January 2007 Edition
Restaurant Makeovers

Décor is Just the Beginning

By Michelle Ponto

Whether you’re buying an existing restaurant or sprucing up your current place, re-designs can be intimidating and in some cases expensive.  But updating your establishment does have it’s advantages including attracting new customers, keeping your restaurant current with interior design and industry trends, and ensuring you maintain your competitive edge.  However, being competitive is only one reason to consider a restaurant redesign.  Another reason is to increase efficiency and cut operating costs.

Before investing in an overhaul of your kitchen and floor area, take into consideration all aspects – not just the esthetics.  This is especially important when it comes to designing a workable and efficient kitchen.  No matter how attractive or technologically advanced your kitchen is, it means nothing if the ‘flow’ of elements is not thought out.  For example, if the cold box isn’t where it’s needed, your chef has to walk to the other end of the line to get

an item, taking up time and interrupting others working in the area.

Advice from the Experts

While a minor renovation might involve a new coat of paint or purchasing new furniture, a major re-design could require the help of a professional designer or restaurant consultant.  Chris Hannah of Cricket Design Company

Inc. in Toronto has some suggestions to help make the transition from old to new effective, efficient and most of all — less stressful.

“Designers are known for spending money, but often operators have tunnel vision and don’t see what the public sees,” says Chris Hannah.  “A good designer bridges the gap between the operator and the customer.”

That’s not all a consultant will do.  Restaurant designers will put a process in place to make sure the re-design is done on-budget and on-time.  In other words, they develop a project plan to maximize your renovation and keep your shut-down time to a minimum -- something that is essential when it comes to the food industry.  Plus, because they are in constant contact with suppliers, they will have sources for materials that an operator would not.

Solving Problems Before They Occur

Hannah is the co-owner of Cricket Design which has been in operation for nearly 20 years.  He’s worked on projects ranging from family style chains such as East Side Mario’s 130 locations, Shoeless Joe’s and Casey’s, to local establishments.  Regardless of whether his company is planning a design for multiple locations or one restaurant, he says there is always more to think about than décor.

“Often hidden problems are lurking under the surface,” says Hannah.  “Bad plumbing, old mechanical units and other behind the scenes items need to be checked out before proceeding.”

Hannah has seen it all and says it’s often these non-visual problems that turn a “simple” renovation into a complicated mess.  Then there’s the issue of communication. 

“Building codes change...what was once okay, may not be acceptable any longer,” explains Hannah.  “Also, many times landlords need to approve the renovations before something can take place.”

According to Hannah, an effective designer does more than design.  They manage the project, plan the schedule, and keep the communication flowing between the owner and the operator while solving any possible problems before they happen. 

So How Long is it Going to Take?

Transforming your restaurant from yesterday’s ‘blah’ to tomorrow’s ‘fab’ doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, it may be weeks before any construction actually takes place.

“Most people don’t realize that there needs to be a lot of dialogue in the design phase,” says Hannah.  “With our clients, we usually estimate 4 to 6 weeks just for research and design.”

After that you can expect another 4 to 6 weeks for drawings, and then 2 weeks for pricing.  It is only after this is settled that materials are ordered and construction begins. 

While this might seem like a lot of pre-planning, the good news is during this phase, your restaurant is open and operating.  By the time construction begins, the designer has planned the most effective way to renovate your space and has analyzed the potential problems, dealt with the owner or any legal issues, and has made sure the re-design will go as smoothly as possible.  They have also worked at putting together a plan that ensures you close for as little time as possible reducing the risk of losing customers and staff.

“The actual shut down usually takes 1-4 weeks depending on the type of renovation,” says Hannah.

Hannah also advises operators to market their renovation before it occurs.  Don’t let it come as a surprise to your customers.  Instead tell them about it and get them excited. He suggests instead of simply re-opening, promote it like a grand opening.  Other suggestions include offering a special or new menu to help draw regular customers back and new customers in.  Hannah also says the same open-promotion philosophy holds true when it comes to retaining staff.

“Keeping staff is often harder than customers,” says Hannah.  “Be honest with them. Let know what’s happening and the time frame. Make sure they want

to wait it out or offer them an interim job.”

Final Tips for Putting it all Together

Renovations can be complicated and it’s hard to focus on everything that needs to be done.  When it comes to planning your re-design, Hannah suggests:

1)  Listening and learning: Find out how the customer responds to the space in its current state so that the renovation makes a difference.

2)  Being creative with resources: If money is tight, look for other solutions.  Use in-house resources, barter and whatever other means you come across.

3)  Keeping it ‘whole’: Make sure the new design fits the name, the food and the service.

Finally and most importantly, with all the time, energy and money you’ll be putting into the space, make sure you love the concept and are passionate about the changes.