Words such as authentic, real, integrity, and genuine seem to be used as brand attributes for almost every company we come into contact with lately. Even one of our own values is authenticity. But behind these words, what message are people truly trying to send and why is it becoming so relevant in design?

It is vital to pay attention to what drives your target audience. Millennials represent the largest force in consumer spending, and this fact can’t be ignored. Their generation puts a premium on authentic, handmade and locally produced goods, and they’re willing to pay more for something that they can support. Therefore, restaurants are now turning their focus to being authentic and real, and they want to make sure the customer is aware of these attributes.

Authenticity is about communicating your brand’s true ideals to the consumer while the term real references the use of natural materials. Can something be authentic without being real? In short, the answer is yes. If you have an Asian fusion concept, it would make sense to take your design cues from contemporary Asian style, but a rustic environment wouldn’t be appropriate. In this case, using plastic materials may not be real, but it could be very much authentic to the brand.

From a design perspective, it is vital to ensure the restaurant’s key brand messages are being expressed in an authentic way. Consumers are now exposed to excessive amounts of information and are too sophisticated to value something that isn’t genuine.

Today, operators are leaning more toward using real materials over synthetic choices. However, five to seven years ago, the trend was to use molded, curvilinear plastic and fiberglass or high-performance polymers. Now, if there is an opportunity to use real materials as opposed to their synthetic counterparts, people are more likely to choose that option. Wood also is making an enormous comeback, along with more natural materials such as stone and brick. When these elements reinforce your brand values, they can be very useful tools in communicating authenticity.

For example, if you have a brand that originated in a rural area, serves home cooking and values heritage, a traditional design with real materials would be very authentic. Additionally, although it is a common misconception, real materials aren’t always more expensive than synthetic options. The level of cost is more directly related to the materials’ quality, durability and longevity.

There are other numerous ways to communicate authenticity aside from material choices. Right now in fast casual, an emphasis is being placed on open kitchens and food theatre. Food that is made-to-order or created from scratch can be highlighted through the store layout. High-quality food standards are also being showcased through the design by display-prepped (line ready) ingredients in glass door coolers.

Restaurants that use responsible sourcing practices, such as free-range or non-GMO, can celebrate this attribute through creative signage and graphics.

The overall design can communicate so many things to the consumer. People pay a lot of attention to the lighting, acoustics and tactile touch and feel of the materials. The atmosphere of the restaurant comes from a multisensory approach rather than just the appearance. This design then sets the expectation for the diners, which the food and service then need to deliver. If a person feels comfortable in a space, they’re more likely to linger, enjoy a beer and spend more. Whereas, if a space leaves the guest feeling out of place or confused, they may come in and take their order to go. Therefore, the entire experience needs to resonate as an authentic one to guests.

Featured in Fast Casual.