Whether it’s fast-food, fast-casual or sit-down, eateries are embracing clean, simple designs with a few unique twists.

A bocce ball court made out of crushed oyster shells imported from Alabama is one of the more unusual twists to the redesigned Max & Erma’s on Polaris Parkway in Columbus, and it goes a long way in illustrating the lengths to which restaurants will go to capture the dollars of cost-conscious diners.

About 10 yards long and another 10 to 12 feet wide, the court sits off an outdoor patio on the south side of the restaurant. It is idled on a chilly January afternoon, but Steve Weis envisions a much different scene when the weather warms up and the patio opens. He sees bocce ball participants—he’s already had conversations with a local league—waiting their turn to throw, enjoying the game with maybe a hamburger and an adult beverage.

“As we were discussing the redesign of our restaurants, we said, ‘Let’s do something fun and unexpected. How do we find something unexpected and quirky in each of them?’ ” says Weis, vice president of operations for Columbus-based Max & Erma’s Restaurants, which has 73 locations around the country.

Weis was hired last year by Max & Erma’s new owners, Denver-based American Blue Ribbon Holdings, to help reinvigorate an iconic local brand that had grown lazy and old. Working with Akron architects Louis & Partners Design, they started by spending a lot of money on the restaurants’ appearance, both externally and internally. The bocce ball court, elevated tables, a new exterior, the patio and an area Weis calls the “date night” room are collectively designed to enhance the customer experience by creating a bucolic synergy encompassing the aesthetics, service and, oh yeah, food.

Architects and restaurant industry types are loathe to talk about trends, let alone admit they’re following them. But several restaurants, from Max & Erma’s to Northstar Café and even fast-food spots, have taken steps to incorporate what one expert says has been dictating much recent design work: simplicity.

“Design has kind of moved along those lines, and that is what we are looking at,” says Lee Peterson, executive vice president of creative services at Columbus-based WD Partners, an architectural and engineering firm that serves many restaurant clients.

This idea of simple, Peterson says, includes a place where people can walk in and order, it’s lively, the goods are simple, there’s nice music and some customization of food. If, by chance, Panera Bread popped into your mind reading that, there’s a good reason for it, says Peterson. The fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry is the fastest-growing, and what Panera and its brethren are doing, while not a template per se, has many following their lead.

The Role of Aesthetics

A WD Partners study released in January showed that places such as Panera pay more attention than quick-service restaurants to how their design aligns with the brand. They consider the type of materials employed, such as extensive use of wood, spotlights and natural lighting and nontraditional seating arrangements. “The sum of these aesthetic decisions can result in either a warm, inviting place to enjoy lunch or an industrial food factory,” the report states.

Peterson says when the firm is figuring out a design for one of its restaurant clients, designers always start with how the aesthetics work with the brand. “For us, brand is everything.”

WD’s process involves what he calls the five “Ps,” which must be woven into the esoteric fabric of the restaurant and consistently employed: place, people, product, pricing and projection, or the tone the whole project sets.

Product is the most important “P” and the thing from which everything else springs, Peterson says. “You can have the best environment, but if you have crappy food, you can forget it.”

He says Panera’s design is unpretentious and simple using those natural woods, comfortable seating and a menu focused around soups and sandwiches highlighted with a Tuscany emphasis. Its homey image is reinforced by the consumer’s perception that the food is more healthful than other similar choices. The chain, Peterson says, does not lull customers into thinking it is something it isn’t. “Nobody pretends there is someone there to seat you.”

Design strategies at fast-casual places such as Panera, when coupled with the use of quality ingredients, can heighten the customer experience compared with the quick-service segment. The WD report shows the average lunch and dinner bill of $14.18 for fast-casual establishments is almost double that of quick-service restaurants’ $7.67.

The success fast-casual stores have had in elevating those experiences through place and product is something the quick-service and casual dining segments are trying to replicate, Peterson says. Like Max & Erma’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s are offering more healthful fare and reinvigorating their stores to look more modern and inviting. McDonald’s restaurants throughout Central Ohio are undergoing extensive renovations with updated seating and more natural exterior materials. The Wendy’s Company announced in late January that it would remodel 50 company-owned restaurants this year with one of four “new, bold and contemporary” designs. One of those under consideration is the revamped Bethel Road store in Northwest Columbus

Those restaurants are asking, “How do we upgrade our environment?” Peterson says. “They are sort of trying to figure out how to become like the fast-casuals.”

Max & Erma’s Model

Max & Erma’s Weis says the redesign was necessary because it was obvious the chain had been foundering for several years. The restaurants looked haggard, and some locations were even using frozen hamburger patties. “What we knew was that most of our restaurants looked tired, and we were blending into the landscape.”

The chain had spent $1 million as of late January on makeovers at its Detroit-area stores, the Polaris location and one inside the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Columbus since its 2010 purchase by American Blue Ribbon Holdings. The company, whose portfolio also includes Bakers Square and Village Inn, turns around chains through a combination of consolidating operations, strengthening relationships with franchisees and investing in improvements.

The Polaris restaurant is the first in Ohio to get the new design, and there are some stark changes from the Max & Erma’s of old. The marquis is brighter and more festive-looking, a move Weis says was meant to announce, “Hey, we’re still here.”

