“We Need to Talk About Your Flair” — The Story of Chain Restaurant Design: Exteriors Edition

Few forms of design draw sneers from the chin-strokers of the architecture community like chain restaurant design. It’s mostly deserved, but a bit of irony is that few types of architecture inspire normal people to write about them like chain restaurant design. I’m always surprised by the amount of material on the web dedicated to this topic.

I found some notes from old design studies where I explored the landscape of chain restaurant design and thought it would be a good exercise to organize those notes into a (hopefully) coherent list of what I see as the main typologies. There’s a bit of history here, and the other thing is that chains are constantly evolving their designs if they aren’t tearing them up and starting over, so this is very much a reflection of a moment in time, though I think there will always be a half dozen or so principal design motifs for chains.

It’s important to understand that amongst restaurant chains there are leaders and followers. The leaders are at the top of their market segment and take the majority of the revenues, some of that trickles down to architectural R&D, which is notable because it explains how they’re able to set new design standards for the rest to follow — the followers just don’t have the budget to develop new design concepts like the leaders, so they’ll usually just copy. I’ll let you sort out who’s who as you move through this article, it’s pretty easy to see.

Origins

Let’s start with a brief history of restaurant chains — really brief, because I want to get into the present. Here in the US, the restaurant chain as we know it today began with White Castle in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas. I deeply admire the authenticity of White Castle’s original mission, which was to present a clean, safe, friendly burger joint at a time when Upton Sinclair scared the shit out of people by telling the truth about the meatpacking industry of the day. White Castle’s design responded to its founders wishes with a shiny, white, regal castle filled with stainless steel and white enameled steel paneling. It was an enormous contrast to the typical diner of that time and quickly became a huge success. When restauranteurs ask me what I think makes for great restaurant design, I tell them authenticity is most important — that what the design does has meaning to it and a true story behind it that resonates with people. A lack of authenticity is what makes so much chain restaurant design laughably bad. I think there’s some correlation between many of the most beloved and successful chains and the authenticity of their design too. I’ll be writing more about my design approach another time, but I wanted to plant this seed before getting into the exterior design typologies we’ll be looking at in this article.

Fast forward to the 1970s and 1980s, which were decades when the modern day restaurant chains that were around then really started to become the brands as we know them today. Let’s take a quick look at what I regard as the first typology to emerge, the Shingled Hut, a mostly if not exclusively fast food design approach…

Provincialism

With our brief history lesson complete, we need to talk about Provincialism, which is the design typology that really serves as a bridge between the mostly fast food Shingled Hut and the variety of design approaches today’s chains use. As casual dining chains emerged, they needed to find their own design language to help them differentiate their offerings from the fast food spots. Early on, that approach was to mimic the architecture of the places where the type of food they served originated from…with uh, varying degrees of success. This is an unsophisticated approach, but that’s okay, the food is often simple, guilty pleasures and Provincialism provides an efficient way to bang people over the head with the kind of food to expect…

Parapets & Lit Awnings

Nearly parallel to the chronology of Provincialism comes Parapets & Lit Awnings, the domain of family dining (and it’s worth mentioning THE go-to standard for pretty much all one-off sit-down restaurants). I don’t think there’s any design approach as common as this one, and we all know it well: start with a box or assemblage or boxes, add really tall parapets with variation in both height and cornice/coping treatments, then make sure every window band has an awning over it, and of course every awning has to have a tidy row of gooseneck light fixtures over it to make all that canvas pop after the sun sets…

Theme Architecture

It came on strong in the 1990s and hasn’t disappeared entirely, but is certainly an endangered species at the moment. The approach is simple, pick a theme for your restaurant and force every last aspect of your business to vigorously express that theme, including the exterior of your building. The one-off restaurants that employ Theme Architecture are popular go-tos for TV shows that present “weird and wild” destinations. The chains who adopt themes are steadily shrinking, especially when it comes to exteriors, but I think this all-encompassing design will make periodic comebacks because people never learn…

