The cover story: Design for (a better) life

Tina Nielsen explores how major changes in the industry have impacted on the profession over time and whether designers in turn can affect positive change on the world through their work

Can good foodservice design change lives? To what extent are foodservice consultants contributing to a better world and is there a responsibility to do so on the shoulders of those designing and implementing concepts in restaurants and foodservice outlets?

These are big questions that call for lofty considerations. First off, it is worth saying that though much has evolved over the past 30 years, the essence of the job hasn’t really changed. Argentina-based FCSI Associate Heraldo Blasco expresses it succinctly: “What I love about it is the opportunity to create functional and efficient spaces that enhance the dining and culinary experience for both customers and staff.”

Or in the words of Laura Lentz FCSI, design principal with Culinary Advisors in Maryland, offering the example of sourcing the best bean-to-cup coffee machine. “It is my job to first identify the client’s needs, then figure out what they are looking for in a bean-to-cup machine, research the market and finally return with some options that suit them,” she says.

Beyond these essential tasks of serving the client with the best product and service, does the design job aspire to affect positive change? For Ken Schwartz FCSI, president of SSA, Inc., there is little doubt. “Aspects of good design can result in change and I think there is an unwritten but absolute responsibility of designers to create responsibly. Everything we design has a ripple effect and those effects can either be a catalyst for positive change or a catalyst for perpetuating the status quo,” he says. “I invite and challenge others to be creative, step out of their comfort zone and design out of the box. This is how new ideas are born and evolve.”

Even if you are not changing the world on a large scale, the impact on clients is significant. The design consultant can be considered the steward of a project, guiding the client to the very best solution for their needs. For operators who have not previously worked with a consultant it is an eye-opener. Pierre Issa, founder of the NGO Arenciel in Lebanon engaged Roger Obeid FCSI to oversee a large foodservice project at a traditional Lebanese restaurant Al Khan al Makssoud, seating 800 diners, in the Bekaa Valley.

“Roger added so much value. We wouldn’t have done it without him. If I wanted to do another restaurant, we couldn’t imagine doing another one without consulting someone like Roger,” he says. We used to rely on individual tradesmen; the architect, the engineer and so on, but the way the consultant ties it all together is invaluable.”

To continue to do that work, standing still is not an option, whether you are an operator competing with new concepts and trends, a manufacturer staying one step ahead of the industry or a consultant winning and keeping clients under the pressure of delivering improved designs that maximize the bottom line, care for the environment and ultimately appeal to the end-user.

Evolving technology, improved materials and not least constantly developing legislation are all elements that drive this need to be agile and innovative. “I am often perplexed why most consultants continue to do the same thing over and over with very little change to design or approach, imagination or pushing the envelope to create better operations and experience,” says Schwartz.

Technology driving change

Technology is among the most obvious changes for designers. Consultants have moved away from photocopying pages to collect into cutbooks and documents have moved online; Revit has replaced trace paper and the introduction of BIM has made the work more efficient and smoother.

“In the early days when we still did manual drafting and typing, everything had to be mailed or sent with a courier,” says Jim Petersen FCSI, president of C.i.i Food Service Design, adding that advances in communication have introduced a nuances picture. “The ease of communication today has created this presumption of instant availability and response.”

Bill Caruso FFCSI, president of CS Enterprises, echoes his thoughts. “It used to take us months to do things that could take us weeks today, but today clients often have unrealistic expectations. People have these misconceptions that things just pop out, which they don’t,” he says. If you ask any foodservice design consultant today how technology has changed what we do, the extent of pressures put on us by the developers, owners – the guys who pay us – is a key component.”

Of course, the positive flipside of technological improvements, as Petersen points out, the long journeys for short meetings are in the past. “Now I rarely have to travel to a face-to-face meeting,” he says.

The arrival of the internet in the 1990s, of course, changed everything. As Frank Wagner FCSI, managing partner of K-Drei consultancy in Germany and chairman of FCSI EAME, says, before this milestone, information gathering, and exchange was the main challenge. “We needed to get information on the right products and the newest technologies without the internet – manufacturers needed to find you and you needed to know they existed,” he says.

“Today the challenge is more to keep your database accurate and keep up with the newest innovations in design.”

Looking beyond cooking equipment, as Lentz points out, today designers must account for off-premises dining as much as they do dine-in services. Technology, she says, has passed a tipping point that has marked the sector in a big way.

Consider delivery services. “For years online capabilities were an afterthought, something you wanted to be prepared for when the client needed it,” she says. “Now it is the driver of good design and, arguably, as important as the ergonomics of the cook line.”

The global pandemic accelerated this move towards delivery and fundamentally shifted the scope of a design project, says Melissa Moore FCSI, CEO of Foodservice Design Professionals in Texas. “Dining trends have evolved as well with more open kitchen designs and multi-use spaces.

Covid-19 certainly impacted the industry and pushed us to change our thinking and incorporate more improved ventilation systems, touchless technologies and layouts that facilitate social distancing,” she says.

