A Texas Roadhouse in Bradley, Ill., designed by GreenbergFarrow.
Dave Burk/Hedrich Blessing A Texas Roadhouse in Bradley, Ill., designed by GreenbergFarrow.

The Texas Roadhouse in Steubenville, Ohio, hadn’t yet been open a week when I drove up early this past summer. The faux-rustic building with flags flying atop a standing-seam metal roof brought to mind a frontier outpost high on the Texas or New Mexico plains circa 1850—albeit an outpost built by frontiersmen with a penchant for tidy riverstone borders and well-groomed shrubs. And instead of plains there was asphalt—this roadhouse is located at the edge of a parking lot at the Fort Steuben Mall, with the only nearby buttes labeled J.C. Penney’s and Macy’s.

Texas Roadhouse is a casual-dining restaurant chain that prides itself on providing diners a fun, memorable experience. Since opening its first restaurant in Clarksville, Ind., two decades ago, it has expanded to more than 400 locations. It’s still a fairly minor contributor to Sprawl America—by comparison there are 14,000 McDonald’s, 12,700 Burger Kings, and 5,900 Wendy’s around the country. But Texas Roadhouse continues to grow, with about 30 new restaurants opening each year.

Just inside the front door in Steubenville, it was as crowded as an airport gate the day before Thanksgiving. People held discus-sized buzzers waiting to be shown to their tables, and wore the looks of people whose flights had been canceled but were warily optimistic that they’d get on the next one.

The host found me a seat at the bar. Even before my beer arrived, a small commotion broke out behind me. Kenny Loggins started belting “Footloose” through the speakers, and a half-dozen servers in black T-shirts suddenly lined up in a long aisle then broke into dance—step, step, clap! step, step, clap!—letting out an occasional hoot. A few diners stopped with their forks halfway to their mouths and gaped. Others put down their forks and clapped and joined the hooting.

It was fun, and my beer and steak were tasty. But I actually hadn’t come here for the food or dancing. Rather, I was trying to better understand the process of how Sprawl America gets built. As a consumer who’s walked through the door of many of these places, I’ve often wondered: How do these thousands of chain restaurants and retail clusters and big box stores get designed and constructed so quickly? What role do architects play?

GreenbergFarrow, based in Atlanta, has provided Texas Roadhouse with architectural, engineering, and site development services since 2004. Over the past decade it’s been involved in virtually all of the chain’s new restaurants. The firm has also worked with corporate giants such as Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Murphy Oil, Hertz, AutoZone, Old Navy, Walgreens, Whole Foods, Chipotle, Taco Bell, and Kohl’s.

GreenbergFarrow didn’t set out to become an architect to the chains, but an early commission directed it down that path. The firm was founded in 1974 by Marty Greenberg and Larry Farrow (both now retired), and for a number of years remained a modestly sized operation majoring in local retail with a minor in residential. Along the way, firm leaders learned what it took to usher retail from concept to grand opening.

In the late 1970s, an upstart Atlanta-based company with a big idea, drawn to the firm’s retail expertise, approached GreenbergFarrow. The firm signed on to help the client open its first two stores, which involved the renovation and redesign of a pair of recently vacated Treasure Island grocery stores.

That client? The Home Depot. Their idea? Build big, build fast, and build everywhere. “Our strategy from the very beginning was to just follow them where they would take us, and to provide whatever services they needed,” said Hughes Thompson Jr., AIA, GreenbergFarrow’s managing principal and senior vice president.

It’s been a fruitful symbiosis. Since then, GreenbergFarrow has been involved in the design and development of some 2,000 Home Depot stores. In the process, the firm morphed from being a modest outfit with some retail design expertise into a one-stop shop for regional and national restaurants and retailers. GreenbergFarrow hired staff with expertise in site development as well as entitlements (development rights granted by a municipality or other local authorities). “And we added engineering services—electrical, plumbing, and mechanical engineering—because we needed that,” Thompson says. “It was a great learning experience for us. And then we just followed them across the country. That’s how we ended up basically coast to coast.”

