ITB 2024 Special Reporting
The Art of Cafe Ambiance
By Lloyd M. Gordon
Tuesday, 6th November 2007
What do Pablo Picasso and Mrs Holly Hagen have in common? Both used color&texture and form to create great pictures. Pablo did his in oil, Holly did hers in restaurant interiors.

How did Hollycreate to keep customers happy?What did she do to achieve the best results? What do all successfully designed restaurantshave in common? Holly Hagen is a talented Interior decorator that I used in creating or improving foodservice operations. Her answers should interest you.

Holly and I agree that . . .

They have to look good to those eating in them.
They must provide comfort to the guest.
They have to create as much interest as possible.

These three conditions are considered "good" when all three elements go together properly. Entering a restaurant you expect certain things. As you sit and observe everything around you, your expectation is either fulfilled or rejected. We assume folks go to a restaurant to experience more than the menu selection.

They seek nourishment, social interaction, mothering, and to restore their psyche. But, they may feel either comfortable or uneasy in the restaurant's environment.

This feeling of comfort, or lack of it, is perceived by the senses as awareness of the tangibles such as seating, lighting, sound, color, textures and aromas. These plus the intangible elements normally referred to as theme and hospitality all combine to influence the senses in an environment we call ambiance. This is a critical element which makes customers return again and again.

The influence of ambiance on customers' selection of dining places leads some restaurant operators to ask if the interior decorator's activity take precedence over the restaurant designer's and architect's? My reply is, "If those responsible for interior decoration don't do their best job, the operation won't fly as high as it should.

But, it takes a combination of the owner, architect, restaurant designer and interior decorator to make the correct decisions as to the type of ambiance. It requires a unanimity of effort by everyone concerned with development to settle on the right atmosphere."

Ambiance has grown to be an important factor in a restaurant's success. When chain restaurants were first developing, they needed to make a strong statement in contrast to competitive independents. These chains hired "experts" to design their facilities.

These interior decorators where specialists in the psychology of designing restaurants. They had the feel and close intuitive understanding of what the dining public wanted when dining away from home. They succeeded in creating unique concepts and dining environments for their chain clients.

Once these chains standardized their specific ambiance, these were installed throughout the country. Whereas an independent restaurant's decor environment might be exposed to two or three thousand customers per week, a nationwide chain could expose their ambiance to hundreds of thousands of people each week, The cumulative effect of this wide exposure over time produced a generation of customers with a high level of decorative awareness and sophistication.

As more and more chains developed and expanded, the application of unique ambiance became more widely exposed to the mass market. Their customers began to anticipate the pleasurable experience they felt when surrounded by a chain's distinct ambiance presentation. They began to expect similar imagery wherever they chose to dine. With this background, I believe that an adroit interior decorator must take steps to accomplish this same effect in any new or remodeled food facility whether a chain or independent.

Holly and I agree on these initial steps to take.

  • First, meet with the planning committees who are usually the owner, architect , restaurant designer, and whoever is responsible for the menu development.
  • Second, know the theme or concept to be followed.
  • Third, make quick sketches to give a first impression of what the ambiance might be.
  • Fourth, try to develop as many environmental ideas as the restaurant suggests.
  • Fifth, narrow it down to two of the best.
  • Sixth, prepare general sketches of both selections so that the planning committee can make an intelligent decision on which is best suited for the project.
  • Finally, detail the materials, furnishings, and furniture that are needed so the ambiance makes the greatest impression.
These steps can provide the basis not only for a successful presentation to the planning committees, but will result in an acceptable atmosphere on the dining public.

If you have a modest budget and wish to create a great decor, mandate the restaurant designer to plan the needed operating efficiencies and to work closely with the interior decorator to achieve the greatest degree of ambiance acceptable to your target audience.

The key phrase here is "modest budget." Interior decorating is not expensive. The basic costs are the preliminary planning fee paid to the interior decorator on an hourly basis. A good interior decorator requires a superb understanding of textures, colors, trends and customer psychology which are traits developed over time and are well worth the fee charged. The balance of the costs are what is budgeted for the materials, furnishings and furniture which are paid for at near-to-retail prices.

Warning: Operators planning a new or refurbished food facility should not attempt to remodel or decorate on their own. The cost savings of doing it yourselves are illusory. It is almost certain that you will waste a great deal of time attempting to get the project organized, following up false leads, and revising things that are not working out. Your time would be better spent following through with developing the operational aspects of the restaurant.

Also, the do?it?your?selfers often pay more than necessary because they can't take the time to explore all the potentials and shop for the best prices and receive the greatest value for their money. Also, you may have prejudices which may prevent your seeing the forest for the trees. For the time and money you will spend, you probably won't achieve professional results.


Design/Decor as a profession has really taken a major step forward during the past thirty years. We, as a nation of "diners out," have grown more conscious of the ambiance of restaurants. We are more accepting of new materials, novel textures, unusual combinations of plastics, wood and metals than we ever were before.

Years ago, designers were afraid to use newer, innovative colors. Today, we buy dazzling color concepts with almost no fear. But one of the big factors has been coordination. Coordination of all of the factors brings together, through good design and decor, a restaurant that looks good, feels comfortable and is a pleasant environment for an exciting dining experience.

