Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design - Herbert HeisermanSep 18, 2012
By Alia Akkam
Whether it’s a hot new Washington, DC restaurant or a transcendent chapel, Herb Heiserman gets revved by creating spaces. Ever since his dad sat at the drafting table dreaming up retail spaces, Heiserman has been intrigued by the transformation of mere drawings into reality. Here, he talks about the challenges of balancing work and family, the rewards of seeing people enjoy themselves in a restaurant of his own, and the power of encouraging others to succeed.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
Ever since I could steal pretzels off of my dad's drafting table, from around the age of five, I knew I wanted to be connected to design.
What are some of your first memories of design?
My dad used to create these drawings of new retail stores he was working on and then would take me out to the job sites while under construction. It was amazing to be able to see what he had actually drawn and created in his mind being built into a reality of space.
Upper bar area of Sixth Engine restaurant, Washington, DC
I was a seventeen-year-old mama’s boy and stayed close to home, attending the University of Maryland. I realized that life starts once you have left the confines of your mother's wing, and spent the first four years of my college career learning how to have fun. The second half of my college career became an awakening to the world of design and architecture. Not only did I realize I had a passion for it but I was pretty good at it and won some awards. I did pretty well in studio and from there I worked with a few other firms to cut my teeth, then eventually joined my dad. Recently, about three years ago, our firm merged with this incredible company, Streetsense, and we are now poised to take over the retail real estate world.
Do you have a greatest lesson learned?
Listen and tell the truth, even though the client may not like the answer and you may lose the opportunity.
Main dining area of Sixth Engine restaurant, Washington, DC
How did you end up joining forces with Streetsense? What was it about the company that attracted you?
When Marc Ratner and Guy Silverman started Streetsense, my old firm helped them design their office spaces. We listened to them argue passionately about what the best thing was for them personally but also the people who surrounded them every day in the trenches of a start-up. Relating to Marc's vision and passion and being an admirer of Guy's integrity and honesty made me realize that I wanted to be a part of that some day. Marc, Guy, Bruce Leonard, and Jeff Pollak are like my brothers—it’s a family. I credit them for all of my personal and professional growth. It was a life goal and only natural to merge my company into theirs. It took ten years and a lot of maturing for us but we have finally created a unique and unparalleled platform for retail real estate strategy, branding, marketing, design, and architecture.
Tell us about your office culture and design process?
Give as much opportunity [as possible] to those talented individuals who you work with. It is the only way for them to learn and it keeps you fresh with the ability to develop their ideas further. They do so much of the hard work, and we just come in and tweak what was already great. We want everyone to have passions outside of Streetsense—experience different cultures, sporting events, foods, architecture, and then bring that back and make our work and our work environment better. If you are working more than forty to fifty hours a week, get a hobby. The design process is a collaborative effort from everything small to big and no idea is sacred. It is about challenging the accepted norm and making things different and better both aesthetically and operationally.
Spice 6 Restaurant, Hyattsville, Maryland
Why hospitality? Why restaurants?
I like the quick reward, working with the end user and being connected to the consumer. Working with them, the chef, or business entrepreneur allows you to work with the passion and the story. Speculative architecture is boring. In the end, when you see a full restaurant with people laughing, eating, and enjoying themselves in a space you have created, what could be more rewarding?
What are some of the challenges of the industry today?
Too little time; we don't have time to think and coordinate. This makes room for mistakes and mistakes cost money and then more time. It’s a vicious circle. Also, the bottom line is the driver. I know we all want to make money but when is enough enough? Can’t we create something great and not have to maximize everything? Open space is good sometimes and it should not be filled with another dining table just because you can get one more turn and another check.
LivingSocial, Washington, DC
What’s a recent project that was most challenging and why?
LivingSocial. We wanted to create a great space in this incredible historic building in the Penn Quarter of Washington, DC. The client is incredibly forward thinking, not to mention really nice to work with—they are so forward thinking they wanted to finish the space with a predetermined opening date that was aggressive. They wanted something great in a short amount of time but couldn't tell us what they specifically wanted. It was almost like designing backwards because there was no program. We ended up doing that on the fly as we were doing the drawings, like ‘Hey, wouldn't the sixth floor office space be great if we could put a rock-climbing wall in it? And wouldn't the third floor make a great banquet space that can also be a yoga space?’ In the end, it is one of our most successful recent projects!
LivingSocial, Washington, DC
How has it been to work with some of the biggest chain operators like Starbucks and Shophouse?