GreenbergFarrow now has offices in California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, Arizona, Ohio, and Wisconsin, as well as in Mexico and China. The firm employs around 200 people worldwide, with annual gross revenues of about $27 million.

While GreenbergFarrow has worked in densely urban environments—the firm was behind 80 Metropolitan Avenue, a 123-unit condominium in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N.Y.; as well as a nearly 1-million-square-foot, three-story urban mall in the north Bronx—it’s perhaps best known as a Big Box Architecture Shop for Big Box America. GreenbergFarrow works at the speed and scale that’s required for fast-growing corporations whose success is built on hitting dates and numbers on dozens of projects under way simultaneously. Indeed, from the outside, what GreenbergFarrow does looks less like traditional architecture and more like air traffic control.

The GreenbergFarrow-designed Texas Roadhouse in Bradley, Ill., is an attached version of the typology. 
Dave Burk/Hedrich Blessing The GreenbergFarrow-designed Texas Roadhouse in Bradley, Ill., is an attached version of the typology. 

Texas Roadhouse approached GreenbergFarrow when the restaurant’s corporate leaders realized that they were reinventing the wheel every time that they entered a new market. They would hire local architects, civil engineers, and site development consultants, then have to get each up to speed about their corporate preferences. In GreenbergFarrow, they found a firm that already had experience in dozens of markets. It already knew who to call, what permitting hoops might prove vexing, and how to tweak designs to satisfy local concerns. Moreover, after a couple of projects, the firm understood and could anticipate Texas Roadhouse’s priorities, streamlining the process.

Texas Roadhouse weighs new markets and locations mostly in-house. When a potential site is identified, and a real estate agreement is imminent, GreenbergFarrow essentially embeds itself and remains there until the building is complete. “We work so closely with them that we almost feel like we’re an extension of their company,” says Jennifer Mowen, a senior associate in the firm’s Chicago office who oversees the Texas Roadhouse account.

Before the final lease is signed, the GreenbergFarrow team spends two or three weeks on due diligence, getting to know every aspect of the new site, from soil stability to local permitting fees. Once that analysis is finished, the information moves up to Texas Roadhouse’s corporate level for a final greenlighting. Mowen says that the chain’s strong experience in vetting sites in advance means that 90 percent of projects move ahead to the next phase. Once GreenbergFarrow gets the OK, design and building goes into overdrive—it’s typically one year from the signing of the lease agreement to the serving of the first meal.

Virtually every new outpost of a chain that opens up along the highways of Sprawl America begins with a prototype. Or, in the case of Texas Roadhouse, two prototypes. The chain was founded in 1993 by Kent Taylor, its first outpost built in a mall. But Texas Roadhouse eventually gravitated to empty lots, or out-lots of large parking lots, preferring newly built, freestanding structures. These were initially designed with Taylor’s hands-on involvement. When GreenbergFarrow got involved a decade later, the style and design was essentially set.

A freestanding version of a Texas Roadhouse (the chain's preferred typology) in Countryside, Ill. Designed by GreenbergFarrow, this location opened in September 2013.
Dave Burk/Hedrich Blessing A freestanding version of a Texas Roadhouse (the chain's preferred typology) in Countryside, Ill. Designed by GreenbergFarrow, this location opened in September 2013.

Texas Roadhouses are what Robert Venturi, FAIA; Denise Scott-Brown, FAIA; and Steven Izenour, AIA, famously referred to as a “decorated shed” in Learning from Las Vegas (MIT Press 1972). The building is a billboard, telegraphing to passersby what’s on the inside—steak, fun, a sort of rough-hewn rustic charm that Americans associate with the word “roadhouse.” The two prototypes used by the restaurant look much the same but vary in size—the standard prototype is 7,163 square feet and the “small town” prototype is 6,762 square feet. The less expensive version allows the company to open in markets that might be marginally profitable. They’ve also found that 7,000 square feet often triggers additional local permitting reviews—in some mall developments, anchor tenants get to approve any new building of 7,000 square feet or larger—so shrinking the footprint slightly can yield a faster turnaround.

