The rise of the celebrity chef has left little room for debate. When it comes to brand recognition, the strongest identifier for restaurants remains the men or women who don the culinary whites. However, as any restaurateur can attest, the process of opening a new store from the ground up will result in a lengthy list of credits. And without designers, some of the country’s most recognizable restaurants might have never imprinted the public conscience at all. Yes, food is king, but the appearance of a unit can define the entire operation. It can be the reason guests whip out their smart phones for an Instagram post and the culprit behind free word-of-mouth advertising.
In Dallas, a city whose food scene is known for its affordable, relatable, and varied cuisine, John Paul Valverde and Miguel Vicens, creative directors of Coevál Studio, are the visionaries behind some of the highest grossing and most-buzzed about spots around. One of their restaurants, Happiest Hour, brought in more than $1 million in April alone. Some of their projects include: Quill, The Rustic, Cork & Pig Fort Worth, Cedar Grove, Dos Jefes, St. Bernard Houston, El Bolero, Next Door, Pinstack, Citizen Lounge, Grand-Time, Dish Preston Hollow, Smoke Plano, Blanc Beauty Bar, Front Room Tavern, Spork, Pakpao Thai, Mutts Cantina, Miss Chi Vietnamese, Tanoshii Ramen, Liberty Burger, Belly & Trumpet, Hacienda San Miguel, and Campo.
The pair spoke with FSR about their secrets to success, the top trends in design at the moment, and what makes working on restaurants unlike any other project in the world.
In restaurant design, it’s all about trends, trends, and more trends. What are you seeing, and what’s really working these days?
John Paul: We get asked this pretty often. We would say, at least from our experience, that we’re seeing a lot of exposed kitchens in full-service, casual restaurants. Instead of what we used to see, which was kind of closed off, little bit quieter environments. We think that’s helping add a lot of energy to the front of the house.
Miguel: It’s great being able to see the activity behind and see what’s happening in the kitchen, and to see your product being made. People really enjoy that.
John Paul: I think they’re also great because often times after lunch, the lunch rush is gone and your peak time is gone, and you’re waiting until dinner service. You have a few guests in but thanks to the kitchen, it’s not just a quiet restaurant. You have prep cooks cooking and preparing. You just see action and movement, which I think is important.
Can this work both ways, though?
John Paul: I don’t think that’s much of a problem, really, if you design the space accordingly. I don’t think the loudness affects it. I think when you’re designing you have to pay attention with your clearance and the visual view for the guests, either seated at the bar or seated at the dining room tables. This way they don’t see, for example, any back-of-the-house activity. For example, the dish pit, your running of your syrup cartridges, and all of your back-of-the-house mess. You don’t want them to see that.
You want them to see the nice part, which is front of the hood, the back of the hood, all your cooks cooking, and the heat lamp.
Miguel: Just make sure you keep it clean. That’s really important.
When it comes to trends, you want to be setting them not following them.
Miguel: Exactly. Us as designers, we see a lot of these trends, but at Coevál Studio, we don’t follow them. We try not to be part of them. We come up with new and different ideas. I think it was maybe six, seven years ago when everyone was using barn and reclaimed woods in their spaces. It happened everywhere. We used it a couple of times on a couple of projects, but then we tried to stay away from those later on and come up with something else.
John Paul: It’s interesting because New York City is way ahead, obviously, of Texas and we’re trying to stay caught up and progressive by doing things that we’re seeing in Europe. It’s easy to fall into that trend of designing what you’re seeing out there.
What’s a design trend you see as up-and-coming?
I think it’s something that people are starting to use, which they’ve used sparsely, but it’s pretty popular in Central America, even Europe, is cement tile. I know it’s been mentioned in Bon Appétit Magazine, and it’s a great tile. It has geometric patterns and we’ve seen that pretty often the last six months or last year, actually. It adds a really great element. It’s really recognizable on Instagram, for example. One project we just finished up in Dallas (El Bolero) now has one of the most photographed floors in Dallas. It also has really fun, cool ceilings that represent Mexico City and what it’s known for.
I think, for me, I’ve enjoyed using concrete a lot. You can add pigment to the concrete so it’s not just the natural color. We have a dark gray pigment that’s almost like a honed black finish. It looks really cool, especially as time goes by. Guests can sit at the bar, touch it. It adds a really nice touch.
