As the restaurant industry looks to 2021, many brands are betting on revamped design to drive sales in a challenging environment.
There's no one playbook for how to design for safe, efficient and engaging restaurant footprints. But mega chains like McDonald's, Taco Bell and Chipotle are investing big on digital technology at the drive-thru and curbside pickup channels to cater to diner demand for efficient, contactless off-premise restaurant experiences. Many brands, like Shake Shack, are also shrinking their footprints and allocating more space for outdoor seating.
For independent restaurants and casual chains that can't pivot to off-premise as easily, design experts predict that features like forced air between seating areas and garage-style doors will help diners feel more at ease when eating on-premise.
"The trillion dollar question is which of these [consumer behavioral changes] is going to be permanent, and which is going to snap back and when," said Stephen Jay, SVP and managing director of restaurant design firm Big Red Rooster. "When you start talking about restaurant design, you start talking about real estate. … The great unknown is how to invest capital in ways to get a smart return in the future."