Designing QSR: Breaking the barriers

Architecture Dated:  March 30, 2015
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The other day we were having paanipuris by the road side and at the end of our gastronomical expedition, while we all were slobbering and drooling with the spicy bits, our street vendor quietly handed out paper napkins to sober ourselves up! 

Smart people learn by observing. Perhaps this man also had the compulsion to project his consciousness towards providing a clean friendly service within his limits.  It might sound unreal, but his competition may actually lie along the line of shops across the street which provides quasi-Indian snacks that for so long had been the monopoly of the unorganized food stalls and hucksters.

India’s fast growing economy, rising middle class and increased affordability of the young population has propelled an unprecedented growth of quick serving restaurants or QSRs in the last few years. The rise is as much as 25-30% and although a large part is still dominated by the unorganized sectors, they are aggressively challenged by the international and Indian brands that are not shy of experimenting foreign cuisines with local flavors.  Gone are the days when big chains will typically serve you with a sweet -meat menu with overtures of cream and cheese. They have become equally proficient in serving healthy prudent diets, mixing and recreating local delicacies!

So how are QSRs becoming so relevant to our lives? In the booming days of creative economy, one is hard pressed to generate ideas to keep afloat and QSRs are rolling the ride as good as anyone else!

What exactly is a QSR?
Googling QSR might end your search with quasi stellar radio sources. If you are persistent enough QSR will can also mean a special type of restaurant. Putting it simply, a QSR is a quick service restaurant or a fast food restaurant that serves you quick food.

Cafe Design

Going by the book, a QSR offers from a limited menu; is cooked in bulk in advance and kept hot; is finished and packaged to order; and is usually available ready to take away, though seating may be provided. Typically part of a restaurant chain or franchise operation, they survive on a streamlined system of standardized ingredients and/or partially prepared foods controlled by supply channels.  Their flexibility in terms of set up, serving, menu and quality assurance is what makes them appealing to the fast moving Gen Y who could go about with slim pockets and yet be enjoying a good treat in a nice environment at the end of a day!

Thinking Beyond the Box…
Designing a QSR quite naturally overloads you with a lot of challenges; because nothing in Nature as of now comes for free! Although theoretically, given its predefined structure in terms of branding and services, one may tempt to think that one detailed master design should suffice, each QSR store concept offers unique design challenges for the architects, be it  creating new concepts, or reviving  and reinventing existing ones, while keeping an eye open towards the larger scenario.

Secondly any QSR can manifest itself through a myriad of selling outlets ranging from Drive INS and restaurants to food court counter and kiosks within shopping centers and multiplexes. However to emulate the brand and its business, a certain design consistency is required in terms of materials, customer interface and visual elements.

wall Paper

As designers of many casual and fine dining restaurants, our first challenge in designing the stores came with our existing intuitions of space, together with the accepted norms of anthropometrics and ergonomics. While fully understanding that any design process is mainly about optimizing the parameters or the constraints, we also had to do serious thinking on defining the new parameters for which it has to be optimized.

Resisting the very obvious temptations of scaling down the furniture like in student times, we looked beyond our experiences of hotel design and delved into the uncharted related fields of yatch design, aircraft interior or those of railway compartments. And once you are able to overcome the jealousy of the overwhelming fee structure of their designers, you will start to appreciate the marvels in the economy of their space use. This lateral thinking process gave us new insights. For instance given the limited plinth area, one is forced to think in terms of volume during spatial organization and as such two identical floor areas might not be enough in determining the feasibility for a subsequent store. It also helped us to re-scrutinize the visual and the tactile interface of the users.

Singh Bros. Cafe Design

Researchers will tell you that a QSR is meant to create instant interest in the mind of the consumer. It has to have Mass appeal, a characteristic ambience, a unique experience and a strong brand identity! What it means for the men in the workshop is to identify the key elements of sensory experience and provide them in a coherent manner!

A two prong Approach
One approach is to get rid of the “cookie cutter” way of going about it and employ what is called “the back door forwards” strategy! This means one has to understand the operations and ensure an optimal performance of the back area first. This is the engine room of every QSR business. The speed and the ease with which it performs virtually drive the business!  Flipping to the guest interaction side, brand management becomes the key factor. This two pronged approach helped us with our Fro-Yo bar design where the natural separation between the two areas became the main canvas for the brand! By dabbling with the shape of the wall, a unique identity was provided for all the stores.

Using the Quick Fixes through Visual elements
Not every QSR can separate the two areas. In those situations one had to ensure to keep a low profile for service equipments and keep the eye wandering with strong graphical elements or bold colors. Yes colors do play a very important role in the design of QSR, be it in terms of its branding or creating the overall ambience! To the perpetual problem of balancing out space, cost, usability and retention of experience, color is a quick fix. And it’s effective.

