Food Truck to Restaurant Part III: Making the Move to Brick and Mortar and Restaurant Design


(This is the third installment of a series we’re writing on the ins and outs of restaurant and food design, where we’ll be exploring topics like food trucks, building conversions and energy efficient kitchens. In this installment, two of Chicago’s finest food trucks weigh in on what you need to know before you start a restaurant on wheels.) Here are part I and part II in case you missed them.

Part III: Making the Move to Brick and Mortar Restaurant Design

So you’ve decided you love your food truck but you’d also like a home to rest (ye weary traveler), somewhere hungry customers can return to and enjoy your delicious food, rain or shine. What’s your next step?

Most food truck owners have dreams of expanding: adding another truck or eventually opening a restaurant.

“I think Sam, my husband, always saw himself opening up a restaurant one day,” Sarah Weitz, of The Fat Shallot, tells us. “This is my ideal situation: The Fat Shallot has its own kitchen that we work out of, then we also have a storefront that is similar to a prepared foods place like the Goddess and the Grocer. We’d have seating…ten [or fifteen] tables where people can order at the counter, and sit down and eat at the Fat Shallot, but I can also have my own kitchen in the back, [and space to] park our truck. If my husband was here, he’d be telling you he wants a second truck, badly.”

Alexis Leverenz, of Kitchen Chicago, describes the point at which her small businesses often find it makes sense for them to expand.  When clients start using her space on a daily basis, “it gets more expensive than their own space would be, monthly, cost-wise,” she says. The start up costs of finding, setting up and opening a new space keep people using a shared kitchen during the first years of business, “but ultimately they might end up spending $3,000 a month here, whereas they could get their own place for less,” says Leverenz. “Once they grow to a certain point, I don’t think it makes sense for them to be [in a shared kitchen] anymore.”

Matt Nardella, our principal architect here at moss, has designed many restaurants, and shares his knowledge regularly with informative presentations at Kitchen Chicago. Investing in a permanent locale can bring benefits to the business concept. “Brick and mortar locations strengthen a brand, benefitting pedestrians by catalyzing foot traffic and filling storefronts,” Nardella explains. “I see a trend towards ‘pop-up’ shops as well, acting as temporary homes for food businesses to sell their items and build a following. Kanye West has even experimented with pop-ups.”

Finding your new home

Tip #1: Site Selection: Find the right home base

The first thing you’ll want to do is think about the golden rule: location, location, location. Some analysis of your best customer patterns might prove helpful. Was the South Loop a popular spot to park your truck at lunchtime? Sounds great. But perhaps you wanted to offer something for dinner? It might be to your benefit to consider a place with higher foot traffic at all times of day. And think about the kind of building or space that diners might be excited to visit. Unless I’m in Los Angeles, Im not going to a restaurant in a strip mall.

Expect the process of site selection to take anywhere from 3 to 6 months and to spend some time in your desired neighborhoods, observing local culture and types of businesses/buildings around you. Is there a concentration of office buildings looking for lunch? A lot of stay-at-home parents that frequent coffee shops in the daytime but might appreciate a solid brunch with options for little ones? Is your neighborhood home to gaggles of 20-and 30-somethings looking to enjoy a carefully crafted whiskey cocktail and an exquisite chanterelle risotto, or are there a surplus of students scanning their neighborhood for a budget-priced bite between classes? What is there an abundance of and what seems to be missing? Which places look packed are which are empty? These observations are sure to lead you to find the best, and most successful, home for your new restaurant.

Tip #2: Let there be Light: Pick a space with good access to light and street traffic view

Finding a building with good windows is important, both to attract passersby and to create a pleasant environment for current patrons.  “I like restaurant spaces that can connect to foot level traffic and have good visibility to the street,” says Nardella. “Windows make for good ambiance, and they are essentially free.” Or at least less expensive then adding finishes onto interior walls.”

Likewise, in terms of minimizing heating and cooling costs, and letting in as much sunlight as possible, Nardella recommends seeking a storefront with a south-facing window. “If you are a day time operator, southern exposure is always a good thing for natural light access. And depending on your neighbor across the street, may reduce glare.”

Setting up your new Kitchen: What to Expect

Tip #3: Stand on the Shoulders of other Kitchens: Weigh the options of finding a space with existing kitchen equipment.

It’s also vital to consider the previous use of your new building; converting a former restaurant into a new restaurant is one thing, but a single-door, former yoga studio is a different story entirely. “The more kitchen infrastructure an existing location has, the less expensive your buildout will be, Nardella says. “However, that has to be weighed with the cost to acquire the former business and its equipment.” Reusing an existing kitchen space is also more sustainable. 

