At some point in recent years, restaurant trends started being driven by consumers rather than big city food critics. Most experts point to the emergence of reality TV on specialty channels and the information-abundant Internet as the drivers, enabling a more sophisticated consumer.
Notably, these trends have extended beyond the menu and into every facet of the dining experience — from the technology to the kitchen design. Consequently, an open kitchen design has become commonplace.
Open kitchens have always been a part of the industry, just mostly in pizzerias and small urban establishments that didn't have the space to support a back of the house. Now, they are a focal point in many brands' remodeling strategies.
"Open kitchen designs are here to stay. They have functional attributes that reassure customers why they're there. There is a lot of competition now and businesses have to stay top of mind. When you make dining out an event, it builds this experience and it heightens that brand and makes it more memorable," said Richard Dirstein, EVP of Design & Innovation and Principal at design and branding firm Shikatani Lacroix. "The kitchen is now part of all that. It is part of the differentiator."
This explains why even major brands are jumping on board. Domino's, for example, just mandated all of its stores be in the new store prototype by 2017. A focal point of that new design is the open kitchen, or "pizza theater," as the brand calls it.
White Castle is also testing a new prototype with an open kitchen. Shawna Jones, the chain's regional director, recently told the Louisville Courier-Journal that this glimpse into the food prep process provides "a show" for the customers.
KFC's fast casual spinoff, KFC eleven, comes with a kitchen view, and other fast casual brands, such as Bruegger's Bagels, Rubio's and Luna Grill are embracing the design as well. And, as Wendy's increases the footprint of its new restaurant model, it is touting the partial exposure to the kitchen as a major element.
In addition to creating a "dining experience," or differentiator, consumers are also craving more information about the food they're eating, even at the drive-thru.
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"It sends an important message if a brand can elevate and highlight their prep or ingredient stories. Consumers are empowered now, they want to know how this is being cooked, who is cooking it. They want to see the freshness and quality of your ingredients, the health and safety steps you're taking," Dirstein said. "They're consuming this food. They want a comfort level."
Domino's CMO Russel Weiner said at the company's recent Analyst Day that the new prototype is consistent with the company's objective of being more transparent.
"The consumer comes first. The new store talks about the brand — you can watch the pizza being made, you can see that we have fresh dough. It's fun," he said.
Transparency was also a driver in Papa Murphy's recently introduced prototype, designed by Tesser.
"We call it 'nothing to hide.' We wanted to move everything to the front of the house and say 'we're making dough. It's messy, but it's cooking.' We want to show customers the ingredients and reinforce freshness and quality. I think it provides a better connection with them," said Tre Musco, chief creative director at Tesser.
Musco said the open kitchen trend has had such a strong foothold, his company started using the phrase "middle of the house."
"People want to see stuff happening, not just nice pictures of your food. The 'middle of the house' is more important than ever. If you can get it right, people are going to believe you and your brand stories," he said.
Such a buy-in makes the remodeling investment worth it, even for concepts that get most of their business from drive-thru traffic, Dirstein said.
"Restaurants should be appealing to many demographics, not just those doing business at the drive-thru or ordering ahead. This will give customers more of a choice on how they want to interact with your brand on any given day. It's about being flexible," Dirstein said.
And dine-in checks tend to be a bit higher, experts agree. The longer customers hang around, the more they're likely to order (or go back and order). A fresh, open design encourages more business, too, Dirstein said.
"It's not only an invigorating space, but it expands options for those using it. So they're not just going to quickly order a coffee, but they're going to order a coffee and a sandwich. It's more meaningful to them," he said.
For measure, having the ability to watch food prep makes it seem as though the wait time is shorter.
The trend leader – fast casual
While more sophisticated consumers demand more transparency, fast casual concepts have been quick to adopt the design elements.
"There hasn't been much restaurant redesign in the previous 15 years and now it's big and everyone is doing it. Fast casual has led this, and has proved that customers want more than just food, they want the whole experience," Musco said.
Chipotle's assembly-line ordering setup (and the variety of pizza concepts that have adopted the same format) was borne from this trend, and quick-service and every other segment are quickly catching up, Dirstein said.
"The market is becoming very crowded and a lot of brands are trying to be all things to all people. Tackling market share with a better bricks-and-mortar brand experience is a good way to compete," he said. "The gauntlet has been thrown down by the consumer.
"There is a major opportunity for restaurants to prove what they believe in and to take down their walls and say 'we have nothing to hide.'"