The greatest challenge is process, process, process. When a client has hundreds of locations there must be an order. On the other hand, our Shophouse/Chipotle client leaves a lot of leeway up to their senior management and trusts their people to do the day-by-day tasks. You can sense a real confidence and ‘get it done’ attitude. They are by far one of the best ‘large’ companies that I have had the experience of working with on the retail tenant level.
What’s one project that you are most proud of and why?
It’s very personal and doesn't fit into anything we do on a daily basis, but I am most proud of the Memorial Garden's Chapel. I was given the opportunity to design a chapel on the grounds of a cemetery in suburban Maryland where my grandfather and grandmother are buried. It is a very personal space that reflects my vision of where one could go to seek a greater meaning. There is no greater reward than seeing someone gain a little peace from having a space to seek solitude and prayer during the most difficult time in life.
Not Your Average Joe’s restaurant, Gaithersburg, Maryland
What are some projects you are currently working on? What’s next for you?
There are so many projects that excite me in the studio I am scared to miss something. There is our next Shophouse, then we are introducing the Joe the Art of Coffee brand to Philadelphia, and we are also creating a Latin/South American arepas fast casual offering for a fantastic client from Venezuela. Ann Cashion and Johnny Fulchino are opening their first taqueria. Plus, chef Mike Isabella has trusted us with his Greek concept Kapnos. The list goes on: Not Your Average Joe’s, Le Pain Quotidien, Matchbox, FroZenYo, Plow & Hearth, and more. But next for me is continuing to expand the platform and to grow the business locally and regionally. I also really want to teach.
Most creative solution for a cool design feature that you have recently come up with?
Taking a really terrific interior courtyard space and making the most out of its scale, grittiness, and texture. It’s within the Pi Pizzeria space on 9th Street in Penn Quarter, in Washington, DC. Great owner and a great project—we were allowed to create a great space out of something that could have gone terribly wrong.
Not Your Average Joe’s restaurant
What would be your dream project?
I think it would be another chapel. But this time not one for reflection on those who have passed but one for celebration. I am not a deeply religious person so I don't see it having any specific denomination, however creating an environment where someone would reflect on positive forces within their life would be very rewarding. And it's not just the space of worship but the procession leading up to that space, the threshold to the space and the volume and materiality that encases that path and those spaces.
What’s the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client?
Knowing what you know and knowing what you don't know, and admitting it to each other.
What’s the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant?
You need an exhaust shaft and that there has to be a balance between form and
function. Servers have to be able to serve and get from the food to the tables and back. The kitchen needs to be scalable and be able to produce the quality and quantity of food at peak hours but be able to do the same quality when the place is not slammed or vice versa. It has to be serviceable from the street. You need visibility and a way to interest consumers. In the end, the space can not overpower the food.
Motto to live by...
Help as many others that you can to succeed in their goals. We are not any more important that those who help us get to where we want to go.
Greatest accomplishment so far?
Twenty years of marriage and two beautiful children. The balance of business and home will never be solved for my generation. One always suffers and far too often it is the more important one. The fact that my wife and I consider ourselves very happy at twenty years this November and we have two talented, successful, forward thinking, compassionate children far exceeds what I knew I could accomplish when I set out on this journey
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
School counselor. Children inspire me to be better. If I could help them feel better about who they are and what their dreams are and help guide them in the correct direction, that is what I would want to do.
When you are not in the office we can find you...
Taking my son Jake to soccer or my daughter Harlie to dance. Or you might find me taking photos of either of them playing soccer or dancing or laying with our cute cavalier spaniels Phoebe and Phoena. I need a hobby.
If you could have supper with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
My Dad. Inevitably I owe it all to him and I just enjoy his company. Muhammad Ali is a close second.
Describe that meal, the wine, and the person you’re eating with.
Grilled cheese off the Rachael Ray panini maker, root beer in a red Solo cup with my family around me.
Whom do you admire the most? Why were they an influencing factor in your career and life?
I admire many people and in general anyone who works with children, teaching and enhancing their lives. However, one individual I am very close to who I admire is a lady I have spent almost twenty-five years with, working side-by-side every day. Her name is Kathryn Bram. She was hired by my father back when it was his firm and has survived working with me since the mid 80s. I admire her because no matter what is going on with her life she gets up every morning with a great attitude and pushes to make everyone around her better. Whatever professional, and in many cases, personal successes I have been able to achieve, I give credit to Kathryn.