Are there any other features you’ve done so far that stand out?
Miguel: I like the fact that restaurants are like an open canvas. Quill has barreled ceilings. The whole space is barreled. That’s something you don’t see around this area. It’s more of a European thing. Instead of just doing curves in the floor plan and in the bar, we decided to go ahead and curve the ceiling. I like the way the whole space starts to feel that way. You get rid of the sharp corners of a space and it makes everything more fluid. I also think the ceiling at El Bolero is very interesting. It’s built very geometric with the lines and it adds a lot of activity to the existing space because it’s not just your plan old flat ceilings with lights.
This kind of detail can really define a restaurant.
John Paul: That’s the fun part. The designs become, at least in the general demographic area, pretty iconic to the user and the guests. So when people take photos at El Bolero, there’s a Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo mural, there’s also the concrete floor, there’s the ceiling detail we did. Same with Quill. People start recognizing where you are when you post it on Instagram or Snapchat. And those social media benefits are pretty important to us because we see it when people post, and it helps the operator get exposure as well, which we think is important as designers. Our goal is not only to put out a cool design that we like, it’s to make sure the concept has all the tools in place to be successful as long as an operator is using them correctly.
How did you guys get into restaurant design?
John Paul: I still have a real estate company. I was in real estate years ago. When the market dropped in 2007, I was still doing commercial real estate, finding places for clients, restaurants. Miguel was designing hotels in South America and the market was dropping toward the end of that year.
Miguel: I was actually working here in the U.S. seven years before that. I was doing residential work and then hotels for another known firm here in Dallas. But then in 07, when the market dropped, my hotels and projects got put on hold. There was not a lot of work in that realm, and John had this potential client that wanted to open a restaurant. They knew what they wanted to do, but they didn’t have any more knowledge of how to make it happen. Basically, we got together and decided to go and tackle this project. We found a spot, we helped design everything from the name of the place to the brand, to the color, furniture, interiors, and we helped manage the cost of the project and help put it together. From then on, most of our work has been referrals for actual restaurants.
Branding is part of the package?
John Paul: We have a full branding department in the studio that focuses just on that. We help with the process. Our goal is always to do branding, interior, and the architectural space as a cohesive unit.
Miguel: It makes the concept more solid. It's definitely important for the brand to communicate with the design features and the architecture of the space.
Since then, it really seems like you’ve found a comfort level with restaurants.
John Paul: I think we’ve been fortunate to be able to get our hands on a lot of the busiest restaurants in Texas, at least in Dallas. Especially the ones located in really great spots. Two of the great concepts we’re pretty happy with are the ones called The Rustic and Happiest Hour. Everyone was praising The Rustic for the amount of revenue it was doing, but now Happiest Hour is doing about 20 percent more.
Do operators often ask for advice?
John Paul: Knowing and understanding operators is really helpful for us when it comes to assisting our clients, because we’re not just looking at the design aesthetic. We’re looking to see how our design can result in trigger points that hopefully help them increase their PPA (per person average). So we had a client come in and we were talking about a QSR restaurant. They said, ‘This is our line and this is how we want people to order.’ I said, ‘OK, how do you order alcohol?’ They said, ‘You just grab a beer.’ Now, what if we put a small sake bar in the restaurant so you increase your PPA and we can easily grab another $8 to $10 a person at dinner? And increase your Friday and Saturday business? Those are the kinds of conversations we like having.
Our goal is to always figure out how to help you increase your price per person so your longevity is stronger and they’re happy with us so we can get repeat clients.
Miguel: And also, the thing about designing restaurants is that a lot of people might think you offer some food and you provide good service and that’s it. There are a lot more components to designing a restaurant than, for example, designing any kind of residential project, or even a hotel. When I was working in hotels, I would be working in specific areas, but I wouldn’t have control in other areas. In a restaurant, if we have control of the restaurant—helping them with the brand, the image of the space, and helping them with the design—we can grasp the whole project. It’s still a challenge. There are a lot of components. We have to come together to make it work in a small square footprint usually.
It always comes down to costs, though, doesn’t it?
