Over the course of her 25-year design career Felicia Middleton has worn many hats. She is a writer, Architectural Design Professional, amateur photographer, environmentalist and entrepreneur. As the President of Urban Aesthetics, she runs a committed green business, offering full-service design and project management services to a wide range of clients.
She is a published author of several books, including her second book in the “Guide Series” entitled “A Guide to Residential Renovations and Maintenance”. Additional publications include “A Complete Guide to Creating Tasty Spaces” and “Your PATH to Green”.
Felicia is passionate about helping urban communities improve aesthetically and is active in community service. An abbreviated list of her volunteer activities include several community construction projects, serving as a designer and construction helper for Habitat for Humanity, acting as a construction and board member of the Refuge Community Development Corporation and helping to clean Philadelphia’s communities as a volunteer and board member for the Ray of Hope Foundation.
But at her core, Felicia Middleton is The Foodie Builder. And her commitment and passion for everything she does will leave you feeling full of possibility.
In this episode of the Architects Possibility Podcast, Felicia shares with me her passion for food service design and creating spaces for restaurants, caterers, and the wider food service industry. We discuss her love of all things related to the culinary arts, new design challenges that have arisen with the arrival of the coronavirus, and where that might take us in restaurants of the future.
You can learn more about Felicia and her activities via her social media platforms at:
Some resources mentioned in this episode:
- “A Complete Guide To Creating Tasty Spaces” – https://www.amazon.com/Complete-Guide-Creating-Tasty-Spaces/dp/108000212X
- “A Homeowner’s Guide To Renovations and Maintenance” – https://www.amazon.com/Homeowners-Guide-Renovations-Maintenance/dp/B08FP2BLVT
Welcome to the Architects Possibility Podcast with David Bradley of Blueprint For Living Coaching. Each week, we connect with design professionals, just like you, who are using their creativity, leadership, and passion to make the world a better place in ways both big and small every day. Now here’s the host of the Architect’s Possibility Podcast, architect and executive coach, David Bradley.
Good day, everyone! You are in for a real treat today. I have the pleasure of speaking with Felicia Middleton, president of Urban Aesthetics in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a minority and women-owned business that provides design solutions for both residential and commercial projects, with a focus on permit services and sustainability. But the unique thing I think about Felicia is she bills herself as The Foodie Builder, highlighting her expertise in and passion for food service design. And she’s taken that interest to the literary world, as well as the design girls authoring “A Complete Guide to Creating Tasty Spaces” and “The Homeowner’s Guide to Renovations and Maintenance”. She also has an extensive resume in giving back to the community, mentoring the next generation of designers. Felicia, welcome to the podcast!
Thank you, David, for having me on your podcast. I appreciate it. I am so thrilled to talk to you today.
We’ve had a couple of conversations about what you’re up to and one of the things I think a lot of people would be curious about is your brand, The Foodie Builder. What inspired The Foodie Builder to come into existence?
Well, I’ll tell you a little bit about it. I…about 15…no, actually it’s more than that now…2003, through 2004…I worked for a food service design firm and I absolutely fell in love with food service design. That was the first time I had ever worked with designing restaurants. I had spent many years designing residential projects, and that was the first time I was introduced to commercial kitchens. And I…it was something about the stainless steel. I always tell people that…they cracked up…but the gleaming stainless steel, the fun jobs we had, we designed a lot of kitchens within casinos and schools in South Jersey. And I just fell in love with it. And ever since then, I had always wanted to do it again. So when I started my business in 2008, one of my main goals was to shift it eventually to focusing on restaurant design.
Beautiful. What is special about food service design? I know a lot of people think of architects…they think of traditional buildings.
Yes, yes. Right.
So what is it about food service to sign that attracted you? How does it stand out as different from perhaps other types of design?
