When I walk into a foodservice operation, whether it's commercial or non-commercial, it never ceases to amaze me how much more I see poor displays and clutter than actual food. The reality is, presentation of food is just as important as the food when it comes to successful design and a successful operation.
When approaching a design for an operation, I try to work with the owner and the architect to make the food the primary objective. Not the decor, the food. The counters operators use for serving only act as vehicles to assist in merchandising the food. In convenience stores, for example, merchandising provides a nice sense of entertainment for customers waiting on an order. Keep in mind, though, we're human. We have powerful senses that drive us toward, and away from, objects. You must draw upon the critical senses of smell and taste, not just sight, in order to achieve good sales.
Hand-lettered signs, dishrags on countertops, junk on top of food shields, bad lighting or, worse, no lighting at all, can also create "visual pollution" that detracts foodservice operators form their main purpose of showcasing great food. By simplifying the décor, operators can put a greater emphasis on the food. Think of the old adage, "We eat with our eyes."
For example, in many of the food courts or other types of cafeterias I've been to, I see bulky food shields over the food, blocking the sight line and creating shadows. It's unappetizing to say the least. Today's market includes many better food shields, some of which utilize a thin vertical pole with just glass, and no frame. Rather than installing ones with chrome yellow or brass poles, hot red or any other colors, a more simple design draws the customer toward the real source of color on that table - the food. Food shields should be functional, but also have the ability to disappear into the counter.
At Bytes Café in Gateway Village in Charlotte, N.C., the horizontal glass on the food shields is three-fourths inches thick, allowing for a greater expanse between uprights. The vertical poles are also three-fourths inches in diameter, and powder-coated black so they tastefully extend into the black granite top. The shields blend so well into the surrounding equipment that one has to look for them to realize they are there. At that point, the food, not the equipment, becomes the source of color and the main focus of the customer's view.
Likewise, at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., we used an over-the-counter breath protector with a powder-coated finish to match the color of the quartz top. The adjustable shields allow the operator to change the angle and height depending on that day's menu items. The one-inch thick vertical poles feature a glass protector and no metal overshelf. This allows for the color-corrected overhead lighting to merchandise the food properly in a setting that rivals natural sunlight.
Want another way to make the food "pop" before the customers' eyes? Using natural light achieves this effect best, as opposed to fluorescent lighting. "Office whites" as these bulbs are called, will actually make ham appear to be the color green, prompting the obvious question, "How old is this meat?" Instead, using lighting that is 3,500K in color will present food in the most natural way, as it is the one artificial light most similar to daylight. Remember, whatever lighting source you use, bulbs must be shielded to meet code.
That said, color, and the psychology of how it affects sales, should be at the forefront of operators' minds. Regardless of the theme, operators should refrain from using the color blue around food. Stop and think about this. When you use a color that is not a typical food color, it can be an indicator to the customer that, "something is wrong here!" Natural colors that reflect heat, such as reds, yellows, oranges and browns, can elevate customers' appetites and, hence, they will buy more. Save the blues, greens and cooler pastel colors for the dining room, where they create a soothing, calming atmosphere.
Do some research: Pay attention to the colors and lighting surrounding food, and how they become a pallet for the food itself. Next time you're in line at a pay-at-the-counter foodservice operation, see what kind of display merchandising and signage there is, if any. A designer or an operator focusing on these aspects of displaying food, and keeping them simple will not only make your main product stand out, it'll also pay off in customer satisfaction and increased sales.