John Paul: A large portion of our clients are self funded. So we’re very conscious when we get started, even from day one. We always talk to our team and don’t go out and just pick up a $300 chair. We say, ‘Here’s our budget.’ Even if our client doesn’t explain exactly what we can’t buy. We’re not the kind of studio. It’s just not in our culture. We don’t spec $350 or $400 chairs. It’s just not what we do. Maybe because we’ve never had multi-million dollar budgets, but it’s also being conscious that our clients needs a quick ROI and our goal is not to inflate that so they can get a return a lot faster.
Does value engineering play a large role in your designs?
John Paul: I think, hypothetically, if they want walnut finish, we don’t spec walnut, we do a red oak with a walnut stain. Little details like that. There are even savings if you buy your own specialty lighting instead of having your general contractor buy the specialty lighting. And if the general lighting is purchased by the general contractor versus the entire package, that will save you thousands of dollars.
Different things like, instead of doing a custom table, we can probably spec something that we find. Or instead of purchasing from a manufacturer, we could get a custom table for probably $20 to $30 cheaper per table. If you know what the process is in regards to restaurant spec’ing, it makes it a lot easier for an operator to save money.
Is there always a rush to get it done to save money as well?
John Paul: Sadly, I think 90 percent of our clients hire us after they’ve signed their lease. Then all the pressure is on us. In a perfect world, it would be great if a client would hire us while they’re in LOI (letter of intent). Most of our clients hire us right after they sign the lease, or the day of. They say, ‘Hey we just signed. How soon can we get the plans?’ Yeah, that’s part of the restaurant business we’ve learned but are just kind of used to now.
What kind of time frame are we looking at on some of these projects?
Quill, design wise, took us three and half months. Then construction took a little bit longer because the general contractor had some delays. That took an extra four months. So it was about seven to eight months total. Honestly, all of our projects are always done, from start to finish, in six to seven months. That’s kind of how we started this business and it was kind of by accident. We tried to align ourselves with GCs that can go very fast, but still efficiently and professionally. What we kind of learned is that the GC that has restaurant experience is the one who knows how to build quickly.
Miguel: I think we had a client once, he had a GC, but he didn’t know much about restaurants.
John Paul: He was an office GC, which is fine. Anyone can learn anything. But it’s more about knowing the process and knowing not to overthink the finishes. It’s a complicated build-out because it’s 2,000 square feet with a kitchen and a bar. But sometimes they overthink it and overprice it. We just try to help them understand that it’s not as complicated as it looks.
Right now, we can see through a GC if they overcharge for things. Sometimes we get too involved where we look over the bids and we tell our clients, ‘Hey this is a rip-off.’ But, our goal is to protect our client and sometimes we just try to help them out and make sure they don’t go down the wrong path.
From a designer’s perspective, how is the restaurant industry evolving?
I think it’s constantly changing. Owners are coming up with versions and versions and versions of something they saw. They want to modify really cool concepts they visited. Say, ‘Hey, I loved this, but instead of burgers, we want to do pizza.’ So we always get these reiterations of something else that they love, which is good in a way because it means they’re not copying it. That makes us happy. For us, it’s a fresh approach and that’s great when you get that customer who doesn’t want to just copy something.
Miguel: There are definitely several people trying to bring new types of concepts to the U.S., food wise.
John Paul: But when you look at them closely, nothing is really new. They’re all versions of something else. We just try to subconsciously not create an exact replica of something else.
Design wise, what are you seeing?
John Paul: We’ve seen more smaller footprint, full-service models a lot, which we love because that’s right down our alley. I would say that’s our forte, really. That’s what we really know—full-service, casual or fine dining, whatever it needs to be. We grasp that concept really well. QSR we understand as well, but we just know how to sell more per person with full service. But I think, overall, operators are moving toward smaller footprints, which is nice because it makes the space feel busier even with less people than saying a 5,000-square-foot resturant versus a 2,500-square-foot one. Operationally, as far as performance, you can still produce good volume at 2,000 or 2,500 square feet.
How do you see Dallas evolving as a food city?
John Paul: I think it’s been taking off for the last four to five years. We think it’s progressive. Fortunately, I was born in L.A. but raised in Dallas. I do travel a lot, and Miguel does, too, but coming back home it’s nice because you don’t come home and say, ‘Damn, I wish I was somewhere else so I could get a good dinner.’ There are phenomenal restaurants. There’s anything you could imagine and they are solid options. Also it doesn’t mean you’re spending $50 a person. You can get a great dish for $18 or $25. I think Dallas has been really progressive and is only getting better.