One of the things I think I’ve learned more about myself in working with food service design is working with the clients and hearing about their passion for food. Over the years also watching chefs and seeing them – the art of their movements and their creativity with plating foods and preparing foods and how they use their different utensils in the machines. The whole process I absolutely loved. Then I found myself falling in love with cooking shows and foreign cooking shows. And I can’t cook personally. I enjoy eating food that other people prepare, but the entire industry I fell in love with and engulfed myself in within the last four or five years and it’s paid off. I absolutely love the food service industry.
I was actually going to ask if you had picked up any tips or tricks from the chefs and become this great chef yourself, but apparently not.
That is not…I’ve learned…that is not my specialty. I do try and I will be trying again this weekend, we’re doing some Korean cooking this weekend, but no, that’s not something that I excel in.
Got it. What particular projects have you worked on that you have enjoyed the most?
There’s quite a few. The one most particular that I think I was skipping through the entire year that I was on it, it was the Borse Food Hall in the city of Philadelphia. And it’s most likely because I loved that building since I was a teenager. It’s a historical, historically federal, historically certified building in the city. It’s old, it’s gorgeous. It is one of the most gorgeous buildings with so much detail to it. And I was always in love with the building. So I would go in and look at the different details in the building over the years that had changed hands a few times. And more recently it was developed by an outside food developer. And one of my clients referred me to one of their clients and that client and I got along so well that she referred me to two different restaurants within the space. And I ended up working on eight restaurants out of 25, I believe, in the entire space. And it was just an enjoyable year. It was 2018 that entire year from the end of 2017, through the entire year of 2018, I worked on restaurants there and I loved it. It was a lot of fun.
How different – if you worked on eight restaurants – how different are the restaurants individually?
They were very different. Some of them were street food restaurants from one restaurant was an Indian street food restaurant. So learning about the different equipment that’s used for that type of restaurant versus a traditional American restaurant, which I did. One, the traditional American restaurant, was called the Grub House. Then there was also the Indian restaurant was called Chat and Chai. And I worked on a chain restaurant, which, I’ve done chain restaurants before, but this one was a unique chain restaurant to Philadelphia. It was called Get Fried. It was all fried foods. And then I worked on a tea bar which had no food whatsoever. It was just tea. And just the interesting details behind what the clients were offering. A lot of them were independent. Actually the food hall, the theme behind the food hall was to bring in independent restaurants. They did eventually have a few chains. They are, but the original idea was to have independent restaurant owners in the space. And of course, just like the restaurant industry goes, a few of them have unfortunately closed since then.
It’s a very tough industry.
It’s a tough industry. One of my favorite restaurants, you’ve probably heard about him on CNN and Ellen. He was a pizza owner and he would give out free slices to homeless people. And he became very famous all over the country. People would come to Philadelphia just to buy his pizza.
I do remember hearing about him.
Yeah, it was Rosa’s fresh pizza. And I loved him. I would go in his restaurant constantly and grab pizza, donate. That was one of our big projects with community service. Every year we would donate money to him. Unfortunately, he was a victim of the restaurant failures. He closed down last year. It was, it was sad to see him go.
Restaurants have had a lot of challenges over the last year with, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. How has that impacted your work or your approach to work?
That’s funny that you said that. When I first… when COVID-19 first broke out I was working on two restaurants and I was a little nervous. I was thinking, Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen? And during the shutdown, when everything was shut down and construction was shut down and we really couldn’t do anything, I started re-imagining the services that I would offer. And I started talking with people in other countries and throughout the United States, which was a good thing, but I also started learning a lot about new restaurants and what the restaurant of the future might look like. I started studying, going to webinars, and I started working on some post-COVID ideas for restaurants. The funny thing is, the restaurant industry is not slowing down like people think it is. I am working currently on five restaurants.
Yes. And one client is opening two and she says her business doubled. She has a current restaurant and a…she has a restaurant…and a commercial kitchen, prep kitchen, and opening two other restaurants. And I’m working on both of them.