Retro-Googie-Nostalgia

Adjacent to Theme Architecture in both (tacky) taste and endangered species status is Retro-Googie-Nostalgia. This is when a brand hops into the Wayback Machine, mining their storied history for a look from the past; and if you don’t have a distant past, well, just make up some shit, it’s all good. Chains that recently embraced Retro-Googie-Nostalgia only did so for a hot minute and are actively going back and introducing these old-fashioned looks to the business end of a modern day bulldozer…

Eyebrows on the Rocks

When a new class of casual dining chain emerged at the start of the 21st century, one whose menus have dishes like rotisserie chicken next to sushi, it was time for a new design typology — and it’s sticking! Eyebrows on the Rocks is the look of these classy destination restaurants that aren’t afraid to go big when it comes to menus, dining rooms, vaulted ceilings, bars, patios, and everything else. So we’re cladding the exterior in faux rock veneers and mixing in some eyebrow canopies in a variety of materials to signal our intentions to the world…

McCentury Modern

The current design iteration of the fast food chains was pioneered by McDonalds making a hard turn towards modernism with their latest look. The rest of fast food soon fell in line. McCentury Modernism is defined by the asymmetrical massing of brands’ bright colors contrasted with neutral brick or EIFS backdrops. Hard canopies are often inserted onto these facades and no, you don’t even need windows under those canopies! I can see this popular new typology already merging with Brandchitecture, which is next on my list. The boundary between these two is quickly blurring…

Brandchitecture

The new hotness is Brandchitecture. We’re starting to see this everywhere. Brandchitecture is mostly driven by branding agencies who claim it’s data-driven and responsive, which I fully buy for stuff like menu design and branding itself, but architecture isn’t those things. There’s an old saying in graphic design, “will it fax?” that comes from a time when logo designers were pressed on that question by their clients who held myopic concern about new logos not transmitting clearly in the preferred communication tool of the day. Today, I imagine clients asking their branding agencies, “will it building?” And that’s one of the salient concerns I have about this movement, it concludes that every logo is also a building, for badder or worse. The saddest part of Brandchitecture for me is seeing White Castle, who started this article and was the first of all chains, move in this direction with their latest locations.

Kentucky Taco Hut

Pictured at the top of this article is an example of cotenancy: the Kentucky Taco Hut. Not a distinct typology per se, but rather a forceful coming together of two or more chain’s architectural identities. It’s extremely common for franchised concepts, and rarer to find for corporate-owned restaurants where it comes into play on unusual real estate deals that brokers finagle for really expensive land or tenant spaces. We’ll probably see more of this if real estate costs keep increasing to ridiculous new heights like they have been for the last decade.

How Do We Get These Looks?

When it comes to the aesthetics of the exterior of restaurants, it’s extremely common for the final decision-maker to be someone in the organization that isn’t an architect but is deeply involved in matters of design. These individuals have very strong points of view and there’s frankly not enough effort invested by the design professional in getting to know the decision-maker and really work though their vision with them, a lot of that effort is tied to budget constraints that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Also, as I mentioned, some brands have no money for this stuff and just have an architect knock off a look of someone else.

Then there’s branding agencies. I do love the great ones, who are both essential and a joy to work with — but it’s important to clearly define roles and understand that branding isn’t architecture, but rather architecture can help express the ideas of a brand.

It’s worth noting that municipalities force a lot of change onto exterior designs through appearance review committees, planning commissions, and their detailed ordinances. It’s not uncommon for brands to walk away from any attempt at using their own design just to appease the design whims of a municipality because its such a great location for business and they’re willing to compromise to get the thing open.

This is a good place to mention remodeling. It’s a continuous occurance in the chain restaurant world because customers are fickle and concepts need to evolve to suit new tastes. Any brand I’ve mentioned in this article that’s been around for more than a decade has had to remodel to stay competitive. We may get new typologies or see abandoned ones reappear because of this change cycle.

That’s all for my look at chain restaurant exterior design. I have more old notes on interior design, so you can count on an Interiors Editions in the future.

PS
Now you can identify the type and vintage of the recently uncovered McDonalds at Gitmo. Check it out…

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