A cultural shift

Veteran foodservice designer Caruso has witnessed the twists and turns of the industry over the course of a career spanning more than 50 years. He highlights a shift in the culture and spirit among consulting firms to a more collegiate community.

“There used to be secrets and people kept things very close to their chest and that has changed; there is a lot more openness and sharing today,” he says.

With the increasingly global nature of the work of design consultants this is a necessity. Caruso has worked in over 30 countries around the world throughout his career and knows better than most that it is not as easy as it seems.

“You have to think of everything, including the technology and the regulations – if you work in a vacuum, you very quickly become a fossil. If you don’t share you become irrelevant,” he says.

On the note of collaboration, it is important to include management consultants at the start-up phase of the design, says Caruso. “It shouldn’t be separate from design; this is a homogenous process where you have this front-end and design,” he adds. “It is why many big consulting firms have incorporated management consulting services along with design. MAS is not a nice to have, it is an essential.”

At the heart of this collaboration between design and MAS consultants is the need for a variety of voices and different perspectives. “Collaboration with MAS consultants is critical; if we aren’t doing that, we are missing the boat,” says Lentz. What’s more, without any knowledge of MAS consulting, it is harder to be a good design consultant, assures Schwartz.

It works both ways and MAS consultants should have knowledge about design work too. “Having the ability to chat about ideas and including each other in projects can materially benefit the client and so therefore these collaborations are extremely important to me,” he explains.

Caruso also believes that the remit of the foodservice design consultant has expanded substantially. “When we first started, I worked with some great engineers and architects and they would say, ‘We have done a million of these projects, so you stay within your boundaries and that is all we want from you’, but that has changed,” he says. “Today we get questions like ‘can you do this, can you do that’ about jobs that I see as being part of the engineer’s work or the interior designer’s work, but it has been a natural progression. Frankly it has made our job more complex.”

As a result of this change design consultants have developed a new scope of services. “We are brought in early to advise on what the client will need to meet its financial projections; to reach its financial needs in terms of ROI and guide them on the space they need to return that investment,” he says. “Thirty years ago, the client would say ‘here’s the space we’re giving you, here’s the menu they want, select the equipment and make it work’ and today we are involved on a more consultative basis.”

Despite this seemingly increased burden on designers, Moore believes that on the whole technology has changed the industry for the better. “New design software allows us to bring a project to life for our clients,” she says.

“It also helps them visualize the concept; while smart equipment has revolutionized the foodservice industry enhancing efficiency, improving customer experiences, and contributing to sustainability.”

Changing the world

Making that positive impact on the world is something most consultants care greatly about, says Caruso. “I am sure most people in FCSI would say this is important and it makes a difference to how they feel about their work,” he says. “We know that young people are looking for the good in a company. They really care about that.”

So, the bonus may be that best practice is having a positive impact on the world, but ultimately it makes business sense to do the right thing as it resonates with younger customers who will be making spending decisions – what makes it good for the world, sustainable and healthy? This matters. And it is not only environmentally related issues; consumers increasingly care about the human element – they don’t want to see those working in foodservice suffering with sub-par conditions. Consultants have far-reaching influence in making sure there is a certain level of conditions for staff.

“Our role extends beyond creating functional and aesthetically pleasing spaces: it encompasses a broader responsibility to ensure that our projects contribute positively to communities, the environment, and the well-being of individuals,” says Moore.

Lentz describes consultants as “the voices of all the employees within the spaces we design; we can make sure there are windows and daylight in kitchens; that there are bathrooms, break rooms, adequate changing spaces,” she says.

“There is always pressure to make spaces smaller and more efficient; as consultants we need to find the right balance that improves the efficiency without making the employees life harder. That is our critical task, and it is not always easy,” she says, adding that at a time such as now when the sector is in a bit of flux this becomes more important. “When we are experiencing this great change, I think we need to put our best design foot forward and ensure there is a positive legacy because that is about value and that is what our clients pay for.”

Designers feel a responsibility to work for projects that have a positive impact on the world, as Wagner points out, it is ultimately up to the client how far this goes. “We can do a lot if the client wants to pay for it and is not simply using green words for marketing purposes. We can help the client to do a perfect job without waste, we can implement digital and technological solutions to save water, electricity and gas and we can make sure that the chefs work in a healthier environment by cleaning air, giving them more space and safe to use equipment,” says Wagner.

What keeps many working in the foodservice sector is the constant change and evolution. As Laura Lentz points out there are significant changes happening in today’s consulting panorama, a sort of switch-up of changes. “There are more design consultants becoming dealers. Dealers are offering design services and consultants are trying to provide turnkey services,” she says. As so many other FCSI members, it is what has kept her in the industry for many years.

“I also love going to work every day, it’s just easy to get my day started and get excited about what I do. I still feel challenged every day; I’m still learning every day,” she concludes.

Tina Nielsen

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