Category conventions in restaurant design or Why do all BBQ joints look the same?

Hill Country BBQ offers unique food and experience

Ever noticed that 90% of the BBQ restaurants you’ve ever been in look like they used the same interior designer? Maybe the first ones to set the tone didn’t even use a designer, but now the trend is set and being strictly adhered to by each new entry in the category. These category conventions can become a trap.

Here’s a quote from restaurateur Tyson Ho on opening a BBQ restaurant in Brooklyn: “The most annoying part of designing a barbecue restaurant is how everyone tries to pigeonhole you into looking like a Cracker Barrel or Paula Deen’s hillbilly playland. “Let’s put sawdust on the ground!” says one person. “I got these great old license plates we can hang on the wall,” says another. Every day I get offers for old wagons, rusty farm equipment, and fake vintage gas station signs.”

On one hand, category conventions are healthy. They provide cues to guests about the experience they’re about to have. People are creatures of habit and are not always willing to dive in without some understanding of what they’re about to eat. So offering some familiarity is a positive.

But how does any concept stand out from the pack when every one from Franklin Barbecue to Famous Dave’s to Dickie’s BBQ Pit are all using the same set of design standards. They’re the same in that they all sell a version BBQ, but those are three totally different experiences. Yet, Vintage styled cartoons of pigs and calls for people to “EAT” grace all three. Along with mismatched type, antique tools and neon, rusted tin signs.

“I got these great old license plates we can hang on the wall,” says another. Every day I get offers for old wagons, rusty farm equipment, and fake vintage gas station signs.”

Think about your last casual dining experiences and the design of the menu and table tents. They all follow a similar convention. Probably a condensed sans serif type punctuated with thick straight script font on top. Photos of dishes that look like there may only be one photographer in the country, each retouched to be appropriately distressed and embedded into the menu to appear ‘crafted.’

Don’t even get me started on pizza restaurants and their images of tomatoes on the vine, Sinatra and murals of Venice. The honest answer is that new concepts borrow from what has worked for successful brands before them. If the best noodle bar in town is a 900′ step in bar with an open kitchen, you can bet that the next five noodle bars to open will be 700′ – 1100′ step in bars with open kitchens. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but more importantly using cues guests already recognize improve comfort and sales for new concepts. Unfortunately, using those same cues sets the expectations for guests that up and comers may not be able to meet.

But some have found ways to subvert category conventions and bend it to their advantage by playing with consumer expectations. The most successful concepts we’ve seen in the past few years in Fast Casual take the best ideas from QSR and Casual Dining to set expectations. In the case of a brand like Five Guys, they offer a convention similar to QSR Hamburger restaurants, but a simpler menu and more premium food product.

Unfortunately for concepts in the Fast Casual or QSR BBQ has to match the delicious food of Franklin BBQ or even Famous Dave’s; and not just their sense of design.

Author: Adam Pierno

Adam Pierno has a one-of-a-kind perspective on restaurant and CPGs. He investigates the connections between strategy, media, digital and business goals employing social media listening, analysis and traditional consumer research to find meaningful insights for brands thinking about their futures.