The Basics of Choosing a Restaurant Theme Concept

Interior of cozy restaurant, loft style
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One of the best parts of opening your own restaurant is the opportunity to let your creativity flow. You can design a restaurant with your unique stamp, and that uniqueness can attract customers. However, creating a restaurant theme isn’t as cut and dry as choosing a location and writing up a menu. A restaurant theme is a blend of food, atmosphere, and service. So how do you decide which restaurant theme is right for you? How do you decide what kind of concept will stand out from the local competition?

Be Aware of Your Bias

Someone who decides to open a restaurant will likely have a pretty good idea of the concept—a steakhouse, a sandwich shop, a coffee house, etc. That’s great, because it gives you a place to start.

Beware of your personal bias in regard to your restaurant theme, though. You might firmly believe that your neighborhood needs a place to get a good steak and a craft beer, but do others agree with you? Even if you don’t care for your local restaurants (a.k.a. your soon-to-be competition), many people do. Look at several restaurants through the eyes of other customers. Maybe you can’t stand the loud music played at the local tavern, but many enjoy it. Or perhaps you think there aren’t enough family-friendly restaurants in the area. That is your opinion, but do others share it?

To help you avoid bias, you can put together a focus group—something large corporations do routinely to help them develop products and design advertising campaigns. Invite a group of 10 to 15 people who will answer a series of pointed questions about things related to your restaurant concept. This is designed to give you a broad view of your potential customers' opinions, so be sure to include people outside of your immediate circle.

Find out More About Your Potential Customers

Demographics of your town or city can be found in a variety of places. The U.S. Census offers a profile of your area’s median age, income, and household size. Local chambers of commerce and small business bureaus are also good places to find out more about the demographics of an area. The more detailed information you can dig up, the better for your restaurant concept.

You should also go beyond your local audience, if appropriate. Is there a tourist trade in your area? Perhaps a ski mountain, beach, or other attractions that bring in tourists? If so, are you going to include them in your demographics? All this information will help you fine-tune your concept and strengthen your restaurant business plan.

Determine Your Audience

Once you know the demographics of your area, you can narrow it down to your audience. Are they white-collar or blue-collar? Mostly single or families? Men? Women? Whom do you hope to attract to your restaurant? What appeals to one group of customers may not necessarily appeal to other groups. For example, what might entice families with small children won’t necessarily work for single, white-collar office workers looking for a glass of wine and a nice meal after work.

Identifying your restaurant audience will help to further shape your concept. It will determine things like hours of operation, seating capacity, design and décor, and menu items and prices. For example, if your audience is families with younger children, you don’t need to be open until midnight or have a full-service sports bar. For busy young professionals, a fast-casual concept might work well.

Study the Competition

See who frequents the other restaurants in the area on any given day or night. Do the customers change from lunch to dinner, from a weeknight to the weekend? Once you have decided on a target audience and price range, look at other restaurants with similar price ranges. How is your concept different? What can you do better? Why would their customers come to your restaurant?

It's critical that you find a way to truly differentiate your concept from your competitors. How can you create something that can't be replicated by the next restaurateur that comes along? In an industry where many businesses don't make it past the first year, these are essential questions.

Research Food Trends

Food, like fashion, can change overnight. Some menu items—think burgers and pizza—are classics and will never go out of style. Other foods, like artisan paninis, are trendy for a season. Still others are short-lived fads— do you remember when everything had sun-dried tomatoes in it? Food magazines such as Bon Appétit and Gourmet and cooking channels like Food Network are great resources for finding out what’s hot in food right now. Not every trend will fit your restaurant theme, but knowing what is currently popular will help you build something that will grab attention.

Develop Your Design

Everything about your space should be designed to support the main concept. How much room do you need for your dining area and kitchen? How will the look, feel, and smell of the space convey your concept from the moment a customer first walks in? Your all-vegan, boutique, farm-to-table restaurant may not come through clearly in that space that once housed an Outback Steakhouse. Knowing your space, location, and design requirements will help you budget appropriately.

Think beyond the space to your marketing materials and style, too. Consider how to translate your unique brand into your social media presence and advertising channels. These are your first opportunities to convey your theme to potential customers and spark interest in your new concept. If your restaurant's vibe is elegant and classy, don't speak in a snarky, irreverent voice on social media. Make sure it all works together.

Although there are many components to a restaurant concept, the most successful businesses are more than the sum of their parts. When you find a unique approach that engages your audience, you have a great chance to launch a restaurant that outlasts the trends—and the competition.