Restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King have traditionally dominated the fast food market, but a growing consumer preference for healthier “fast casual” dining options has emerged in recent years. Fast casual restaurants cater to on-the-go, busy consumers, but tend to offer a more sophisticated menu with a focus on fresher ingredients that bring the food preparation process front and center. As fast casual dining quickly becomes a more crowded market segment, design (aside from cuisine) is one of the best ways that a brand can differentiate itself.


Here are three ways design can elevate a fast casual brand:

Creative design can help communicate brand values.

Many fast casual restaurants define themselves by a set of values or philosophies, as well as by the food they serve. Popular fast casual chains such as &pizza and Sweetgreen have successfully synced their brand missions with their interior design. One of the core values of &pizza, a growing craft pizza chain, is to “make it personal,” which they accomplish through their made-to-order gourmet pizzas and localized, urban design at each location, bringing an authentic ‘New York’ touch to the establishment. &pizza’s product is genuine and personalized for each individual guest.

Sweetgreen, a salad chain, provides sustainable, healthy food. This core value is shown through chalk boards in every restaurant listing seasonal and locally-sourced salad ingredients. The interiors boast stainless steel and natural wood finishes, and the space is clean and bright with vivid green accent walls, eschewing the “feeling” that fast food is always unhealthy.

In many ways, fast casual is the antithesis of fine dining. The showy and often pretentious atmosphere and food is replaced with a great simple meal. The design needs to reflect that with modern, down to earth and funky elements which reflect the very essence of the fast casual experience.

Smart design can make guests more comfortable.

A fast casual restaurant’s ordering protocol can have a substantial impact on design. Popular options include an order counter with a number call system, delivery to table and build your own. Each option requires a unique set of design and layout considerations that are critical in ensuring efficiency and success. By example, at a build your own restaurant, menu is key. Visual separation, legibility and simplicity are instrumental in keeping the patrons moving during the busy meal rush.

Another consideration is the size of the restaurant space. Hopdoddy Burger Bar, for example, wants to give the impression that their restaurants are consistently bustling, so after all the tables in the restaurant are filled, the cashiers stop taking orders until some tables open up. This creates a large line, but on the flip side, no one carrying food is left to fruitlessly search for an open table. In general, the ideal restaurant space is roughly 2,500 square feet. This size leaves enough room for guests to find a table, but also gives the impression that the restaurant is always busy.

Sophisticated design can justify higher prices.

Although fast casual dining establishments are selling “cheap eats,” more or less, you won’t see dollar menu prices in these restaurants. Interior design can help justify the higher price tag that often comes with the fast casual joint, even when the menu consists entirely of pizza or tacos. (Albeit, pizza or tacos from a lauded local chef.)

Nando’s, the restaurant famous for its Portuguese flame-grilled PERi PERi chicken, is a brand doing this particularly well. The design of Nando’s  is funky and down to earth. The vibrant, African-inspired interior design helps justify the pricier cost of the food, despite providing a more casual experience. It breaks the stigma of a greasy “fast food joint” without being a five star restaurant. Cava Mezze Grill, which serves Mediterranean cuisine, also boasts a simple natural design and achieves the same result. Another example is Shake Shack, which is designed to feel like an upscale diner. The open kitchen is covered in stainless steel, and all the materials are modern and monochromatic. The higher end design makes you feel ok about paying a little extra for a cheeseburger and fries.