards second-hand furniture and reclaimed materials, meant the carbon footprint was much lower than it would otherwise.

real eating co 1

Things to watch out for

There are some very important things you should keep in mind when taking this design approach, and three major pitfalls to be avoided.

1 – Don’t compromise your brand DNA

You must not compromise your new concept’s chances of succeeding through the retention of what you have inherited. Your brand values, look and feel and offer have to shine through so your staff and customers get the best version of what you do. As with all design, there is art and science involved in this. You need to understand what aspects of the fit-out will have the largest effect on the customer experience.

2 – Customers will notice how much effort you put in

How much money you spend on a fit-out is actually a red herring, this is not what most customers respond to (high end, status driven concepts aside). What people warm to and reward is how much effort you put in. Everything you do will give off signals to your customers and subconsciously tell them whether you are doing something selflessly or selfishly.

The new design cannot feel like the old restaurant. If it does, this gives off the signal you are trying to do just enough to win someone’s business. Most customers have a very sophisticated, subconscious understanding of this, even though they probably wouldn’t be able to articulate it. Doing seemingly unnecessary things is actually very necessary.

real eating co 2

3 – Associations with the previous operator

There is no guarantee that customers will pay attention to the things you want them to. One chicken wing concept told me about a pop-up site in Clerkenwell they took on last year. The previous operator was also a chicken concept, and many people would order food from the previous shop’s menu - despite the completely different look, feel and brand.

Yet the shopfront door, counter and menu were all in the same position, so the physical experience was so familiar, there was nothing to knock customers out of auto-pilot.

You may not want to move the counter or alter the shopfront but be sure to think about what you can do to encourage people to physically notice that something has changed.

  • · David Chenery, is the founder and director of sustainable hospitality design agency Object Space Place. To read more about his company’s Restorative Design Framework, visit here