INTERIORSCAPING THE RESTAURANT ENVIRONMENT

by Joelle Steele

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When you decide to go out to eat, you often have many places to choose from to suit your taste buds any time day or night. Whether you select a fast-food chain, coffee shop, family restaurant or gourmet dining establishment, you will probably admire several foliage plants and maybe even a slice of color here and there.

Interior landscaping can make a significant contribution to the decor and theme of a restaurant, and it can lend a warm, relaxing ambience conducive to comfortable dining. Even fast-food chains have recognized the importance of enhancing their establishments to accommodate a broader portion of the working class that might otherwise brown-bag it each day. To cater to that clientele, they have expanded seating; experimented with fashionable colors for the walls; put up paintings; and, of course, landscaped their interiors.

PRELIMINARY PLANNING

Successful interior landscaping in restaurants requires careful preliminary planning to overcome the various technical problems that can occur as a result of inherent environmental factors. Low light, air conditioning, difficult access and customer traffic are only a few of the nuisances that interior landscapers must anticipate during the design process.

Becoming involved in the initial planning stages with the architect or designer can help minimize the severity of some of these problems. Determining the correct lighting and plant placements early on can contribute significantly to the success of the final design, as well as the interior landscape's longevity.

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RESTAURANT THEMES AND STYLES

Every restaurant has its own distinct theme or style, be it French haute cuisine, Mexican, Italian, casual (such as hamburgers or pizza), lobster bar or steak house. Only after the interior landscaper has examined the style can a suitable design be created.

For example, Mexican restaurants, a favorite in southern California, are characteristically furnished with tile walls; natural woods; water features; occasional antiques; and, in the less formal establishments, old signs and bric-a-brac reminiscent of California's early days under Spanish rule.

Interior landscapes in such establishments usually consist of hanging and cascading plants and a few free-standing tall shrubs or trees. Colorful chrysanthemums and kalanchoes are sometimes added for accent. There is seldom any rhyme or reason to the plant selection; it's usually as random as the decor's other elements. The emphasis is on filling every empty space and creating an overgrown garden atmosphere.

The interior of an Italian restaurant may look quite different. It's a more sparsely decorated space with low light levels; less foliage; and, in some of the more elegant establishments, an emphasis on cut flower arrangements.

On the other hand, high-tech style coffeehouses offer even few plants. They're typically characterized by bare-brick or stucco walls, hardwood floors, and wide-open spaces highlighted by only the faintest hint of foliage.

The look in fast-food and family restaurants is distinctly cozy and homelike. These are places you can take the kids and watch them scale the walls while you try to eat and have a conversation at the same time. The atmosphere is definitely less formal, with a much higher concentration of plants than most other eateries.

Designing interior landscapes for restaurants sounds pretty simple so far. However, in reality, each design required more than just selecting plants to complement the existing decor; someone had to make some practical decisions about what would actually survive there. The problems that exist in restaurants have forced many interior landscapers to say "no" when asked for estimates.

BUYING OR LEASING PLANTS

In some markets, such as southern California, restaurants come and go with increasing rapidity. In an area where "the fashionable" is replaced regularly with "the more fashionable," restaurants change hands frequently, undergoing complete face-lifts in the process. These establishments prefer to lease plants and interior landscapers have to be concerned with the possibility of nonpayment or late payment at best. For some of the larger plant companies, this situation may present no real threat, but for the little guys, these dents in the cash flow are serious.

TECHNICAL PROBLEMS

Besides the financial risks involved in interior landscaping a restaurant, technical problems abound. As in any commercial space, interior landscapers must be concerned about the environmental factors of lighting, air circulation and temperature. However, in a restaurant, there are additional problems with grease, dust, nicotine, drafts, and smog. Finally, there are also problems of limited access time for maintenance, abuse by patrons and staff, and limitations for insect control.