What accounts for the disparity then between what we see on the news where restaurants are empty – they’re struggling – And these folks who obviously are being successful with their restaurant?
I think part of it is number one, the Philadelphia area is known for restaurants where we’re a restaurant industry. And also a lot of people became loyal to their restaurants that they loved. The one client that I had said her business doubled, she was able to make that transition very quickly into a to-go restaurant. So, we’re about to open back up. I just attended a webinar yesterday for our reopening for our restaurants. But during the shutdown a lot of restaurants were able to shift to the outside dining and also to the grub hub and the delivery only part of their restaurants. So there is a challenge, I believe, for a lot of restaurants. I’ve seen restaurants close completely. Big ones that are…one big one that I worked on, the Palm, which was a Philadelphia staple. I worked on the redesign of that about three years ago and it closed a year and a half after we did all the work that we did on it.
So, yeah, I think it depends on the type of restaurant it is. I really do.
Do smaller restaurants have a better chance of surviving in this new pandemic, post-pandemic age?
If they plan properly, because they can, if they focus on making themselves visual, number one, having a unique product, and also having a state of the art to-go service. You have to really be able to connect with your community, but also, you know, not just using the third party delivery services, but finding a unique way you can deliver to people so that they feel special. They still have to feel connected to your restaurant.
Right. So, community support is definitely a big part of it. And then it sounds like a certain nimble ability to adjust to very changing circumstances.
Yes. Yes. I think that the third party approach is good, but it distances people from the actual restaurant.
You mean Grub Hub and some of the delivery services. Okay…
Exactly. I mean, they’re necessary, but I’m working on a couple of ghost kitchens right now. So that’s going to be the primary use of their delivery service, but the small mom and pop type restaurants, I believe that they have to connect with their people.
And I don’t even know the term ghost kitchen.
That’s the new hip term. It’s…I’ve worked on them before. Commissary kitchen. They also use the term dark kitchen. That’s a large space with multiple areas within the space that are set up for different restaurants to use the space for their delivery services or for their catering services.
It sounds almost like a coworking space for restaurants.
Very, very similar to that. The one that I worked on, it was…they also called them…there’s another term for… I can’t…now it’s leaving me right now. I’m sorry. It’s it left me completely. We have a few of them in Philadelphia, but there are kitchens that are designed specifically for people that are using takeout or catering.
Gotcha. I learned something new every day. That’s why I love this.
Um, and it’ll be a part…it’ll be a section of my…I’m making a section of my updated version of “A Complete Guide to Tasty Spaces”. It’s going to be all about ghost kitchens. So there’ll be some interesting things in it.
You referenced the kitchen of the future, what…or the restaurant of the future. Can you give us a little taste of what that would look like?
Okay. So my…I imagined this based on the information that I have researched. I imagined a design called safer kitchens and they’re kitchens that are cleaner, greener and more apt to the takeout. If you’d noticed that most of our generation, the newer generations that are in, they’re looking for electronic apps. They’re looking for quick service. They’re looking for…everybody, I think post-COVID will be looking for more sanitized cleaning, more… We see sometimes some issues with the restaurants and their issues with the health department a lot. So I think the restaurant of the future is going to have to work with having more sustainable and more clean materials that they use. So there’s some materials that I did research on that are, that are not just antimicrobial, but there’s also germ-free materials that you can use.
There’s germ-free drywall, believe it or not! Air-cleaning drywall. There’s already materials that I suspect in restaurants for counter space that are germ-free, they’re completely sealed. Stone tops that are an aggregate stone. Now, instead of just having granite, your… It’s similar to Silestone in a Home Depot, but it’s a composite that has 90% granite. And the rest of it is sealed within a resin that allows you to have a completely green, sustainable material that you’re not using…It’s not…number one, it’s not giving off gases, but it’s also not required to be sealed every few years. And it’s a cleaner space because it’s completely sealed in so that… Those are different ideas of the new kitchen. There’s tiles for flooring that are anti-microbial, there’s machines that you can use that are more efficient, energy efficient, and also antimicrobial for the back of house.
