Fast-Casual Restaurants, Full-Service Appeal: Creating restaurants that don’t sacrifice style or substance for speed

Counter-service restaurants are focused on throughput—getting customers in and getting them out. Not the case when it’s a Shea-designed space. For us, it’s about keeping customers in, bridging the gap between fast-casual and full-service to still create an all-encompassing dining experience, even at happy hour. It’s about creating a space where guests want to stay—to work, lounge, socialize, order another round (whether it’s food or cocktails), and just take in their surroundings.

Three of Shea’s recent designs—dessert-and-cocktail mecca Edwards Dessert Kitchen, modern Mexican joint Centro, and beer-and-pizza spot Surly Pizza Upstairs—embrace this idea by providing great design and vibes in a convenient fast-casual setting. Not only is the food on par with (and better than a lot of) full-service restaurants, but from branding through design, the ambiance is designed to give the full-service experience. Fast-casual success is about finding a good balance, offering full service at the bar and employing a walk-around service system to replenish guest drinks. It’s all about elevating the humble counter-service spot to become a dining destination, so read on to see how we do it. (Hint: Well-designed, well-stocked bars help. A lot.)

Edwards Dessert Kitchen

The design at Edwards Dessert Kitchen is as far from a fast-food joint as it comes. Housed in the historic Lowry-Morrison building, the space has a 100-plus year history as one of the most beloved buildings in Minneapolis’ North Loop, a hotspot for dining and shopping. The full restoration and renovation that Shea gave to the first-floor space put it on the same level as any full-service spot, making it a place where customers want to come in and lounge for awhile, getting the service and experience they deserve without feeling as if they’re being pushed back out the door.

The key to the design was keeping the building’s historic bones that make Edwards a completely unique place to visit, rather than competing with the maple floors and exposed-brick archways. Those arches now create a natural divide between the bar/lounge area and the ordering counter, communal table, and cozy banquettes, creating a sense of place in what could otherwise be a cavernous space. Our team added finishes and fixtures as gilded as the treats in the pastry cases, bringing in an element of glamour with lounge furniture covered in luxe fabric and varied creative lighting fixtures that highlight the contrast between the historic building’s bones and the modern Shea design and branding.

Although patrons order their desserts at the counter, once they’ve taken their numbered cake server to their table, they’re completely taken care of. Seating options, from a long banquette to cozy nooks to a custom communal wood table striped in gold, are ideal for groups getting together for treats or individuals looking for their own indulgence. The open pastry kitchen provides the entertaining element of theater often missing in fast-casual restaurants, as pastry chefs roll out dough and plate their elaborate creations against a backdrop of clean white subway tile.

The two-tier, U-shaped bar serves as a great spot to display inventive cocktail ingredients, as well as a clever way to serve guests and clear plates. Here, guests can gather for a different kind of full-service experience, sampling some of the Twin Cities’ most creative cocktails (created by local liquor juggernaut Tattersall)—maybe swiping a spoonful of soufflé, too. The forward-thinking, on-trend design at this counter-service spot takes it from a typical bakery to a true dessert destination showcasing the talents of some of the area’s cleverest pastry chefs.

Centro

As the casual half of modern Mexican dynamic duo Centro and Popol Vuh in Northeast Minneapolis, Centro takes the notion of the local taco shop to an entirely new level. The creative tacos (featuring everything from cured cactus to braised beef cheeks) are matched by the whimsical design, rooted in the Aztec myth of “Centzon Totochtin,” about a group of divine rabbits who know how to party. This creative theme carries through the outdoor murals, which also feature images inspired by the Dia de los Muertos, and the bold branding materials created by Shea, inviting bright pops of pink and teal into the mix.

That energy carries through the restaurant space, starting with the teal neon signage at the entrance and the yellow Plexiglass-coated salvaged doors overhanging the counter. Once they’ve put in their orders, guests can settle in to wait for food to be delivered to booths, high-top tables, or the long banquette designed to accommodate anyone looking to pop in for tacos. They also have the option to belly up to the large central bar, which is framed by salvaged windows from the original demolition. The quality of finishes and décor—including a 10-foot custom cross-stitch art installation that brings an extra dose of vibrancy to the room—carries through the space, giving off a vibe and experience much more akin to a full-service casual spot than the typical quick-service restaurant.

As one of Minnesota’s top breweries, Surly Brewing Co. has experience running a full-service restaurant—but when the team was looking to transform the fine-dining space above its taproom into a fast-casual pizza spot slinging New Haven-style pies, they came to Shea to ensure that diners would still get an experience that hit the mark on every touchpoint. Our team gave a space a total transformation without losing the Surly ethos of providing a beer-centric environment with great energy for guests to enjoy.

Keeping the Surly brand consistent throughout the space was key, so we commissioned a custom “backwards” brand sign to serve as the yang to the yin of the main exterior sign, made using Surly beer bottles set against an industrial-chic corrugated metal wall. Shea also created other branding and signage in keeping with Surly’s bold red-and-black color palette and style. A neutral design with pops of red echoes the Surly creed of letting the product stand out, and an outdoor deck makes it easy for patrons to soak in the sunshine with a pint glass nearby.

Inside, linear light fixtures and a bright red bar literally put beer in the spotlight with a long line of taps at the ready, and behind the order line, piping-hot ovens churn out sizzling pizzas. The layout is simple but functional, ensuring that guests can get a pint and a pie in their hands as quickly as possible, still maintaining a full-service bar experience. The Surly brand carries throughout the space, never getting lost, and the design and operations show what’s great about the iconic beer company: its attitude, its comprehensiveness, and its complexity.