Steve Starr describes the feeling you get when you walk into a Zoës Kitchen restaurant as a mix of “fast casual” and chic with a pinch of Southern hospitality. You might see it in the wallpaper, the dim lights or the soft seating, he said.
Creating that vibe doesn’t just come with a new paint job and furniture.
It’s a deliberate process engineered by Starr Design, Starr’s Charlotte-based firm of 16 interior designers, architects and graphic designers with one mission in mind for their clients: Make every space – from the seat cushions to the striped walls – a branded environment that gives a customer the visual lowdown on what the company is all about.
“We look at what (the brand) represents ... and use that to define key messages to ... a customer in a store or restaurant, or an employee in a corporation,” Starr said.
His firm’s work spans all types of industries – from academia to retail to restaurants. His Rolodex is robust and includes familiar names such as UNC Charlotte, Pandora jewelry, Brixx: Wood Fired Pizza, Tupelo Honey Cafe and all 130 Zoës Kitchen restaurants in the U.S.
Here’s how Starr Design, which generated $2.35 million in revenue last year, helps companies find the right design for a branded environment:
What’s the point: With each company he works with, Starr and his team conduct “brand discovery” exercises to figure out what message the organization is trying to send. Then they brainstorm on how the idea can be visualized into the “built world.”
Eventually, they bring out 3-D models, construction documents and cost estimates to make the idea a reality. Yes, the big strategic meetings help, but sometimes the best ideas come “in the phone calls 9:30 at night on a Friday,” Starr said.
Who would care: When Starr first started working with Zoës Kitchen, the company was opening its 17th location, he said. Execs were looking to upgrade the Mediterranean restaurant’s design so its values were obvious to customers when they walked through the door.
Starr and his team found data showing that, in most family units, women make most of the dining decisions. So, they added bold, “but soft,” striped colors onto Zoës Kitchen walls, he said. The furniture is high-end and the lights are dim.
“It’s very approachable,” he said of the restaurant. “It’s primarily female-focused so it has a soft feel to it.”
Fall in line: Pandora is different. The jewelry company has a design structure all the stores should follow. There are standards, Starr said. And rules. And lots of procedures.
Starr and his team lead every store in the U.S. and Caribbean through a “schematic design and design development” process to make sure each unit has the same look and feel as the other. Enter the brand manuals and playbooks.
“We would be the brand police through that process,” Starr said.