Over the next few months, we’ll be covering the opening of Public Greens, Indianapolis restaurateur Martha Hoover’s second location of her hit healthy café. We’ll follow Hoover as she navigates every part of the opening process of a restaurant, from picking a location to marketing. Today, she discusses how she approached restaurant interior design.
The first thing I knew I wanted to do, décor-wise, was to make Public Greens look like a cafeteria. I used to love cafeterias growing up in the Midwest. I loved that you could see how every item on the menu was prepared, and talk to not just the servers, but the people making the food. So we did that at the first Public Greens. And I knew we wanted to do that with this second location, too.
The next interior decoration challenge was the building. For the first Public Greens, we could not tear down the building, so we had to rehabilitate it. We had to invest a ton of money in infrastructure — electrical, heating, and air costs a fortune, and I wasn’t working with an enormous budget, so I had to get creative, design-wise. For example, the kitchen was small and we didn’t have a ton of storage — so I took that as an opportunity to waste as little as possible.
We added windows to the building, which automatically created a lot of light. And that helped to create this vision of doing something very simple, farmhouse-like, and urban. I wanted the space to feel very clean and organized but sparse.
The second location has been a different challenge altogether. We are also building the space out from scratch, but it is huge — at least 2,000 square feet. What’s been most important is taking that space, and making it feel really similar to the original: from the cafeteria line to the tabletops to the chairs. When you have multiple locations, you need to have some themes that tie everything together. You need to balance between being cookie cutter and being totally original.
I firmly believe that décor shouldn’t be this enormous part of your budget. I really try to be careful. We don’t use expensive materials. We make sure that our finishes are reasonable. We don’t have marble everywhere. But the two areas where we do put in a good amount of money are lighting and sound because these are the two most critical elements of the restaurant besides the food.
For creating the atmosphere of a restaurant, there is nothing worse than bad lighting. I remember when we first came into this space and turned on the light, I hated the way the light looked with the food. So we hired a lighting expert, and that was totally worth it — the right lighting makes a space feel warm and sets a good tone. I’d also recommend hiring an audio expert that’s local — you want someone who can come in and fix things in a pinch when a speaker goes out.
That’s another really important tip when it comes to décor: whenever you can, support a local business. In addition to our audio expert, our cabinet maker and our equipment supplier are both local folks. With our cabinet maker, he’s a regular customer, so if there are any problems, he’s the first to notice them and fix them. And same with our equipment supplier — she knows our operations and the level of quality we need. We could probably save money buying from WebstaurantStore, but I’d much rather have that personal relationship.
In terms of whether or not to hire a designer, I have complicated feelings. For me, I am passionate about interior design and I always have a strong vision for how I want a restaurant work. But I know a lot of restaurateurs who don’t want to do their own design at all. I will say that one of the biggest issues with hiring an interior designer is that it has created so much derivativeness in restaurants — they do kind of all look the same! You don’t know what place you are in half the time because there is so much commonality! I would certainly recommend not swimming in that sea of sameness, but that depends on how involved you want to be with the design. Keep in mind: it is an area where there is just so much minutiae and detail.
I also can’t tell you how important it is to balance form and function. I always bring in my operations team to be a part of the design. I don’t get to decide where the fryer goes because I think it would look better in a certain place. You have to create a restaurant that works operationally or it is a disaster. We also have a director of sustainability, and we plan to run everything in this new location by her as well to make sure our systems and infrastructures are as green as possible.
Oh, and I cannot stress enough the importance of having 1. Plenty of storage space and 2. A nice bathroom.