Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread established the trend with its warmly colored, comfortably outfitted interiors. Chains now striving for interior comfort even include Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's, whose new look includes flat-screen TVs, WiFi service and upholstered booths.
When Einstein Bagels introduced a café concept offering bagels, coffee and lunch in a modernist, well-lighted space, per-person check averages increased 75 cents, compared to traditional Einstein bagel shops. Annual unit volumes are 25 percent higher in the new format shops, according to Einstein parent New World Restaurant Group, Golden, Colo.
Mazzio's, an Oklahoma City-based chain of 169 fast-casual pizza restaurants, also spins comfort with its new prototype. Upholstered booths, high-top tables and posters that market Mazzio's as a place for a work lunch or post-game snack have helped boost unit volumes to $1.6 million annually, up from $1.1 million at older stores.
Consider interiors a marketing ploy. "They're one of the classic Ps: people, product, positioning, price and place," says Lee Peterson, executive director, design and branding at WD Partners, the Columbus, Ohio-based restaurant design firm. "It's a big, big deal."
Still, warm and comfortable "have to be brand-right," Peterson says. "Everybody wants to copy Panera, but if you're not Panera, you can't be."
Peterson lauds the new McDonald's interior, created by New York-based Lippincott Mercer, as "a pretty good translation of what a comfortable McDonald's would look like." It houses upholstered booths, soft colors and more lighting and space between tables.
But he's somewhat amazed that a Duncan, S.C.-based McDonald's franchisee is outfitting its store with a fireplace. "Who can believe that?" Peterson says. "We're in McDonald's, and here's a fireplace."
Branding elements, he says, have to be notes in the same chord, "or else you have a problem."