Next time you are enjoying a meal at Paradise Bakery, Tin Star, or Cadillac Ranch, take a good look around—you’ll be surrounded by the handiwork of Brad Belleto and Michelle Bushey of Vision360. Belleto and Bushey have been designing area clubs and restaurants for about two decades, and their clients have ranged from the iconic Monica’s Aca y Alla to the up-and-coming Beaudreax’s and Mooyah.
I caught up with Belleto over lunch, and he talked about the ups and downs of restaurant design. Vision360 specializes in restaurant prototypes and branding, and his experience is often sought by many high-profile chefs and restaurateurs. However, for one reason or another, about thirty percent of those projects never come to fruition.
Often, the main obstacle is finding just the right space. The restaurant industry is heavily regulated with hundreds of federal and local health and safety standards. Some spaces just can’t accommodate those standards, while others would require hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring up to code. The investment is just too costly.
Besides restaurant design, Belleto specializes in branding. According to Belleto, good branding is a big harbinger of success, particularly with franchises, and especially in Dallas, where promising restaurants can crash and burn within months.
Belleto and Bushey are discriminating about which projects they accept. There have been times when they had to part with clients because the clients kept changing the concept until they destroyed the brand. Belleto says this usually happens when investors come from other business backgrounds, such as manufacturing or medicine.
This is why he prefers working with experienced clients who can keep focused on their brand and concept. Occasionally, Belleto will accept a job with relative novices because he feels a personal connection to them. For example, Vision360 recently finished a design for Picnic Deli and Catering, a San Antonio company that is transitioning from caterer to sit-down café. The owners of Picnic are “fun and friendly,” according to Belleto, and have a food background. That helped.
Sometimes, Vision360 has to perform plastic surgery on an established, recognizable brand. Spaghetti Warehouse, for example, had to figure out how to reinvent itself without losing any of its best elements. In a year-long project, Vision360 created a new design (coming in Spring 2010) that features an old-fashioned brick façade and an interior with a spacious, urban-loft style feel. Since the streetcar inside the restaurant is a Spaghetti Warehouse signature feature, the new design retained the streetcar—it’s part of the brand.
Domino’s Pizza presented a different challenge when the chain entered the Shanghai, China market.
“The Chinese like Western stuff,” said Belleto, “and that means things that are sleek, hip, modern. If you were standing in the Domino’s in Shanghai, you’d swear you were in New York.”
Creating the right ambiance was one thing; helping diners understand the appropriate way to eat pizza was another hurdle altogether. In Asia, diners do not touch their food; that’s considered barbaric. To make finger food acceptable, Vision360 incorporated large posters into Domino’s interior design that feature people eating pizza with their hands beside the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Great Pyramids..
“The message was, if it’s okay there, it’s okay here,” said Belleto.
Listening to Belleto discuss the many complications, cultural and otherwise, that can impact restaurant design, I could understand why so many restaurateurs seek help from Vision360. When it comes to creating a just-right dining space, the designers need to be like the food—well-prepared and seasoned.