Before fast food environments became so off-putting
During falling-crime times, people become used to greater stability, so they are less excitable, whereas the heightened vigilance that people have in rising-crime times makes them more sensitive to incoming stimuli. Also, as they cocoon during falling-crime times, people don't care so much about enjoyable experiences outside of their house.
To adjust to consumer demand, public spaces (even privately owned ones) then become governed by efficiency experts who find ways to squeeze every penny they can out of what they've got, and to eliminate all non-essential items like stuff that makes a visitor feel pleasant. After all, if the typical patron only wants to park next to the entrance, get in, get right back out, and drive off, why bother making the place appealing to the tiny few who feel like hanging out? Even more so if there's a drive-through or drive-in option, a topic I covered earlier here for the mid-century.
Now that we've entered a neo-'50s phase of the zeitgeist cycle, it's no surprise to see the return of corporate efficiency experts taking the hatchet to everything that used to make their companies enjoyable, since hardly anyone in today's cocooning society will miss it.
Here I'll take a quick look at the case of fast food restaurants, and later I'll write up several on supermarkets. To see what changes have been made, we first have to see what it was like in the not-too-distant past.
Burger King in the 1980s. You gotta love what you can find on the internet sometimes, although the library stacks have even better stuff if you just browse. Anyway, those pictures are from 1984 and they would've still looked contemporary through at least the early '90s (maybe a little less wood by then). Gradually since then, we've arrived at where things are now, which look very different.
Compared to today's fast food places, here are some things that jump out about their '80s counterparts:
1) Landscaping with lots of plants, and from a decent variety of species -- rather than using a big ugly pile of rocks. Ditto for livening up the interior. Plants used to be in abundance in all public spaces, especially the mall, but now all you see is pavement, smaller rocks, and boulders. A simple comparison like this gives the lie to silly petrified phrases like "the materialistic 1980s" vs. "the environmentalist 1990s" or "the organic, eco-friendly 2000s". You were surrounded by more biodiversity in a mini-mall than in Whole Foods.
The management's rationale is that dead decor means lower maintenance costs than something that needs light, soil, and water to thrive. Not to mention grounds-keeping to keep it attractive. Still, they can't get away with that unless customers don't care if the look is barforama. Management is always greedy and stingy, but before when people wanted to settle into the space at Burger King, they demanded a more soothing environment. (No Norah Jones or Fall Out Boy played over the radio either.)
2) Windows that you can see through, inviting passersby into the store, and allowing customers to take in views of the people and places nearby. At most there might have been a small sign displaying the hours of operation, or one of those "No shirt, No shoes, No service" warning signs, back when guys used to take their shirts off in warm weather (like Spicoli and his buds in Fast Times).
With the collapse of eating food in the store's dining room, management sees clean windows as wasteful -- gotta put them to profit-boosting use! So, they plaster a poster over nearly the entire window, hawking this or that deal du jour. Up they go on any window that drivers could see while cruising by.
It's true that you can still find a few places whose windows are left unobscured, but that requires that the customers hang out there. The yuppier fast food places like Starbucks or Noodles and Company tend to have open windows for that reason, but not too long ago, every place used to.
3) Minimal or no in-store advertising, especially on the walls. I don't care if they put a picture of their mascot up there or something, but not like today where sprawling posters "build the brand image," i.e. tell you what kind of person eats there. Who cares? I don't eat in Burger King's dining room to identify with some bunch of boring brochure-looking dorks. An earlier group of posters, when their marketing was aggressively targeting 18-34 year-old GUYS, was a little funny but still too much pointless advertising taking up way too much wall space.
Also notice no ads laminated to the table tops, nor even cardboard cut-outs standing on the tables. Looking back, it's amazing how little public space was blemished and rotted by ads. In our neo-'50s world today, we're having a similar anxiety about the encroachment of ads that they did during the original heyday of advertising. It's not enough for the windows of public transportation to be covered with them -- pretty soon the roads and sidewalks themselves will be drenched with them too.
4) Eye-catching uniforms. The hostesses at the BK Lounge used to wear red visors, vests, and pants, and a white shirt with a blue and red check pattern. Today they wear solid gray from head to toe. Management's thinking is, Why waste money on so many separate items and with so many different colors that might require more laundry maintenance to keep them looking vivid? Just toss the workers in a gray sack, and problem solved. It's not like customers are coming into the store anymore, so why would they care if she looks pretty or drab?
5) A pattern on the flooring. Yeah, it's an incredibly simple motif, but it sure gets your attention more than a homogenous sea of beige. Patterns in the tiling, no matter how basic, used to be commonplace, and now they're either gone or so subtle that you don't notice them. I have a hard time believing that a checkerboard pattern would require more up-keep than a monotonous floor. Instead, I think management just doesn't want to waste the one-time costs of hiring a designer to choose a pattern that would harmonize with the rest of the in-store elements. Whereas everything gets along well with nothing-at-all.
6) Booths with cushioning for your back. Starbucks may have more comfortable furniture than today's Burger Kings, Wendy's, and McDonalds, but the counterparts of the main burger joints used to have pretty relaxing booths in the good old days. It was rarer, but not impossible, to find a mainstream fast food place that also had cushioning for your legs and butt. I think those were more the cafeteria / diner type places, but still not too hard to find. Everyone thinks that Starbucks invented comfy seating, as if mankind had been perched on jagged rocks from the '80s back through forever. Get a clue.
The cost-cutting opportunity here is obvious -- upholstery is more expensive up-front, as well as over the course of being sat on. Pretty soon there are scuffs, little tears, big rips, and what have you, and that looks bad if you let it go. Why not prevent those problems by just making every furniture surface a hard one? Hell, it's not like you'll hear any customer complaints since so damn few of them ever feel like sitting down in the dining room anyway.
You get the idea. The point is not that Burger King, for example, used to be architectural paradise. But those kinds of restaurants were enjoyable and pleasant places, not just aesthetically but functionally. Now people prefer eating alone, even if it's a fast food meal brought home for a family -- they're not going to eat Burger King together at the table as a family meal, but off in their own worlds. That aversion to spending any time on the store premises, outside of their car, has given management the green light to trim off the fat -- y'know, the nutritious and delicious part of the animal that some group of experts claim is bad for you.
One of the larger points worth taking away from this is how bogus the claims of the past 10 years have been about our wonderful new world of design in public spaces, having emerged from a sensory dark age. Get fucking real, man. Plants, patterns, and panoramas -- even the neighborhood Burger King was more of a delight for the senses than some sterile, lifeless void like the Apple Store.
P.S. Here is a similar, more lighthearted article for Retro Junk about the decline in quality of the Pizza Hut experience. That too is a casualty of the cocooning trend, where everyone orders pizza for delivery rather than eat in a restaurant. Some readers may not remember, but in the '80s only Domino's delivered. I think Pizza Hut's delivery service only took hold in the early-mid-'90s, after an earlier failed first attempt.