Across industries, Minnesota businesses have had no choice but to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic. Customers have as well. The return to a restaurant this year might mean ordering using your phone while sitting on a spaced-out patio.
Cori Kuechenmeister has been on the front lines in dining space reimagination. As the Design Director at Minneapolis-based interior design studio Shea Design, Kuechenmeister has found solutions for many of the Twin Cities’ top chefs and restaurants. Some recent projects for the firm David Shea founded in 1978 include a new Smack Shack location in Bloomington, Lat14 chef Ann Ahmed’s Khâluna in south Minneapolis, and StormKing BBQ’s move to the North Loop.
“The businesses that are engaging with us are the optimists, they have to be,” she says. “They’re ready to put more energy into their spaces and revitalize them despite all the challenges. They’re looking at it like an opportunity.”
As more restaurants open up full-service dining for the first time since last March—or ever—Shea has focused on creative ways to provide privacy, seamless pickup areas, and outdoor space.
What themes have emerged as restaurants adjust to the pandemic/post-pandemic world?
We’re looking into a crystal ball, trying to figure out what’s going to be the new norm, how [businesses] can reassess their spaces to accommodate distancing. It’s not one size fits all; if anything, there is no norm. The space ends up being a combination of who the brand is, how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic, what their goal is, and what culture they want to create.
More and more clients are considering how important connections are, in terms of spaces, and how they can shape those feelings when guests come in. They’re not only creating amazing hospitality and taking care of them, but spaces can really shift peoples’ moods. Also, because we haven’t really been able to travel, some places have focused on creating a space that just transports you. It’s been important, being able to go to these serene spaces right in your own neighborhood.
[The pandemic] situation has shifted clients who were reluctant to stray from traditional styles into embracing more modern innovations in interior design. Instead of wanting a “timeless” feel, they’re asking how their spaces can be “relevant.” They want to create excitement in their services, instead of sticking with the safe and familiar.
Which restaurants that you’ve worked with recently show the results of this new reality?
When the pandemic came about, there were some challenges with fine dining and nightlife. We saw this push for casual dining, adapting to that. We transitioned spaces like Vivir [formerly Popol Vuh in Northeast Minneapolis] into a sophisticated but casual, hybrid market/fast-casual/deli concept. That’s been highly successful, especially in pivoting the space but keeping the spirit alive. The market concept in particular was great, being able to take products to go.
Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we were working on Grocer’s Table [a retail-restaurant space] out in Wayzata. When that opened, during the pandemic, we could really feel that people needed space to adapt but also have something stable in the community. Something really pivotal there was the patio space and sidewalk seating, those exterior seating options.
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And we have Surdyk’s Sidebar and Cheese Shop opening up here soon, so that’s a great reminder that businesses can still thrive despite the pandemic.
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What challenges have you encountered in designing spaces in a pandemic world?
People bring a lot of energy to spaces. So how do businesses still have that liveliness when there’s that lesser density and distancing in spaces? That’s where it’s helped bringing plants and light in when it can’t be full of people. Or adapting the layout of tables, like bringing tables spaced out against the bar. We think about the health regulations, what they’re truly getting at, and consider adapting within those.
A huge challenge has been figuring out how to “extend the seasons” in Minnesota, like the time we can spend on those patios outside. It’s meant adapting the infrastructure of restaurants in particular, whether it’s gas or electrical heaters, using blankets outside, or embedding heating into the flooring. Also, we’ve seen a lot of work on the versatility of those outdoor spaces, adding drop-down screens and igloos when the weather gets cooler so they can adapt them with the seasons.
Many places have found benefit in bringing the outside in and the inside out. That connection with nature makes the space feel so much more open—with plants, skylights, fresh air, patios, patios, patios. If I had to count how many patios I’ve talked about in the past few days. It’s become the top of my list of priorities, getting that exterior space and natural light. If spaces don’t have that, they’ve been willing to keep looking for that outdoor connection.
Learn more at Shea Design’s website.