Jim Smart

President, Smart Associates


Jim Smart, president of Minneapolis-based Smart Associates, has been designing retail stores and restaurants for 35 years. Currently, his work is almost exclusively restaurants and he has put his creative touch on hip eateries like Ginger Hop and Hazel’s in northeast Minneapolis and Moto-i and Heidi’s in Minneapolis’ Lyn-Lake area. (The popular Heidi’s abruptly closed in October.) Smart also designed the Mill Northeast in northeast Minneapolis, Cupcake in Eagan and the Original Pancake House in Roseville, which all recently opened. He’s currently designing Mattie St. Clair’s at River­place — where Kikugawa previously was housed — and a Dunn Bros Coffee in Accenture Tower in downtown Minneapolis.

Smart Associates, formed in 1993, also works globally and has designed Dairy Queens in Asia, the Middle East and South America and locations for Al’s Diner in Minsk, Belarus. Smart — a theater major and former set designer — compares his work to the theater, saying he works with restaurant owners and chefs to create their “stage.”


Q: Talk more about how restaurant design is like theater.

A: People in the restaurant industry are kind of hopeless romantics like everybody in the theater is, and really when we design a restaurant it’s not like designing a corporate office or a home because people are there to be entertained and fed. It really is very much of an entertainment venue. My clients are like directors; they’re essentially setting up their stage and we design the set to go along with it.


Q: What are elements of a successful restaurant design?

A: It totally depends on the type of restaurant. If you’re doing a fast-food venue, we use materials and colors that are going to create a little bit of anxiety because you want to move people in and out quickly. McDonald’s doesn’t use red and gold by accident. You want a chair that’s comfortable for about a half-hour. On the other hand, if we’re creating a chef-driven restaurant there’s probably going to be a level of comfort, a level of surprise and sophistication that goes along with that.


Q: What’s the biggest challenge in designing restaurants?

A: Budgets, and we’ve actually built our reputation on meeting our clients’ budgets, which is something the architectural and design industry isn’t known for. When you’re designing a ­restaurant for a client, they’re probably going to spend at least $250,000 just on kitchen and underbar equipment. That doesn’t usually leave an awful lot of money for what we call “front-of-the-house” design. You really have to be clever and creative. … We know how to make a place look great without spending a lot of money.


Liz Wolf is an Eagan-based freelance writer. She can be reached at wolfliz99@aol.com.