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May 5th, 2012

by Total Food Service

Glen Coben

Who had the most impact on your career?
My Father because as an engineer, he introduced me to the idea of creating places. My daughter because she inspires me. David Rockwell because he raised the bar so high in forcing people to take notice of a restaurant’s design. My team, because without them, I couldn’t have as much fun as I have!

How does restaurant design differ from retail design?
Other than the obvious….they are pretty similar! Good restaurant design is about managing the guest and how they experience the space. It also factors in how service occurs….food out of the kitchen and dirty dishes back in. The guest should not be aware of these issues. Good retail design takes these same factors into the equation. Also, the natural flow when someone enters a retail store is to go “right.” That’s why we put the bar on the right side!


Are you a proponent of open kitchens?Within reason! I love the sights and sounds of open kitchens, but they have to relate to the menu and service program. When we designed Washington Park, Jonathan wanted a completely open kitchen, to the point where we had the guests enter the “kitchen” in order to get to the stair that led to the bathrooms! That was cool! You cannot do that today with the Fire department!

How do you figure out what the chef and restaurateur are trying to accomplish? Is it difficult to “get in to their head”?
I just spent three hours with a chef talking about his vision of a restaurant. I loved it! Chefs are brilliant, creative people. I never tire of the experience and seldom have trouble understanding their vision. Some restaurateurs can be challenging if they haven’t spent time cooking!


How has restaurant design evolved in your years in the business?The expectations that the design matters so much have evolved enormously over the years. First it was all of the design-related TV shows….renovate this, flip that. Then the food critics started to become architecture and design critics and dedicate paragraphs to the design. Look, I believe what we do is important, but it supports the dining experience. But the design isn’t more important than the food or service or wine program!

With 47 New York restaurants in your portfolio, what’s your read on what makes New York restaurants unique?
New York is the center of the universe! Just like Frank Sinatra said, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…”


Many people in the industry believe that you were responsible for the resurrection of Jonathan Waxman’s career. What did you learn from that experience?I designed Washington Park, which sort of served as his comeback restaurant. I had nothing to do with his resurrection. I am proud to see that the public has become reacquainted with his cuisine….he is a gentle, passionate and creative person who I was proud to have worked with. My biggest lesson was to check my ego at the door….architecture and design is a service profession. We are here to deliver on someone’s vision. It is not about me…it is about the chef. I live by that statement everyday!

How did you develop your concept of half-hour stools?
I began to ask my clients how long they wanted their guests to stay in the restaurant. Quick-turn restaurants cannot allow diners to sit for too long. That’s why some restaurants have loud music and uncomfortable chairs. At least in the ones we have designed!


Many of your clients talk about your sketches. How did that style evolve and how does it help you do a great job for your clients?Sketching is the best way for me to communicate with my clients. My words are important, but when I draw something in three dimensions, they can start to visualize what I am talking about.

When you begin the design process, how do you determine the expected life span of a restaurant?
I always assume the restaurant will be around for the length of the lease. Or longer! I get very sad when they close. So much time, effort and money are spent on places that close early.


Could you teach someone to do what you do? Do you see a next generation of restaurant designers emerging?I teach everyday. And I learn every day….from my team of amazing architects and designers. From my clients and my family and friends. Designing these kinds of places is a deeply personal thing for chefs….that’s why I do this. There will always be a next generation of designers - we are in the same type of fraternity as chefs - we learn from the masters and then go out on our own. That’s what I did, and I am hopeful that some of my people will do the same! As long as they don’t steal my clients!

Are you loyal to certain vendors, or is your approach to continually go out to bid?
Both. We are very loyal to the people who have done amazing work. That being said, we need to keep our eyes and ears open to new talent, techniques and skilled craftspeople.


What projects are currently on your drawing board?Oh lots of things. We just completed a restaurant in Bangkok. We are working on a couple of sweet restaurants in Greenwich Village. We are designing a rollout of juice cleanse/wellness quick-serve restaurants in Connecticut. We are also designing some really cool spaces and places for CYBEX, the fitness equipment company. There are a bunch of hotels on the boards and a few secret projects!

What impact have culinary trends like sustainability and “farm to table” had on your designs?
Sustainability used to be a scary word for us because the products were always more expensive than the conventional products. The industry is changing this, and we will always specify something “green” before we specify something that is harmful or not good for the environment. We are working on a hotel in midtown that will be LEED silver. We must leave the planet in better condition than we received it….it is our duty as responsible professionals!


Have you ever considered working on projects outside the New York City area?We have done projects around the world! I hope we will continue to do so.

In our increasingly technologically advanced era, it would seem that computers would make your job much easier. Why, then, do you stick to paper for all your design work?
I am the only person in my office who doesn’t draw on the computer!

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