Redesigning the Fast Food Experience: An Interview with Michael Shuman

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I used to buy my file folders and Avery labels there. Now I can get a fully customized burger. And hold a meeting, view digital art, and yelp and tweet about the whole experience from one of the restaurant’s six built-in iPads or on my iPhone via the free wi-fi.

4food, on the corner of 40th and Madison, until recently a dingy stationery store

The space, on the corner of 40th Street and Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan — an area with the highest density workday population in the U.S. — was until recently the cluttered, dusty State Office Supply store. Now it’s 4food, a sleek, high-tech eatery dedicated to “de-junking fast food.”

The “build your burger” menu offers an almost infinite number of combinations of ingredients: Bun (brioche, multi-grain, etc.); burger (beef, lamb, turkey, pork, breakfast, salmon, egg); “veggie scoop” (21 options ranging from avocado-mango to winter slaw); slices (pickles, mushrooms, mushroom-glazed butternut squash); cheeses, and condiments. How about a salmon burger on a pressed rice bun with edamame and sea salt, pickled daikon radish, goat cheese, Vidalia onions, and lemon caper tarter sauce? I’m not sure how well all that stuff works together, but it beats the McDonald’s across the street.

For me, though, the big story is the design of the space: Open, airy, and full of cool gizmos. The concept is the brainchild of Michael Shuman, principal of architecture firm MASdesign, and his partner Adam Kidron, formerly a record and TV producer and “imagineer” of entertainment industry start-ups. Other partners are Bill Niman, the founder of Niman Ranch, the largest purveyor of natural meats in the U.S.; Dr. Woodson Merrill, nutritionist and founder of Beth Israel’s Center for Integrated Medicine; Ed Winter, chairman of Omnicom’s “Brand Activation” agency; and Tracy Locke, an expert on marketing to young people. The partners spent four years putting together the business plan, financing, designing, building, and staffing the restaurant. The snappy graphic design is by Elastic People, a Miami-based firm that specializes in music industry packaging and environmental and interactive design for urban audiences.

The space was built with construction materials that, according to MASdesign and Coburn Architecture, are natural, abundant and regenerative. Guests can order their food at the counter, online, at iPad,kiosks, or from 4food staff greeting and registering new customers inside the restaurant.

Graphics by Elastic People, a brand identity firm chosen for its credentials in design for urban audiences.

I recently had the opportunity to have an e-mail chat with Michael Shuman:

What inspired you to get started on this project?A deep concern about the effects of the fast-food industry—on health, the environment, the treatment of animals, the rights of farm workers, etc. 4food is a pro-social, for-profit venture—a new ethical and sustainable paradigm with a product that fills a marketplace need and is customizable to people’s wants and needs. 4food redefines counter culture through the use of highly adaptive, personalized recommendation technologies and by upgrading food that people already eat. Our restaurants are designed to function as community hubs and satisfy local appetites in healthy ways.

What kind of market research did you do to determine the public’s wants and needs?We used an independent research company to test the appeal level of many aspects of this project in a dozen metropolitan areas. We learned that our concept transcends age, gender, ethnicity, income—proving that this is a lifestyle concept rather than one that caters to specific demographics. We also did intensive focus-group testing of the food, packaging, graphics and design.

Downstairs: dining and meeting space. With 120 seats — 50 upstairs and 70 downstairs — and fixtures like bleachers and communal tables, the space is intended to invite social interaction.

Focal point: this 240-square-foot LED monitor was designed to provide up-to-the-minute information pertinent to guests’ experiences. It narrowcasts 4food user-generated commercials, commissioned art pieces and mood videos, special events, and news items about events and menu items.

Dynamic menu boards reduce waste and enable 4food to change messages and feature seasonal items. According to 4food's press release, "Traditional items such as burgers, nuggets, fries, salads, and teas are transformed into menu items that are measurably healthier than existing products and infinitely customizable to guests' cultural preferences. No fads, fillers, nor anything artificial. No hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats or oils. Nothing is fried, modified, or genetically engineered."

Where do you get your ingredients?Our ingredients are as local and seasonal as possible, and we purchase as much as possible directly from purveyors with the best practices.

You mentioned when I was in the store that people can’t order rare or medium-rare burgers because of government regulations for cooking hamburger meat. What federal, state and city regulations do you have to comply with?We comply with all HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) standards and guidelines for the fast food industry as well those of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Do those hamburgers really have a hole in them, and is that a new design for a burger itself?They do have a hole. They are called (W)holeburgers, and are our signature menu item. The inverse/drop from these donut-shaped patties, designed by Adam Kidron, become our skewers and sliders. The hole allows the patties to cook more evenly and quickly, and makes a well for the veggie scoop, creating a more nutritionally balanced meal. It’s also a point of differentiation and the launching pad for the customization of taste profiles and nutritional specificity by our users.

Not all the reviews have been positive. called 4foo
d “crazy” and wondered whether the place is “horrible or horribly amazing”? Some customers have been complaining that the restaurant is too crowded and portions are too small. How do you deal with the bumps along the way?
People are very opinionated, passionate, and vocal about food. We get better each day with our operations, consistencies and efficiencies. Launching a new business is more difficult than imagined, regardless of what you’ve done before. We learn from criticisms and improve upon them daily and in real time. Sometimes we invite our critics to lunch for further discussion, in the hope that they’ll give us another chance. We are very honest, transparent, open and humble — albeit proud of what we do and how and why we do it. And we are determined to get it right.

Tell me about the social networking aspect.Social networking gives 4food guests ownership in their dining experience. Registered users who complete a profile survey receive 12 4food dollars in their accounts. They can also customize, name and promote their burgers online. Users receive $.25 in their 4food accounts for every burger sold.

Menu items are prepared in the Community Kitchen Commissary, a vocational training center administered in partnership with the NYC Human Resources Administration to provide hands-on work experience and life-skills training to New Yorkers transitioning from public assistance into the workforce.

What are your plans for expansion?We will grow within NYC over the next several years as well to other domestic and international markets, focusing on urban areas of density and diversity. We will replicate our hub-and-spoke model of a flagship with commissaries that service their local network of locations and leverage their local purveyors and distributors.

What is your advice to designers who have a vision for something big and new and want to make it happen?Stay true to your vision and make it happen — if you don’t, then it won’t. Remain open and flexible to advice, as there is much to learn from others. Design matters. Beyond the visual, it can make things work better, feel better, and even taste better.


All photos except digital display and menu board by David Sundberg/ESTO.

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