The long and short of table trends today boils down to guest experience, says Paul Gebhardt, senior vice president of design and creative director for Oneida, a legacy purveyor of consumer and restaurant tableware in the U.S.
Tableware, Gebhardt says, can enhance the guest experience to the degree that restaurants create a memory that in turn makes the guest come back.
"In my mind, there are a few unique components of each brand's experience, and you have to look at those elements along with the culinary vision of the property and the lifestyle of guests that are going to frequent the property, and make sure you line up the tabletop expression to link in with all of that," Gebhardt says. "The flavor experience is all built around that lifestyle, culinary, and design convergence."
Today's audience has heavily influenced expectations behind guest experience. The mighty millennial has driven what was once about comfort and familiarity into the territory of unusual and local. And local sourcing isn't just popular with ingredients, it's hitting tableware, too.
"[Millennials] come in with a sense of expectation to the degree that they want a unique experience," Gebhardt says. "In the past, travelers especially, or cosmopolites in general, have sought a consistent experience, a degree of comfort. The millennial is looking for something that really contains the DNA of the region that they're in—whether that's domestic or international, I think that has been a shift in the design and articulation of both the restaurant interior as well as the menu and the way the tableware appears."
Gebhardt spent much of his life collecting handmade ceramics but for so long, the style wasn't right for food service. Bright white porcelain reigned supreme because it fit the broadest settings. But with chefs harnessing their power as artists more than ever before, Gebhardt says, tableware has become a unique expression of the chef and whom the chef is talking to. Other bigger factors are at play as well.
"The economy signals to a certain degree what's happening in the restaurant scene," he says. "When we had a big real estate bubble, we saw the advent of a lot of casual dining and the expression of casual dining becoming the dominant perspective. But today, because the economy is doing so well, there are more classic, upscale French-influenced fine dining properties."
For those properties, bone china might be the right fit. It all depends on the brand and what elements are at play. But the table experience is influenced by more than just cups and saucers, small plates and serving plates. One must not forget flatware.
"The plate is more sensed than seen sometimes, but the flatware is tactile, you hold it and it can really make the food taste better, make the meal feel like it's worth more money," he says. "When people come to me and they've done everything they can with food quality and prep and it's still not coming together, in many cases it's these other elements that surround the meal experience that need to be dialed in a little bit more. Design itself can be left on the table sometimes, no pun intended. People focus on the price and other things that are important but when it comes to guest experience, tableware can pay for themselves many times over with the perception of quality in experience."
Gebhardt has been creatively directing for Oneida since 1993. He holds design patents in tableware, housewares, furniture, and jewelry. So it's no surprise then the likens the fashion of tableware to the fashion of dress.
"Flatware is almost like the jewelry on the table," he says. "It's shiny stuff; it's analogous to earrings or rings you might select to wear with a particular outfit or on a particular occasion. They're really personal and they tell something about yourself. In the case of the culinarian, the tabletop really says a lot about the brand."
Get Paul's picks for table trends, along with ours, in this slideshow: 8 Ways to Dress the Table Like a Design Pro.