Next time you eat a burger, a burrito bowl, or a pumpkin spice latte, you might be picking it up in an airy, cube-shaped restaurant. McDonald’s, Burger King, and other chains across the fast-food and fast-casual industries have released designs and started updating locations to what many of them have dubbed the restaurant of the future. Most of these designs look strikingly similar, even for establishments that serve different products.
“We’re seeing squares and rectangles, cube shapes, with a lot of glass and a very airy look to them. They have clean lines, very contemporary looking,” Tom Cook, principal at King Casey restaurant consulting agency, told Insider about the restaurant designs.
The restaurants also tend to be “quite minimalistic,” with wood tones and natural colors, while integrating technology, restaurant consultant Mark Moeller told Insider.
These designs mostly exist out of efficiency, experts told Insider. As to go orders, through mobile orders, drive-thru, or meal delivery apps like DoorDash, become more important to companies’ bottom lines, restaurants are increasingly designed to accommodate them. A simple, minimalistic cube is the most adaptable design, and can accommodate add-ons like drive-thrus or mobile pickup areas, Garret Rice, senior designer at FRCH Design Worldwide, told Insider.
With more ways to order and get food, ease of access is key. That efficiency is a consideration in every part of the design, even the initial construction, Moeller said.
Past iterations of iconic fast food architecture tended towards designs with corners and curves, requiring more skilled labor to build. The new minimal restaurants with straight lines are much easier and faster to build, reducing initial costs and increasing revenue, Moeller said.
Another factor in these different types of restaurants looking similar, from Chipotle to KFC to Starbucks, is that they’re now going after the same customers more than ever, according to Moeller. Fast-food chains are competing against each other, but also fast-casual chains, and as a result, taking their overall branding more seriously.
Fast food used to be about creating cheap food fast, or aimed at children, Moeller said, but now these chains are dropping “kitschy” design and distinctive, “gimmicky,” architectural features to create a broader appeal.
The distinction between fast-food chains like McDonald’s and fast-casual chains like Chipotle has eroded to the point where these categories are nearly meaningless, Rice said. Both types of chains are trying to communicate that they’re focused on food, not design, so restaurants are minimal, he said. Chains “need to save money on design to spend more on food,” as Moeller put it.
While fast-food and fast-casual sales continue to grow, impressive architecture or distinctive designs won’t help a brand stand out in the crowded landscape. Multiple ways of accessing food, through drive-thrus, mobile pickup stations, and curbside spots will be key. The minimal cube design just happens to be an efficient way to get there.