The Design/Decor, both internal and external, are keys to a form of marketing called customer recognition. Today's designers start with the menu. They observe the type of customer to be attracted and project a design/decor system based on sound research. Since the purpose of design/decor strategy is to evince a positive reaction from the restaurant customer, there should be a conscious positive response in that person. The restaurant should become an event, not just a place to eat.

The accepted practice is to begin the stimulation of the diner's perception with the view of the exterior. The design is like a billboard on the outside to tempt them into entering. The decor serves as the revelation of what is offered inside. The interior decor educates as well as entertains by using sensory stimulating technology. An example; featuring lights of various intensities and type, and arranging them to splash color and to create textures on walls, ceilings and floors to stimulate the response to the foods forthcoming..

Coordination is the key word. It includes color, texture and comfort. It involves the patron in the ambiance as an intricate part of the dining experience. Design/Decor systems should be considered as a part of the major marketing apparatus of a food facility. In fact, it has been suggested that the dollars spent for decor should actually be charged off to merchandising.

Enough dollars must be budgeted to properly develop and buy a good design system. The return on investment is quickly realized in customer satisfaction and profit growth. The challenge of the designer is to create an increased perception of quality and elegance at a reasonable cost.

A concerted food marketing effort should use Design/Decor as a major means for providing an environment that sells food instead of a collection of artistic set-pieces organized as rooms in which food is served. Coordinated Design/Decor applies professionalism to produce the kind of place that customers remember fondly and to promote their return again and again.
This requires faultless planing. Of course, a good Interior Designer requires an understanding of the objectives to be reached. Helter-skelter buying of decor is rapidly giving way to organized and planned decor specification and installation supervised by a qualified Interior decorator.

Two major criteria of Design/Decor planning are durability and adaptability. The decorative atmosphere or ambiance of the system should be equally rich with detailed planning, followed up by careful coordination and exacting application during installation. Everything has to fit together and look coordinated.

Flexibility is important, therefore, the use of tables for two guests when joined together affords adaptable seating for larger groups. Also, social bars, high tables with no chairs, are becoming very important for efficient use in liquor establishments where space is limited.

The designers must be aware of how the people want to move through space. Various areas of the restaurant must be coordinated for easy movement of traffic. Of course, design should follow the flow and function. To make this happen the gurus have to work out the details through exacting specifications before work begins.

It's easier to do it first on paper which is more economical than any other way or at any other time. You can make a hundred changes on paper for a few dollars, but once purchasing and construction are under way, changes are costly.

I've been asked: "You must really be happy when a job is finished?" Yes, but the Design/Decor of a restaurant is never finished because food service operates in a fluid atmosphere. Things change rapidly year to year and the foodservice operator who is alert realizes that he must change with the times.

That's it in a nutshell. Restaurant food services must be adaptable to meet the changing moods and whims of their clientele. These alterations can be done most effectively in time and money by professionals trained and organized for the exacting services required for Coordinated Design/Decor.


How often have you gone into a new foodservice operation and said, "It looks nice but there is something missing; it just doesn't look finished?" Then on the other hand, you may recall the times when you entered a restaurant and sat down with your dinner companions in a relaxed, jovial mood and everything around you seemed to add to your comfort and enjoyment.

Both examples show the two results of the use or lack of use of the Art of Interior Decorating. In the first case, the restaurant designer may have laid out the restaurant so that it would operate efficiently with equipment of the right type located in the right place but with little thought to artistry. In the second instance, the interior decorator added the human touches that made your party comfortable within the restaurant's atmosphere which resulted in a happy experience for all of you.

Interior decorators are a breed apart from equipment salesmen, foodservice designers, chefs, kitchen managers, restaurant executives and owner operators, all of whom may have more or less input into the creation of a new restaurant.

The Interior decorator applies human psychology concerning what the customers need and want, together with a specially trained eye for colors, the feel for textures and the artistic flair for combining all these elements to complement the designer's layout. This must, of course, agree with the owner/operator's idea of what the food facility should be to its customers.

What should you expect from an Interior decorator? First, you should demand a high level of talent; second, experience in this industry; third, the ability to work with you as the owner/operator on a personal basis; fourth, an ability to work cooperatively with your designer, consultant, architect, and contractor; fifth, enthusiasm to get the job done; and sixth, honesty to tell you when you are going in the wrong direction.

Your selection of an interior decorator should be tied in with your selection of a foodservice consultant. Usually the consultant and the decorator will find a commonality of purpose that enables them to work rapidly and effectively together. This innate cooperation can be of benefit to you, in that it provides you with a team that can work more economically with less waste of time so that your project moves more rapidly to its successful conclusion.

The ultimate success of the designer and decorator is to generate the greatest favorable response from the dining public so they will return to the restaurant again and again. Pablo Picasso might not have known how to flip a hamburger, but his paintings could certainly make a patron at a hamburger diner sit up and take notice.

Mr. Lloyd M. Gordon, President of GEC Consultants, Inc. has an MBA from the University of Chicago. He has concepted more than 385 restaurants and has been consulting for over 40 years. He helps people enter the restaurant industry, points the way to profitability, and helps keep them successful. To discuss "The Art of Cafe Ambiance" he can be reached at 847-674-6310 or email experts@gecconsultants.com or on the web at www.gecconsultants.com.

Copyright GEC Consultants, Inc. 2007
All Rights Reserved

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