F&B design in North America: concepts & strategies driving growth

Anicka Nault headshot LR BW

Contact Anicka Nault, Senior Designer

Lily Yuan blk BW HR

Contact Lily Yuan, Associate Director

F&B is thriving in North America, with a shift in focus to artisanal food culture and high-quality venues. Associate Director Lily Yuan and Senior Designer Anicka Nault, from Benoy’s Montréal studio in Canada, discuss market trends and project experiences.

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Q. What are the main triggers for recent F&B growth in North America?

LY: In North America, like everywhere else, e‑commerce was already having a negative impact on bricks-and-mortar retail before Covid-19 hit. This impact extended to F&B businesses. As foot traffic within malls fell away, so did the convenience sales for F&B tenants. However, the consumer experience’ element of F&B meant it was a bit more resilient than other sectors. Put simply, you can’t have a meal out with friends and family online.

The growth we’ve seen recently is part of a bounce-back from the pandemic, with that social, consumer experience dimension becoming more important than ever before. Instagram and social media have also shifted the balance; previously it was all about the food, but now top chefs are saying the ambiance and design of a place are just as important. The holistic approach to the food experience from influencers in the business has permeated to the mainstream. The result is that, in order to compete, more and more food brands and restaurants are investing in the design of their spaces. 

AN: There’s an increased focus on the experiential element of F&B in North America. Clients are realising that if they make their venue really spectacular, word-of-mouth will help to boost traffic and revenue. So we’re seeing efforts to evolve the traditional food court’ into more refined food halls’ and eateries’. For designers, this means getting away from cookie-cutter layouts and exploring different table heights and counter positions, looking at high-quality materials, upholstered seating, solid wood, bold colours and finishes. It’s about creating spaces that people will enjoy and want to spend time in.

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Q: What other key trends are you seeing, and what are the implications for design?

LY: There’s been a transition away from mass production into a food culture that’s more local, artisanal and diverse. For interior design, this means more storytelling around provenance embedded in the design. For example, we’ve been working for a high-end food store called Pusateri’s in Toronto. They specialise in Italian food, and through that food they promote the story and flavours of Italy. So our design scheme has centred on education and engagement, bringing to life the origins of cheeses and other products. We’re also seeing food markets becoming more permanent by bringing them indoors, with suburban malls being converted into market spaces to meet demand for local food experiences. 

AN: There’s a new customer journey and experience within food markets. As people move through these environments, they’re able to explore and select goods in a way that’s truly immersive. And the way markets are configured means they can piece together everything they need for their evening meal. It becomes an event in itself. But it’s also accessible and inclusive – these markets don’t discriminate, catering for ordinary and low-income consumers as well. It’s not about promoting an exclusive foodie culture. 

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Q: What role is F&B playing in ‘retailtainment’ and hospitality?

LY: Food plays a huge role in destination venues in North America. In the past, the ratio in big shopping centres or mixed-use developments would be 80% retail and 20% food. Today, it’s the other way around. We’ve had a lot of experience working on the American Dream project, a 3 million square foot retailtainment’ and food destination development in the Greater New York (Tri-State) area – the biggest of its kind in the US. According to the owner, four fifths of the project’s revenue now comes from entertainment and food. It’s a similar story with Eataly, the high-end supermarket chain. Since introducing indoor eating areas, 50% of their business now comes from onsite dining and food consumption. 

AN: The F&B offer is also key in hospitality, with many people visiting hotels just for the dining experience. And it’s not exclusive to hospitality guests; it’s also an attraction for locals, which helps to diversify customer demographics for the client. What’s more, the F&B space has become an important extension of a hotel brand because it can be designed to elevate the whole look and feel of a hotel or venue. You see this at MARCUS, Montréal’s Four Season’s restaurant by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. His new restaurant, Marcus Live, which was designed by our team, will soon be opening at American Dream.

In this way, F&B has become an anchor point, enhancing the services and spaces around it, making these venues more commercially viable and sustainable. By providing a compelling reason to visit, F&B can maximise the economics of a project and really generate value locally. Increasingly, I think we’ll see F&B collaborating with retail and hospitality to create a great overall experience. Not as separate vendors, but as partners, working together, which will also provide leverage against the existential threat from e‑commerce. It’s no coincidence that Louis Vuitton and Gucci have recently opened their own restaurants and cafés. And it’s not just retail and hospitality. Mixed-use and workplaces are doing the same, using F&B as a tool to attract people into their spaces.

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Q: What is the key to successful F&B implementation?

AN: First impressions really count, so getting the interior design right is essential. The curation of the experience through seating and layout, how you bring spaces to life through creative design – these things really make a difference. Then it’s about the quality of the food experience. But operations are also important. One of the big things we’re seeing is an evolution in waste management in malls and food halls, with manned waste stations where staff collect trays and plates – it might not sound exciting, but it adds to the sense of service and refinement, which goes a long way with customers.

LY: Behind the aesthetics is the analysis. Before we get involved in the design stage, we study the location, the masterplanning, the leasing plan, and of course the programming. If a food tenant is in the right location for the targeted demographic, and is paired with the right adjacent tenants, those are already key elements for potential business success. So we invest a lot of time in the planning and programming. We work closely with developers and leasing groups, and we analyse site traffic and circulation, using the data to shape really relevant and compelling designs. Ultimately, it’s the synergy between location, aesthetics, masterplanning and programming – that’s the dream ticket. 

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Q: Where do you see F&B adding value in terms of regeneration?

LY: Where developments are struggling, different strategies can be deployed to drive improvements through F&B. Through the analytical processes mentioned above, we can show how to enhance food traffic, maximise opportunities and minimise vacancies. F&B can also help to rejuvenate areas through the activation of temporary spaces. For example, through short-term, low-rent leasing, you can give a small pop-up business an opportunity to test the market. If they’re successful, traffic builds and reputation builds – for the business and the area, which stimulates the regeneration process. 

AN: Our work on Marché des Promenades St Bruno, Quebec, is a prime example. Here, we developed a food market that’s helped to breathe new life into a vacant former Target space. Focused on community, and creating a food destination for locals and outsiders alike, Le Marché des Promenades is now a bustling gourmet market spanning over 130,000 square feet of innovative food purveyors. It’s a reminder of the power of food to reactivate those spaces that might be difficult to rent for retail purposes. These formats can also be used to exploit spill-out opportunities to generate an indoor/​outdoor dynamic. Seasonal activation opportunities, like Christmas and Halloween, or temporary leasing for up-and-coming brands, also allow for greater variety. These are the spaces where food can once again drive engagement and generate value for landlords, tenants, and communities.

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