Whether or not your new lease has a foundation of kitchen equipment to work off of, energy efficient ovens, grills and coolers can save you money over the long term, doing the same amount of work with a lighter footprint. “The Heart of the Home Needs a Transplant,” a recent article in Lucky Peach, interviewed chefs on the efficacy of kitchen equipment. There was a lot of room for improvement, especially when it came to energy efficiency. Most commercial kitchen equipment performs dismally in this area, reaching just 10-12% efficiency. 

When working with your designers, consider choosing induction burners, and other energy efficient equipment, while making sure to prioritize light and ventilation flow throughout the space. Emphasizing natural light access also saves on costly electrical lighting during the day, while reducing heat in the kitchen and making it easier on the thermostat when regulating temperature for the entire restaurant. Rene Redzepi, chef at Noma, completely redesigned his kitchen to use natural and sustainable materials, like stone and wood, and freed up windows to increase daylight exposure. By switching to induction burners and making these changes, the temperature in his kitchen dropped 10 degrees Celsius.

Should you inherit a former restaurant to transform into your future business, evaluate whether each piece of equipment meets your needs, since all will require lots of energy to run, and draw power even while plugged in. Energy Star certified equipment, like this boilerless Vulcan-made convection steamer that doesn’t require a water line, saves hugely on water waste as well as electricity.

In the Lucky Peach article, professional chefs throw shade at the traditional hotel-island suite, which is complete with a wok burner and a plancha, among other things. “Ive always found that a piece of equipment or two doesn’t work to its potential or is the wrong size,” says Jonathan Sawyer, of Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland. Consider that simpler equipment, or less of it, maybe be more than enough to get the job done, depending on your cuisine.

To keep things running as smooth as possible, it’s best to address any infrastructure changes and issues with a landlord before signing the lease. Restaurants need more specialized equipment than just stoves and refrigerators. You’ll be needing to address exhaust hoods, “make-up” air circulation and big power demands.  “All these things can be upgraded but it gets expensive,” says Nardella. “When we are involved early enough we typically help our clients with the landlord negotiations,” he says.

Growing into Your New Space 

Tip #4: Expand your Menu: build new ideas out of what your customers already love

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The Fat Shallot’s delectable meatball sandwich

Leverenz, who’s seen her share of trucks make it or call it quits, gives her two cents on menu development: “Typically, [customers] don’t like to have things changing on them a lot,” she says. “So, I think they do need a core [idea or unifying concept] of what they’re gonna be making.”

Not wanting to pigeonhole themselves, The Fat Shallot settled on something open to a variety of diverse fillings that would see them through the coming years: sandwiches. “We kinda wanted something so we weren’t stuck; we didn’t want it to be a specific sort of truck,” says Weitz. “[Not] just tamales, or just guacamole. So we thought sandwiches was a great base. Everybody loves a sandwich.”

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Interior of Flirty Cupcakes bakery

Our client Flirty Cupcakes, owned by Tiffany Kurtz, demonstrates a great transition from food truck to restaurant. They started out selling a variety of rotating flavors out of their dessert van, but decided to expand their menu quite a bit once they rolled out their brick and mortar dessert garage. The menu for the Taylor street bakery includes all of their daily cupcake flavors, as well as espresso shots, coffee, muffins, sweet loaves like banana and lemon, and miniature pies, among other things. Kurtz kept with the theme of her business, delivering the goods she knew her customers were familiar with (cupcakes), while creating the opportunity for additional products in that range that people already trusted her to execute with expertise. She might not have had the same immediate success if she used her food truck customer base to open a steak house.

Tip #5:  Consider your audience, local history and environment when dreaming up your concept. 

It’s no surprise that Zagat-rated “Food Truck of the Week” Windy City Patty Wagon is popular, especially in Chicago. “This is where the other trucks come for lunch,” notes Danny Herrera with pride.

The Windy City Patty Wagon, courtesy of

The truck’s blue and white signage, red stars and skyline echoing the Chicago flag touches on something Chicagoans hold close to the chest: their pride. No matter how much we trash the cold, the heat, the Cubs or the mayor, most of us are proud to the bone to be here, and love this city with our whole hearts.

Then of course, there’s the product itself, which Chicago holds just as close: burgers. Chicago is one of the best food cities in the world, and we take our burgers as seriously as our fine dining.  A burger is a perfect street food: it’s not messy beef carpacchio or spaghetti and meatballs. It’s easy to eat with one hand, it’s filling, and it doesn’t require a steak knife to get through.