So when people think about food, oftentimes we think about organic. We think about more healthy ways of raising, like, cage-free or farm-raised or free range, things like that. And I don’t think we often think in terms of the places where food is prepared as another place to bring in green design, sustainable design. And I know that sustainability is one of your big things. You just gave a couple examples of materials that might be used. I’m curious…are those materials, aside from being anti-microbial or more sanitary, are they also green materials or are there other green materials that you bring into your design aesthetic that actually make the restaurant building itself sustainable?
Yes. There are materials that are both, they’re also clean. I always say “clean” because they’re anti-…either germ-free – they are completely sealed where they will resist germs – or they’re also sustainable at the same time. So if you look at hospital design, a lot of the materials that are used in hospital design can now be reimagined in restaurants. So that’s what, when I started doing my research, that was one of the first place I places I looked into and believe it or not, I got that tip from a contractor who uses germ-free paint.
So we have to specify paint when we design restaurants. So, you know, I’m now talking with associates about germ-free paint. How about considering this in your space? It’s going to be a little bit more expensive, but there are so many options. There’s lighting that’s more energy efficient, but we also have to have specific lighting within restaurant spaces. That’s shatterproof. So you have to incorporate… You’re looking to incorporate both of those ideas together, where you’re meeting the standards of health and safety. You’re thinking cleaner, but you’re also thinking green and I enjoy it. I find it a lot of fun. It doesn’t always please my clients, because some of them are not looking for the… It’s more expensive than the norm. So, both of them together.
These days, it’s the investment that people actually do have to make in order to survive, because I can imagine it’s that little extra thing that’s going to make their space more enjoyable for people. And a lot of people right now are not eating out simply because they don’t feel safe. One of the things that I think restaurants have to start taking a look at is more effective HVAC and mechanical systems that filter the air differently. I don’t know, if more HEPA filters or I…I don’t do much around HVAC…but I can imagine that those decisions, even though they might cost a little bit more, would be something that restaurants could tout as, Hey, we’re doing everything that we can to make your experience both aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable, and also give you a safe environment to enjoy our products.
Yeah, I agree. I mean, they’re there. It’s funny that you brought up HEPA filters because that’s huge. We did a little podcast. Well, it wasn’t little. It was actually ridiculously long because we geeked out on it, myself and my colleague that works along with me that’s an environmental scientist, my mechanical engineer that I worked with and a chef that works on my team. We did a podcast about just exactly what you’re talking about. We talked about all the other ideas with the new COVID kitchen, the new post-COVID kitchen, but we also talked about…one of the big parts of it was mechanical. And the mechanical engineer was telling us about these UV rays that can be within a unit and it will shoot a shot and clean the air as it’s recirculated back into the space. I mean, there’s some crazy ideas that are out there, but they’re available. And if you’re looking to…if you want to, if you care about your employees, as well as your restaurant, your eaters that will be coming in and out of your space to eat, then you’re going to look for the best way to serve them. And those ideas are, to me, some amazing ideas.
That’s amazing. I know that you’re certified as a woman owned business and a minority owned business in the society that we’re in today. Of course, we’re all having conversations about racial justice and about giving people an equal voice and bringing equity, inclusion, and diversity to the workplace. What has your experience been in the design industry? I know that it’s traditionally been a very, very white male dominated industry. What challenges have you faced or what triumphs have you discovered?
I think that the typical challenges that I, in my being…I am…we all face…I was blessed to be able to understand and deal with racial challenges. From a young age I was always attending schools that were multi-racial. And so I understood how to be able to react to many races. What was funny was, I became friends with a lot of people from foreign countries and other races because we kind of clung together over the years, working together. So I have friends from – I think I tried to count the continents – probably five different continents that I’ve maintained relationships with over the years, but I don’t think it’s been difficult fo…It’s been difficult. I’m not going to pretend like those racial issues don’t exist in my industry because it’s a predominantly white industry. I understand that there’s issues I’ve been able to work through those issues, deal with them when they come up.
