FEAST invited some of the St. Louis region's most innovative entrepreneurs to discuss the current state of the culinary industry and its future.
After a roundtable discussion, we sat down individually with each Tastemaker to dive into how they approach building and broadening their businesses and find out what advice they have for others entering the food-business fray.
The following is our conversation with Tom Niemeier, owner of SPACE Architecture + Design:
FEAST: How do you create a certain vibe for the restaurants you design?
Neimeier: We try to customize it to the chef's personality, what the menu is. It doesn't have to be a super-slick design. It really doesn't. Like Atomic Cowboy, I love to just go in there and hang out. You can just tell that the atmosphere has been put together by the ownership group, and it's a little quirky. ... You know that it's unique. That's what I like.
F: When did you open your own architectural firm?
N: That was in 2005 ... after about 20 years of working at various architecture firms. ... And so, when I opened up my own place, I just, I tried to take the good [things] that I learned and eliminate the bad [things].
F: How do you build a successful architectural firm?
N: Many architecture firms have a very set structure, where they have designers. They have production people, architects, and then they have interior designers. And they're all separate from one another, in different departments. And there are titles and hierarchy and all of that. We just got rid of all of that at SPACE. ... We hire people who can do design and production. They'll take the project all the way through. We just think you get a better-quality product that way. ... We try to keep [the organizational structure] really flat, kind of team oriented. The biggest evolution that we took was in 2008. We decided to get into construction ... for a couple reasons. We had some frustration in that what was being constructed wasn't the design intent. Or there were things that were missed or things that were built differently than what we wanted.
F: You wanted to have more control over those factors.
N: You really kind of deepen the relationship with clients because instead of like, doing the design then handing them the roll of drawings and saying, you know, "Good luck finding a contractor. Hope it all goes well." Now, we can take clients all the way through. And, of course, we have a fabrication studio that enables us to do some of our custom work, like the Franco ceilings, the Monarch butterflies, things that the typical contractor is going to be really confused [by] and scared to try.
F: Because it's art as well as construction.
N: To me, blending art and architecture together is what makes the spaces special and what makes them different.
F: What percentage of your business is restaurant design?
N: Right now, it's probably 20 percent.
F: Is it unusual for an architecture firm to specialize in an industry?
N: Most people think that's [restaurant design is] all we do. But we have a really diversified project group. You can't survive on restaurant work alone. ... You design, design, design, and then you're done in six weeks. And it's over.
F: Describe your design process.
N: If [clients] haven't picked a location, we'd love to help select it because it's just such a big determining factor. ... How much money are they going to spend? Is it fine dining? Is it casual? That's all going to start to paint a picture of the experience. ... Once we get done with that, the way we like to work is we'll start to lay out how the restaurant would function. But really quickly, we'll go beyond the space plan, and we get the three-dimension pack, where we use a 3-D modeling program. It helps the client visualize ceiling heights, soffits, seating arrangements. We have a big flat-screen TV. We can bring up the 3-D model, and we can manipulate and change it right there.
F: How has architectural design changed in the past five years?
N: The whole green aspect - environmentally friendly, sensitive design - people want to project that they thought about that. [Trends are also moving] toward more casual, less shiny finishes and ... more organic, distressed [materials]. ... Gerard Craft is a perfect example. Where he's going is a slick, contemporary facility. But what he wants is something dark that kind of looks like it has been there for a while. And that's a challenge. We'll be able to do it, but, I mean, it's important that you have those conversations.
F: What are some of the road blocks that you've run into typically?
N: [St. Louis County Department of Health]. The single biggest problem that we face is with the health inspection because they will not come out, and you can't talk to them. They won't look at a preliminary drawing. They have to have the full, final inspection documents before they'll look at it [the drawing]. I know I harped on this a little bit at the roundtable that we had. They [health department officials] make it difficult to design a really finely detailed space because of what they require. ... In the county, the things that jump up the costs are the plumbing requirements; the county requires an employee bathroom. We have people come to us, and they say, "I want to open a restaurant." And we say, "What's your budget?" ... And they say, "Well, I've got $120,000." We're like, "It's not going to happen unless you find a space that was an existing restaurant."
F: What's the typical price point for an average restaurant design?
N: Let's say it's a from-scratch restaurant, where you don't have the advantage of an existing kitchen. That type of thing, it's probably in the neighborhood of $350,000 to half a million dollars for a restaurant that's 3,000 to 4,000 square feet.
F: For example, every one of Dave Bailey's restaurants has a very unique feel to it.
N: They have been designed well with their existing conditions, and there are always some unique aspects about them.
F: You bring a lot of knowledge and experience to the table.
N: That's true. I think we could design a good rocket ship if we had all the right programming information. ... We know how to assemble that information and how to form it into something that looks good, functions well. And that's really what we did with [owner] Tom Schmidt at Franco. ... He had this beautiful [timbered] ceiling. But he [also] had all this white PVC pipe coming down from the lofts above. ... We just came up with a different way to treat it, and I think that's what our strength is.
F: What kind of designs would you like to see here in St. Louis?
N: I personally would like to get [crazier]. I would really like to do a space that's very concept driven, very theme oriented and very artsy. Now, this isn't for everyone, and I would never force it on anyone. But I would really like to do a space where people walk in, and they're just like, "I've never been in a space like this." It takes the right client to be willing to take a risk on it.
F: What role does design play in the success of the city and the region?
N: I'm a big proponent of the locally owned restaurant scene. ... People aren't going to come here if all we have are Chili's and Red Robin and those kinds of restaurants. So that's why I'm kind of big on Twitter, on trying to get people to patronize the locally owned restaurants. That is what's keeping our city special and unique and makes it so that people want to come back.
F: What is the key to launching a great independent restaurant?
N: A strong concept because once you have that, an overall concept, it helps drive decisions all along the way. And it keeps you on the right path.