“The Fat Shallot comes from a nickname for the city of Chicago, which is “the big onion,” Weitz explains. “Back in the day, there was a lot of agriculture and onions or garlic were grown, and it smelled like a stinky onion. Chicago in [Algonquin] means ‘the stinky onion.’ There was already a company with “The Big Onion” as their name, so they thought about how to find a dressed up member of the Allium family to substitute. And thats how “The Fat Shallot” got its name.

Tip #6: Stick to your theme: Design the restaurant cohesively with your wares and style in mind

Our client Flirty Cupcakes was operating out of a cupcake van and shared kitchen when she decided she wanted a place to permanently park her dessert business. They worked with moss to open a successful bakery on Taylor street, two years ago.

“We wanted an utilitarian and industrial aesthetic. We created a raw custom steel and glass display for Flirty’s baked goods and even found some salvaged oven doors to sheath the rear wall,” Nardella says. moss specializes in environmentally-friendly design, and Nardella has fun finding uses for salvaged and reclaimed materials to create a cohesive and modern aesthetic.

“I think the best materials are the ones that stay relevant and never go out of style,” he says. “The materials that have a story to tell, can relate to the business, and function well are the ones I try to source.” For the seating, we drew on the owner’s collection of vintage chairs and coffee tables, to add an inviting feel to the sun dappled bakery.

Flirty Cupcakes wall sheathed in reclaimed oven doors

Remember Tip #1? Flirty Cupcakes is only a 15 minute walk from the UIC campus, so a bakery with lots of room to lounge makes perfect sense for both Kurtz and her customers.

Tip #7: Keep your style consistent from the building right down to the menu  

It’s important to tie your whole brand together, so as you graduate from truck to full on restaurant bring the theme of your food into every aspect of your design. “I like to find ways to connect the occupants to the narrative of the menu and restaurant concept through the design,” says Nardella. “Whether that be through a specific design element—like the barrel vault at our Lakeview wine and cheese bar, Bar Pastoral, inspired by a trip to Loire Valley in France—a finish material and its historic reference, or the graphical presentation of the menu.

Bar Pastoral Barrel Vault
Bar Pastoral’s Barrel Vaulted ceiling, inspired by the wine caves of the Loire Valley

For a restaurant with a Swedish background, our team got together and researched the history and culture of food in the Scandinavian country. The research helped us concept the space, not just physically, but in terms of the menu, logo and overall brand aesthetic. 

food truck

We approached another eatery with a Cajun and Creole background by researching the locality and language of these unique cultures to give our project a focused identity. We relayed several style elements present in NOLA, including French Quarter shutters, stucco, and wrought iron. The walls feature backlit photo frames to house and highlight characters from The Bayou.

Tip #8: Selling the Idea: Marketing from Food Truck to Store Front

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The Fat Shallot’s graphically expert logo on their housemade brownies

For a food truck, graphic design is incredibly important, because the mobile unit is your best advertising tool, drawing patrons to find your brick and mortar. “I researched the most appetizing color, and [it turns out] red and orange make you hungry, says Weitz. “I just like the way our [shade or orange red] pops. We wanted the truck to be really basic, and just stand out, and I think a lot of people overcrowd and put too much detail in photos; we just wanted a really simple design.”

The Fat Shallot Food Truck

The Fat Shallot website, like their truck, is warm, appealing, and approachable. They have compelling personal biographies, legible font, and are easy to contact and follow on social media: paramount for food trucks always on the move.

Danny Herrera of Windy City Patty Wagon weighs in on the upkeep and importance of social media outlets.

“You can’t just put out one piece a month. It has to be on everyday. Twitter, pictures, updates. People just want to know what’s going on. Once you start something on Twitter and Instagram, people want to see it continue on, or else they lose interest,” he says.

Marketing will change with a brick and mortar, but luckily, you’ll have your truck on wheels to do a lot of the heavy lifting.  “…Everyday that I drive in the loop, hundreds of people are seeing my name, because we’re just like a walking billboard,” Weitz explains on the built in marketing firepower of a food truck.

For a brick and mortar restaurant, clear, eye-catching signage will communicate a message about your food, mission and atmosphere that’s compelling and sophisticated—and most importantly attract customers to take a closer look. But don’t overdo it, and please, no pictures of your entrees.

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2 Sparrows Storefront

“The best sign is a well-designed and transparent storefront,” asserts Nardella, who has designed storefronts for 2 Sparrows and Crew Bar & Grill “I think diners are much more likely to enter a restaurant because they like what they see from the street. Whether that be a lively atmosphere or well designed space, visibility is key.

So there you have it! When done right, the transition from food truck to restaurant will prepare you for business ownership, help you refine your theme and food choices, shine a light on your design and style and start you off with a built in fan-base of hungry customers. If there’s any questions we can answer for you, please let us know!