Texas Roadhouse has long been content with its prototypes, and rarely makes changes that a consumer would notice. But after each opening, the executives review the prototype and solicit improvements from the new store managers. They might add a foot to a kitchen passage, for instance, where servers sometimes encounter bottlenecks. Changes are “usually in the kitchen,” says Doug Druen, the company’s market research manager, “and the front of the house for the most part stays the same.”

Prototypes exist as a sort of Platonic ideal—typically they have to be tweaked and adapted for a particular site. The Steubenville location I visited adhered to the “small-town” designs very closely, and in this way, Mowen says it was an exception to the rule. “It’s very close to the prototype,” she says. “It’s not one of the more complex jobs.”

If the job calls for the renovation of an existing space, however, the tweaks can be more complicated. Druen gave one example: The company leased a 10,000-square-foot former restaurant, into which they essentially had to install the standard 7,163-square-foot prototype. “On the surface you may think, ‘Well, yeah, we’ll fit in there,’ ” Druen says. “But some of the spaces are long and narrow, and we have to have a certain width to make it fit and feel like a roadhouse. So there may be some challenges there even though the space is so large.”

Changes also arise from requests by local zoning boards. Style-wise, the prototype would be at home in Disney’s Frontierland. “But some regions are a little more particular and demanding in their architecture,” Mowen says, noting that the Northeast, California, Wisconsin, and Florida often favor designs that reflect a local sensibility. A zoning board in Florida, for instance, recently requested that Texas Roadhouse use stucco and barrel-tile roofs.

And the economy plays a role as well. “It’s cyclical,” Mowen says. “In the early years, 2004 up to 2008, resistance to prototype architecture was one of our biggest hurdles. In the recession years, we’ve found that municipalities have become a little more development friendly. But as development comes back, communities are taking a firmer stance, much like they did prior to the recession.”

GreenbergFarrow makes the requested changes, then draws up final construction documents. Texas Roadhouse has two architects on staff who, in part, serve as liaisons and monitor quality control. Taylor, the chain’s founder, is still very hands-on when it comes to seating arrangements and interior layout—“he wants you to see certain things as soon as you walk in, and he wants you to not see other things,” Druen says—and the in-house architects make sure everything will pass muster with him.

Of the 30 Texas Roadhouses slated to open in 2013, about 24 were freestanding variations on prototypes. “We’ll build freestanding if we can,” Druen says. “Ideally, we’d rather build a prototype because we’ll build it faster; we’ll have fewer maintenance issues in the long run.” But the ideal sometimes doesn’t translate to reality. “If we’re looking in a certain market, there may not be anything [available] other than a closed restaurant,” he says.

In recent years, GreenbergFarrow has been called upon more frequently to be creative in making nontraditional scenarios work. One restaurant this year was built off the lobby of a Trump Tower in New Rochelle, N.Y. Another, in Deer Park on Long Island, was subject to a local mandate that the restaurant be LEED-certified. “That made it very complicated in terms of approvals,” Mowen says, as GreenbergFarrow had to launch the LEED process concurrent with getting town approvals.

The Steubenville Texas Roadhouse opened as scheduled, on May 27. When construction wound down and GreenbergFarrow’s role receded, activity shifted to restaurant management, who had counted on the builders hitting their date. Chefs and waitstaff were hired and trained, supplies were en route, waste haulers would arrive to fulfill their contracts, and local advertising had been scheduled. During my visit, the crowds were huge, but everything hummed along smoothly, at least as far I could see.

“When I travel, I always know where there’s a Texas Roadhouse,” says Mowen, “because [our team] built the vast majority of them across the country.” And she often likes to stop by and have a look. “I always want to go see them,” she says. “It’s weird, it’s kind of like your children—you want to check up on them and see how they’re doing.”