And I’ve been blessed. My superiors have always been good to me. I still talk to bosses from 20 years ago. They still send me referrals, which is, I mean, we get along great. I…if you figure out how to get along with people and the ones that are toxic to you or to your success, you just let them go and leave them alone and work your way through all of that. It can work out for you. I’ve had challenges being a female in this industry, but I’ve learned how to deal with it. I laugh it off a lot of times, but it’s not funny. It’s not fun. And I think I had more challenges being a minority when I started my own business than I did when I worked for people because you have to prove yourself even more and it’s a different type of challenge. So I just understand that, you know, those issues exist. I’ve been blessed to be able to work around them and to be able to deal with people on the level that they needed to be dealt with. I guess that’s the best I can answer it.
Yeah. I know you’re a member of NOMA, the National Organization of Minority Architects, and you’ve been active with them. And I love the fact that you mentioned that you’re still in touch with your former bosses or people that you’ve worked with in the past. It sounds like those relationships have really stood you in good stead over the years. The question that I’m curious about is how you’re taking your experiences and giving back to your community, specifically with…I know that you’ve done mentoring, you’ve done volunteer work. You’ve sat on boards. I mean, the list…I made a list of all of the things that you do, and I thought this woman doesn’t ever sleep. What of your experiences do you bring to that kind of work?
My experiences, as far as my career is concerned, life experiences?
Yeah. Like, it sounds like with the mentoring, for example, that you’re providing opportunities for people, up and coming designers.
Something that you’re bringing to that relationship based on your own experience. So I guess the question is how have your experiences informed all of your volunteer work?
I think it comes from what was put into me over the years. From when I was young, my brother is a little older than me and he pushed me to volunteer. He would just tell me…I think I was in the seventh or eighth grade…And he would say, come on with me! And we were volunteers, we were volunteering. We volunteered on a mayoral campaign. I don’t know if you remember, Philadelphia’s first black mayor, Mayor Wilson Goode?
I do actually. Yep.
Yes, we volunteered on his campaign…Oh my God…Many, many years ago. And when I met him, my sister had the pleasure of working with him. So when I met him, I told him and he told me exactly how old I was based on when I volunteered.
But yeah. So I learned that my brother was a mentor to me. And also I was mentored through different people throughout the years. An old boss of mine…Well, he’s not old, he’s actually the same age, but he was on a higher level. He just took us under his wing and made us create a volunteer committee for advocating for handicap design that, you know, that kind of thing, those kinds of things taught me the importance of using my career to help other people, not just mentoring, but also helping people. So when I was able, when you’re working for other firms, it’s very difficult sometimes to have spare time because you’re so busy giving to your boss. So when I created my business my whole mission was to give back…
…and you created it. You created a special division within your business. Community concerns division.
Yes, community concerns division that’s it. The whole idea is to mentor, to give to the homeless and to green community. So we try to stick to projects that are centered around that every year. And we have honed it to a point where there’s specific times a year that we’ll do different things. So coming up in September, we’re working with a local homeless group to give them some kits for COVID, some personal protective equipment. We always feed people around the holidays. We do a Martin Luther King project this year. We…one of my clients was a nonprofit. So we actually partnered with NOMA to help them put together their…finish up their space, paint, put together some furniture. So we do things like that. And every year we kind of work on the same type of projects. And we always like to partner up with local nonprofits just to help out.
That’s fantastic. I wish more businesses would sort of walk the talk in that particular way.
I thing there are businesses that actually do that. I think there’s more than we know.
Probably true, probably true. We have to seek them out and sell it. How have you molded your career to fit your life and circumstances? I mean, you’re super busy. You’re designing, you’re a published author. You’re writing, you’re doing all this volunteer work. How do you find the balance?