For the froyo bar in one of the stores we decided to paint the store front in pink!!! This made the store stand out from in an array of muted color neighborhood. It generated the quick attention value and the store got spotted!

For Singh Bros, a QSR serving Amritsari kulchas, however, we downplayed in neutral grey and black, because it was an interior store. The main focus lay with the main signage of blinking bulbs.

Historically warm hued strong colors like red, orange, yellow are used in fast food outlets. These colors are generally stimulating and are preferred for high table turnovers. Muted versions such as pink, peach or beige are used where one expects the customer to linger; ideal for cafes and fro-yo bars! Blue, until recently was thought to be a big no-no. If used at all it needs to be balanced with an analogous or complementary theme.

But the effect of colors is often overemphasized and indiscriminate use should be avoided. For QSR brands, the color also has to reflect the branding and the message each brand carries.

seating arrangement

In Singh Bros, we experimented with grey, black and yellow. Using warm lights and graphics it created a visual balance in the store. While the blinking lights reminded of highway dhabas, the urbane grey made it sit comfortably within the city context!

Graphics and branding plays an important role as well. What you don’t want for a QSR is to get dated! It has to look fresh and so changing the graphics always bring some freshness in the store décor. Ideally every QSR store should have a dedicated graphic wall which can be changed at an interval without intervening on the rest of the decor.

Space Planning: Multi utility spaces
One interesting and important component of design is the multiuse of areas both in spatial and temporal domain. Most of the QSR outlets are located in areas where the land value is expensive . This means for the small or medium sized store, active use of every available square feet of the store in some way becomes very important.  Unlike FDRs or fine dining restaurants, the average working hour of a QSR is quite high. However because bulk of the food chain depends on pre processed food, it is possible to use part of the guest area as an extension of the preparation area before the business hours. This means by the time the store opens the back area is well stocked and prepared to take on the tribunals of the day. Both Forever Yogurt and Singh Bros brands use this technique effectively.

For most QSRs flexible seating arrangement is preferred. However depending on the type of food being served the sizes of table top can be varied. You do not need, for example, a two feet by two feet table for two, for serving yogurts or sandwiches. But if you are serving lunch you need that much of table space! Having the right combination of sizes of tables in a store can decrease wait time for customers and can maximize seating capacity and hence profit. Unlike fine dining where large tables are required to create special zones, QSRs benefit from using smaller tables and combining them in multiples to create larger seating when it is needed.

forever yogurt design

Often fixed ledges across the walls help the store look bigger by removing the seating to the periphery.

Surface and textural Quality
Given the high rate of table turnovers and the speed in which food needs to be served, easily cleanable surfaces like granite, solid acrylic, stainless steel are preferred in QSRs. While wood looks good for eating experiences, maintenance of wooden surfaces needs to be looked carefully. An unclean table or dirty grooves can be a put away. A laminated surface is an alternative although the life span of the material is lower compared to others.

Flooring is another important element. Rustic, matte finished are difficult to maintain and if the store serves greasy food such finishes should be avoided. Often a QSR store wants to differentiate its area within a food court or mall hence laminated floor can be an easily installable option.

Light color flooring tends to make a store look bigger while the darker ones make it intimate. Whatever the flooring is a regular cleaning and maintenance is very important.

Most QSRs prefer a hard cleanable surface finish on the wall at least up to four feet. A plain painted surface should be avoided in guest areas. Alternatives can be in form of tiles, paneling and texture paint or vinyl graphics. For the back area ceramic tiles and cheap stones like Kota works best.

Restaurant's Wall Paper

For the FY Stores, we used Glass mosaic, vinyl graphics and laminated wood. Corrugated steel sheets were used up to the dados.

My Corner:
In the heydays of social marketing, QSRs typically employ fan engagement programs via Face book, Twitter, Instagram and others. The design of these stores naturally looks for a selfie corner which becomes the iconic and helps spread the virality. A strong graphic wall generally serves this purpose well. Not only they are easily do- able and cost effective in comparison to cladding or paneling, they have a high degree of reproducibility which comes handy in establishing the brand across various stores.

In Singh Bros Store, a graphic wall says “no Standing only Dancing” written in bold black. For the FY stores, we had a mural wall of Kolkata capturing the essences of the city.

Future QSRs
With the rapid infiltration of the technology, future QSR stores might experience unprecedented innovation in terms of their operation and design. Kinetic, smart intelligent consoles might replace the present furniture. Intelligent partition systems may double up as branding spaces as well as customer user interface and the store itself can be of dynamic kinetic structures able to spread out or cocoon in as per the requirements. The ideas does not seemed to be that farfetched given already the major chains are spending millions to develop efficient and integrated automated systems across the globe.

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