Don't you get it? The ambiance is really important

We continue to be amazed by how many community-based entertainment centers (CBEs) are opening their doors with interiors designed like family entertainment centers from the 1990 - basically like carnivals in a box. Just about every other type of location-based business, including retailers, restaurants and hotels, have brought their design into the 21st Century, educating consumers to great design and interiors, or what our company calls quality of place. Expectations today are way higher than even one decade ago. Today the ambiance of the business, its environment's design, is an important component of the quality of the overall visit experience, just as important as the goods, services or food and beverage.

A second quality of place flaw we find with the CBE chains is that they just continue to replicate the exact same design throughout the country, rather than localize it to the area to make it relevant to the local population.

If you have any doubts about where consumer expectations are now and heading when it comes to the ambiance of a business, just take a look at the new designs Taco Bell is testing. And remember Taco Bell is at the low end of fast food joints, where the expectations have never been that high, at least until now.

Taco Bell is overhauling four California locations with sleek seating, distressed wood, funky pendant lighting and other elements that may help the chain appear more like a chic loft than a fast-food taco joint. Each of four new designs - California Sol, Heritage, Modern Explorer and Urban Edge - has its own distinct details.

The new designs feature modern light fixtures, plush furniture, open kitchens, community tables and even exposed brick. The designs will try to set a modern, urban mood at a restaurant chain more commonly associated with a quick bite or drive-thru service.

“Each of these formats fosters a modern, unique experience,” said Marisa Thalberg, Taco Bell's chief marketing officer.

Here's what the Modern Explorer version looks like.

Other fast food chains including Subway, McDonald's and Wendy's have also been upgrading their interiors, including many with the addition of fireplaces. Yes, you read that correctly, fireplaces in inexpensive fast food restaurants.

When we look at those CBEs that are generating the highest revenues per square foot and profits today, it's the ones with the better ambiance and quality of place. One very good reason is that the higher socioeconomic households who generate the majority of revenues at CBEs have higher expectations than even the new Taco Bell for everything about their visit experience.

Don't get caught up in the “how inexpensive can I built it”, as you will only end up with matching low revenues. Today, great ambiance is just the opening bar.