Tim Mutton, founder of specialist F&B design agency Blacksheep, discusses his concerns that rapid rollout programmes have led many brands to mimic the look and feel of competitors. He asks why the sector has not kept up with the relentless pace of innovation in areas such as technology and argues that the successful operators will be the ones with the courage to do things differently.

One of the big problems with restaurant design today – particularly following the casual dining gold rush – is that it has ended up being a ubiquitous industry. There is a tendency for operators to mimic what others are doing, if those operators are doing well, in the hope that some of their success will rub off on them. It is why we ended up with Tolix chairs everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether it is Giraffe, Jamie’s or Leon, they are all starting to merge into one, which is dangerous because ultimately it narrows customers’ perspective about choice. There is a different name above the door, and the food is a little bit different, but the overall experience is very much the same.

One of the reasons I think this has happened is because there has been too much focus on target openings. Many operators have seen venture capitalist money come flooding in, and everything is geared around how many units they can do in a year and maintaining a safe status quo while the focus on experience is forgotten or diluted.

While there is a great level of satisfaction that can be gained from expanding, compromises often end up being made. Operators start taking poor sites, and the tail end is overlooked or not moved on at the same pace. And often, eventually, lopped off. Brands need to think about where they take the experience next, or whether they should be thinking about their scalability in a different way. There are many aspects to consider and it can sometimes take a bit of courage to address them.

We are going through one of the most disruptive periods in the restaurant industry right now, therefore, restaurant leaders need to rethink innovation when it comes to the eating out experience. Guests of today are much more discerning, looking for more curiosity, purpose, fulfilment, authenticity and entertainment. When you look at other industries, particularly tech, we have become conditioned to expect greatly improved upgrades at breakneck speed. So why not in hospitality?

Admittedly it is always more difficult when things are a bit tough to take a risk and innovate. It can be stressful, and you may have unforgiving investors or owners who are not willing to support you, but I think you have to just for go it in some respects. Over time, if you can get some of the measurables right, like designing the menu in a more effective way – something that actually improves things from a sales perspective – you can start building trust. You can never advance as a brand if you can’t take a risk as there is no way for you to measure whether changing things up is going to improve things or not, and I have certainly learned more out of some of the things that haven’t worked, than those that have.

Several years ago, we worked with David Campbell (CEO at the time) on the Kaizen project at Wagamama. We were design auditing where user experience compromises were being made and there were some really simple things that came out of it that could have really kyboshed the progress of the brand. For example, backs had been put on the communal benches, because there have been a few guest complaints from people whose kids had fallen off; but when you have a brand reacting to things like that, it can end up killing the overall experience. It didn’t hark back to what the brand was all about, which is efficiency, and also value, and it made the process of developing and putting stores in more expensive and over-complicated.

We ended up having to re-educate the brand about how the slightest reactionary compromise could detrimentally affect the power of the brand. Having completed the design audit, we went on to create a completely new experience store, which became the next generation Wagamama. It included pulling the kitchens visibly into the front of the restaurants to reinforce the value of freshness and transparency. These decisions were incorporated with all other design improvements that comprised uniforms, plate-ware, menus and even food photography.

When you have leadership, marketing, property and operations all working together to make innovative design decisions you manage the business forward in a more cohesive, collaborative and powerful way that ultimately improves the guest experience.

Don’t compromise on time

The aspect most often compromised when it comes to design is time. We have many operators call to say that have secured a site, and want you to get started on the project almost instantaneously, and we have to tell to them that, in all honesty, we can’t do that. However not all designers will do this. Some want to leap straight into the task being presented to them.

The idea that you kick off a design project just to get it done so that the site can open isn’t very commercially strategic. But because operators are often governed by everything having to be finished within a rent-free period, or because they are contractually bound by the landlord to complete the project within a certain time frame, this can mean that everything we do from a design perspective is compromised. If I had any advice it would be to take a step back and approach the design strategy for the brand and a new site earlier on in the process if possible.

And while few operators have unlimited resources from which to fund the design of a new restaurant, it is still important not to cut corners – this doesn’t necessarily mean making things more complex.

I always remember Mark Derry at Brasserie Bar Co saying to me that you can never build a restaurant for less than £1m. That is a lot of money, but I now have conversations with brands who just don’t want to spend anywhere near that. It means we have to reduce things, and we are making our restaurants smaller, which is changing the general landscape of property and dining experiences.

There are so many other areas where brands could be saving money. When it comes to their marketing material, for example. In-house marketing departments produce a plethora of brochures and leaflets and bombard their guests. The worst time for this is in the run up to Christmas. We really don’t think you need all that stuff – guests are generally pretty digitally savvy. You need to be more sustainable in your thought process and assess whether all that material is going to be read, and whether it is going to be appreciated, or make a difference.

One of our favourite things to do when attending a meeting with a brand’s marketing department, is, having collected as much of this stuff as we can find over the past few months, lay it all out on the table to demonstrate how much has been produced. They are often gobsmacked. It’s a bit like looking at plastic waste washed up on the beach. Operators should be asking themselves, is it necessary, and have you improved anything in the last three months by producing all this material?

What is important is that as much thought is given to the design of your digital space, as your physical space. It is absolutely paramount. Businesses think that once they have created a website and spent a bit of money on it that they can leave it for the next three or four years. Or some websites are so complex, with many more layers than is necessary. Sometimes less is more.

It is also important that the tone of voice you use online matches the overall brand experience you get when you go into a restaurant. These things are really important, but operators tend to forget that. How do we communicate? What are our values? What are we trying to say about ourselves or how are we differentiating ourselves? These all need to be taken into consideration. We consider all aspects of design (interiors, brand, graphics, digital) as powerful communication tools that need to be cohesive. Unless these are strategically aligned with your brand, you could be operating in mute or just adding confusion to your brand message.