That’s a good question. And that’s a quest that I’m always searching for is balance. When I first started out, I wasn’t sleeping much. I do find, one of my clients actually told me over the years, he said, I respect the way you, control your time. And so the way I keep control when I first started my business, I was answering calls at 11 o’clock at night, 11:30 on the weekends on holidays. And then I decided this is too much. And so I controlled it with, you know, the typical nine to five, you know, sticking with appointments, sticking with the schedule. The one thing I have not found a chance to do is to actually take vacations. My trips are mainly business trips, so that’s my goal. But yeah, I don’t have much of a personal life. I enjoy a lot of time with my family. But I spend most of my time thinking about work. I love what I do. I guess that’s where I do so much because I love what I do.
Something that really stood out when we first spoke was your passion for everything that you’re up to. I love the fact that you’re so connected with the people that you design for and the subject matter, your extensive knowledge of that. It’s really brilliant. What would you like your legacy to be?
It’s funny that you said passionate because I am very passionate about everything that I do. I don’t…people will tell you…the people that know me will tell you that I don’t do anything without passion. You know, I’m a crazy sports fan. I’m a crazy sports fan. And I’m a…so I’m passionate about that. I’m passionate about food. So, everything…I put myself into it and I guess I would want that to be known that I put me into everything I did. There’s a quote, whatever you do, whether it’s music or art or architecture, the different things that they name should always be a reflection of yourself. And I think that’s kind of where I stand also. There’s a famous architect. He talks about “make no small plans, make big plans”. I’m sure you know who I’m talking about, from Chicago.
Daniel Burnham. He talks about making big plans. So, I’m always making crazy plans and trying to do things that are so out of the norm. And then people look at me and they think I’m a little crazy because I…a few years ago I volunteered for Canstruction. Little old me! I volunteered. And then I said, I want to do that. And my friend looked at me and said, what? And I did it. I actually did it. And she was like, why in the world would you, what are you doing?
What was the building that you did?
Canstruction…are you familiar with…
I’m familiar with it. For those of our listeners who might not be it’s, well, maybe you can explain it better than I…
You collect food cans and on display publicly, you put together a design and your design is you create just an image and you build it and you have a team. And then all of that food gets donated to charity and it’s amazing. And so we decided to do a camera and our theme was picture a world without hunger. And we did a digital camera and in the back of the camera was a globe. And it would, the whole idea was it was a world that you’re picturing through the camera and the food represented, ending the hunger.
And it’s all made of canned food.
It’s all made of canned food and it was fun. It was a lot of fun. But those sort of the strange things that I do that I want people to remember me by, you know, the fact that I may not be the best architect in the world. I might not be a Daniel Burnham or a, you know, I may not be the most famous architect in the world, but I at least give passion to whatever I do. And, you know, it’s… I give it my all, whatever I’m working on, I try to give it my all. And I want people to know that about me.
I think it’s pretty obvious! Felicia, thank you so much for being here. I want to acknowledge you for your passion and the joy that you bring to these conversations and your commitment to others. I want to invite everybody who’s listening – Please go check out her books, “The Complete Guide to Creating Tasty Spaces” and “A Homeowner’s Guide to Renovations and Maintenance”. I’ll have all that information in links on the show notes for this. And I so appreciate your coming to share your passion for food and design with us.
Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to be on your show, David. I actually enjoyed talking to you, just chatting with you.
Fantastic. I love it. Thank you so much. Have a great day.
Thank you, you too!
Thanks for joining us this week on the Architects Possibility Podcast with architect and executive coach David Bradley, produced by Blueprint For Living Coaching. If you’re looking to create more possibility in your professional and personal life, build your business, grow your leadership, or craft your legacy, check out our website @www.blueprintforliving.coach to explore available group or one on one coaching options. Be sure to tune in next week for our next episode of the Architects Possibility Podcast. Until then, keep celebrating the possibility in your life and make it a wonder-filled day!