All these details must be taken into consideration during the design process. If an interior landscape cannot hold up to the maintenance, it probably has a poor design. However, for restaurants, it is extremely difficult to design anything that is maintainable, unless you really put your mind to finding the right solutions to the problems that limit the designs and could cause heavy plant losses.

Find a plant that is easy to care for and grows in a closet, and you have the ideal restaurant plant. Find one that doesn't shed leaves on the customers' heads and food, tables, chairs, window sills and floors, and you've got the best plant ever for restaurants.

Now find a plant that does not suffer from regular infestations by mites or related pests and requires little moisture to survive, and you have found the answer to an interior landscaper's dream.

SUBIRRIGATION SYSTEMS

In warm, high-light environments, try using controlled-watering or subirrigation containers for foliage plants. These devices keep moisture levels high and water stress down. You'll find fewer problems with pests and abscission. The foliage retains its lush "like-new" appearance longer, and maintenance time is better spent removing grease and dust from the leaves while the containers do the watering.

Controlled-watering containers do not solve all the problems in restaurant environments. However, they do provide a solution to limited access to the restaurants and to the plants, whether they're located in the rafters or on shelves above eating areas. When used with floor plants, they become even greater time-savers, by allowing less-frequent fillings and greater irrigation accuracy.

PRESSURIZED WATERING MACHINES

Another handy tool is a pressurized watering machine that has long hoses and wands for those hard-to-reach places, maybe even for your controlled-watering containers. These machines and/or controlled watering containers can be invaluable in restaurants where maintenance time can become excessive.

You have only to look at several restaurants to see the wide variety of plant materials being used under different conditions. Your own experience, as well as that of others whose work is on display for you to view in other establishments, should serve as good indicators of what plants will work where.

ARTIFICIAL FOLIAGE

There is only one plant that will really suit the criteria of every restaurant — an artificial one! However, many restaurant owners won't settle for artificials. For those who want the real thing, interior landscapers must attempt to oblige them in the best way possible. But using artificial foliage in interior landscapes does not mean that you are turning your back on your own industry! It's better to look at something green than something yellow and brown that's suffering from water stress, lack of light and so on — even if it isn't alive. Restaurant patrons usually don't examine the foliage surrounding them as carefully or critically as interior landscapers do. They usually focus on the overall look of the environment and their dinner companions, not to mention the menu.

High-quality silks or other synthetic artificial plants can look very convincing, even to a professional interior landscaper, especially when they're well-made, properly assembled, and located in out-of-reach places or under low light. A pizza parlor chain in California uses silk plants, which are regularly cleaned and maintained by an interior landscaper.

Some restaurants use combinations of real and artificial plants, depending on plant placement. For instance, one Mexican restaurant has live foliage in the main area, where the skylight is located, and all silks in the dimly lit dining area, where there is no natural light. The quality of the artificial foliage is so good that it's difficult to make the distinction without close inspection.

FLOWERING PLANTS

Last, but not least, are exotic flowering plants which can contribute greatly to original and stunning dining atmospheres. Orchids, bromeliads, and other epiphytic plants are often used to enhance what would otherwise be ordinary interior landscapes. In the Los Angeles area, such restaurants as Spago's, Chinois, and Wave offer outstanding examples of some of nature's most striking beautiful masterpieces in indoor plantings. These exotic and unusual specimens (some of which offer the added benefit of low maintenance) can provide a distinct change of pace. For instance, for years everyone thought you needed a hothouse to grow orchids, but now many varieties survive in interiors.

In addition, bromeliads and Tilandsia come in many shapes and sizes, some of which do better under different lighting or temperature regimes. There are plenty of experts who can advise the novice on their selection and maintenance. Despite the problems mentioned above, restaurant interior landscapes offer may possibilities for creativity. It might even be argued that imagination is the primary limitation in achieving spectacular results.

SUMMARY

There are so many different theme restaurants today, and nearly all of them use plants in their decor to one degree or another. The emphasis on plants has been the basis for many fine restaurant interiors, and interior landscapers can be proud of these accomplishments.

This article last updated: 11/14/1993.