Understanding all the steps required to transform a vision into a finished restaurant concept can help you budget well and avoid pitfalls. 

Designing a restaurant concept isn’t simply a matter of constructing an attractive dining space or an effective food production kitchen. It’s a fine balance of accomplishing your objectives within a manageable budget. Because restaurants are subject to so many regulations, the design must not only be efficient and aesthetically pleasing but also keep food and customer safety top of mind.  

Like any other construction process, how much it costs to design a restaurant and build it can vary dramatically and depends on its purpose and function, as well as whether you’re building from scratch, building out a leased space or renovating an existing restaurant space. 

Knowing what steps are involved in the process can help you set an adequate restaurant budget up front,  and result in a project that requires minimal change orders during construction, stays on schedule and stays on budget. 

The process starts when you assemble a team, which will likely include an architect, a foodservice consultant or designer and an interior designer.

8 Steps of the Design Process

  1. Predesign 
  2. Schematic Design 
  3. Design Development 
  4. Construction Drawings 
  5. Construction Documents 
  6. Permits and Final Bids 
  7. Construction Oversight and Management 
  8. Walk-Through 

Step 1 | Pre-design

Much of the homework you do to write your restaurant business plan comes into play during this phase of the design process, says Steve Starr, president, starrdesign, Charlotte, N.C. “In this phase, you and the team you choose need to clearly understand your objectives and your budget model,” he says. “Then your team will want to do a brand audit, to make sure you’ve clearly defined the brand and identified the target customer; an operational analysis; and market analysis to see how your competitors’ restaurants are laid out.

“Finally, we’ll normally do a site analysis for our clients to see what’s actually needed on site before lease negotiations begin. For example, is there enough parking? How will we handle HVAC? Is there space for hood ventilation or will we have to run ventilation shafts up nine stories to the roof? Is there room for refrigeration equipment? What about plumbing, electrical service, gas lines? Does the building meet fire and building codes”?

Step 2 | Schematic Design

At this stage, the design team works with you to define how the restaurant will operate, how it will look and what the customer experience is intended to be like. Architectural plans are drawn up for new builds, and floor plans and renderings will show you the restaurant design layout and appearance of the restaurant.

“I believe strongly in 3D modeling, even at this early stage,” Starr says. “It helps operators envision what we’re trying to do for them, and it makes it much easier to spot design flaws”.

Step 3 | Design Development

With the general concept down on paper and approved, the next step involves defining all elements of the design, from fittings to finishes. Your architect, engineers (construction and HVAC), consultant/kitchen designer and interior designer will work together to draw the elements they’re responsible for, document each and make sure that all the elements are consistent.

Step 4 | Construction Drawings 

All of the information determined in the predesign, schematic design and design-development process will be used to develop construction drawings. You and your team will use these to get bids from general contractors.  It’s highly recommended that you get at least three bids. Different contractors can come up with surprisingly different prices from the same set of drawings. Two bids aren’t enough to give you confidence in the prices quoted; four or five bids are too many to manage and give contractors less motivation to take the time to bid accurately if they have only a 20 percent chance of winning the job.

TIP: Keep Drawings Up-to-Date Throughout the Process 

One common problem in restaurant projects is people working off of conflicting drawings. There may be many sets of drawings—the architect’s plans, the foodservice designer’s plans and so on—and different members of the team, such as the equipment installer, will reference them at different times. Stay connected during the build to make sure that members of the team have the most accurate and current versions of the drawings they need.

Step 5 | Construction Documents

The next step is producing construction documents that specify exactly how to build the structure, where to run utilities and the schedule of when each phase should be accomplished so the general contractors can secure and schedule subcontractors and adjust their estimates, if necessary.

“Coordination between the architect, engineers, foodservice consultant, and equipment installers is supercritical at this stage,” Starr says. “We may have specified a stove with a gas connection placed in a spot that would be difficult to access from where the gas line hookup is placed in a construction drawing. It’s a lot less costly to correct these discrepancies on paper than it is to go back into a facility after everything’s been built and try to fix it”. 

Step 6 | Permits and Final Bids 

You’ll need the construction documents to get permits from your municipal government’s building department and various regulatory agencies that will be involved. Allow time in your planning for these agencies to get you the approvals you need. 

 “Many places now offer an expedited permit process for businesses like restaurants,” Starr says. “They may cost extra, but it’s well worth it to use these resources. If they don’t have a program in place, expedite the permitting process in any way possible so you can keep your project on schedule”.

Make your expectations and construction timing known to the general contractors who are bidding on the project, so they can fine-tune their estimates and give you accurate budget information.

“Even at this stage the information you get from GCs may be based on general conditions,” says Starr. In this construction market. You may be better off getting rough bids from GCs based on your concept developmentand select the GC who can get the best subcontractor pricing they can”.

Either way, the team will help you evaluate the bids and choose a general contractor.

Step 7 | Construction Oversight and Management

During construction, the design team—restaurant owner, architect, consultant, and contractorshould meet on site weekly to assess progress, discuss any problems that arise and confirm next steps. Communication is key, and all parties need to closely review project details and make sure they’re on the same page.

You should do a walk-through with the team at these meetings to go over punch lists and verify rough-ins for utilities, doors, walls, and ceilings. As progress is made, you should pay close attention to things like conducting an independent test of the HVAC and kitchen ventilation systems, verifying they’re balanced. A restaurant that didn’t check discovered on opening night when the kitchen hood ventilation fan was on high that customers couldn’t open the front door because of the air pressure.

Test and check all systems as they’re completed. For example, have the manufacturer of the lighting controls come in and test them to make sure the electrician installed them correctly.

Have an equipment dealer like Central Restaurant Products verify that utility hook-ups are adequate and properly placed for the equipment you’ve specified before installation so any problems can be more easily addressed.

Once the equipment is installed, bring equipment manufacturers in for startup, testing and calibration before you begin employee training to make sure everything works properly and nothing’s defective or installed incorrectly.

Step 8 | Walk-Through

When everything is done, walk through the restaurant with your design team and the punch list to verify that all work has been completed to your satisfaction. Now you’re almost ready to open. To make sure you’re opening goes off without a hitch, see “Planning A Smooth Opening“.

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