Inside the restaurant are changes both subtle and bold. The bar area is more exposed, there is more high-top seating and televisions can be seen from all directions. The latter, Weis says, was to help Max & Erma’s compete with more traditional sports bars. “It is much easier for me to match their TV experience than it is for them to match our food experience.”

Moving into the main dining area, there are tables of different elevations—including butcher-block tables—and string lighting. Each is designed to reinforce the idea of a casual experience. The string lighting strewn above booths adjacent to a larger dining area also serves as a visual separation for diners.

The backdrop to the dining room’s new look is a double-sided fireplace that connects what Weis terms the “date night” room with the rest of the space. It, too, is a dining area with a wall of windows as its backdrop and seating that incorporates traditional chairs and loveseats. Before the fireplace, the area was segregated by a partition. “It was sort of a penalty to sit there,” he says.

Weis says it’s too early to determine if the makeovers have helped to generate higher sales. Anecdotally, he believes they are worth it given the positive customer comments on the new design features.

Nontraditional Chinese

Architect Tim Bass agrees the product and place must connect if a design is to achieve the balance a restaurant owner is trying to present.

“Understanding how humans understand pattern and balance is quite an intriguing subject,” says the owner of Bass Studio Architects of Columbus. “Simply digging into why our brains are wired for symmetry can provide profound information for designers. How and why our brains consider all of the elements in a scene at once can help us understand why architecture is often better than the sum of its parts.”

Bass’s firm won an honorable mention last year from the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects for its design of Edamame Sushi & Grill at Easton Town Center. The firm also has designed two J. Liu restaurants in Dublin and Worthington as well as the Asian Gourmet & Sushi Bar in Gahanna and Dayton.

The long, narrow space at Edamame presented several challenges as the firm aimed to achieve the symmetry consumers consciously and subconsciously seek, Bass says. Owner Charlie Choe scrapped the idea of a cafeteria-type rail that would extend the length of the kitchen and sushi prep area. Instead, he embraced Bass’s suggestion of using opposing dining “pods” at varied levels to frame the kitchen, nixing a mezzanine level whose construction would have been dicey because of a floor girder near the entrance.

“Creating two very distinct sides to the narrow space visually expands the space and mitigates the narrowness of the space; in fact, with opposing pods elevated above the space at the ends of the long orientation, the design reverses the orientation of the space away from the narrowness and storefront issues,” Bass wrote in an AIA submission.

The architect wrapped the entire place in green, a color that evokes fresh and natural. It’s also the color of the restaurant’s namesake edamame, immature soybeans that are often served in their pods as a snack. The consistent use of green leaves the consumer with the notion “the space floats around in a shell, like a pea in a pod,” Bass says. “When you are in that space, narrowness never enters your mind. … Designing is all about creative problem solving.”

Restaurateur Choe, who also owns the Asian Gourmets, says the décor makes the food. “It’s not just one experience we are aiming for. I want the person to come in and experience the whole atmosphere.”

Choe set out to create a vibe unlike any offered by the “traditional Chinese” restaurant. “This just looked so different from what everyone else was doing,” he says. Customers often comment on the number of lights, designed to metaphorically represent the soybeans.

Design on a Budget

Choe’s design was hardly inexpensive. Though he declined to divulge specifics, he says Edamame was double the cost of the Gahanna Asian Gourmet.

A national industry publication confirms that opening an eatery isn’t cheap. A spring 2011 survey of 700 restaurant owners shows that for a startup where no land purchase is required, the cost on average is just shy of $495,000. The results from restaurantowner.com, affiliated with Restaurant Startup & Growth magazine, also show that 33 percent of all restaurant startups experience cost overruns. Average construction cost was $72 per square foot.

Trendy or not, owners still keep a close eye on the design budget as architects search for ways to keep expenses down without sacrificing on style.

Andrew Rosenthal, a principal with GRA+D Architects, says when the owners of Northstar Café approached him about designing their first restaurant in the Short North, they started out with a very complex idea that was ultimately jettisoned. “It was organic, but it’s modern; it’s comfortable, but it’s not upholstered; it’s quick service, but it’s fine food,” Rosenthal says. “They had a real interest in excellent design … but didn’t have the budget.”

Rosenthal adapted, using some materials that were less expensive but provided the necessary bang, including plywood that adorns much of the interior and roofing slate to cover the soffit that extends over the kitchen.

The fact that Rosenthal was chosen to design the first Northstar was an odd coincidence. When the North High Street building sat empty, he once commented to his wife on a drive home one evening that it would be a great place for a restaurant. The owners, who got his name from a list of alumni at the Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture, called him when the original architects backed out. It was Rosenthal’s first job after starting the firm seven years ago.

Rosenthal says he’s pleased with the end result, but was nervous throughout the process. “This was my first restaurant and I’m pouring my heart into it,” Rosenthal says. “Then one evening, in the middle of the night, we’re about halfway through the design, I say to my wife, ‘What if the food is horrible?’ ”

Fortunately for Rosenthal, Northstar quickly drew a large following. The owners now have three locations as well as Third & Hollywood—all Rosenthal-designed.

Craig Lovelace is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the March 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.