If your restaurant has been open for 10 years and business is good, that’s something to be grateful for. But at some point it becomes time to reinvest in your own success to keep the restaurant relevant in an ever-growing landscape of bright, shiny, exciting new openings.
“We just finished doing Stoic & Genuine, which is our fourth restaurant, and we were so happy with it,” says Beth Gruitch of Rioja, which recently turned 10. “When you’re in your environment, sometimes you need to walk in through your front doors and really look at it with a fresh look. It’s important to Jen [Jasinski, my business partner] and I for our restaurants to stay relevant and current, so after 10 years it was a really good time to do it.”
Similarly, Alex Seidel had recently opened a new concept, Mercantile, when he decided Fruition needed a facelift. “We didn’t start Fruition with very much money at all — we maybe put $20,000 into the renovations,” he says. “Years later I was tired of the decor, and a lot has changed. Having Mercantile, the new restaurant… we certainly didn’t want to have the stepchild restaurant.”
We talked to Beth and Alex all about their remodel process, priorities, and what they wish they had known before they got started. Read on for their top tips and takeaways.
1. You have to evolve to stay relevant.
For Beth, Rioja’s remodel was an opportunity to build up some buzz about the restaurant, especially for customers who hadn’t visited in a while. “There’s a lot of competition in town, and it’s important that we stay as leaders in the community. I don’t ever want to look dated in what we’re doing. We want to be leading that pack and setting the standards.”
Alex’s decision to renovate Fruition was purely aesthetic. “It had to do with how the restaurant has grown and how it should be represented. For the last eight years we’ve had three different types of drywall finish on the walls. We had a couple of different types of plaster. The black vinyl chairs and banquettes just weren’t doing it anymore for us. It was time for some of that to evolve and really unify the space.”
2. Your projected budget is never your real budget.
Fact: remodels always cost more than you expect them to and more than you want them to. It’s important to strike a balance between taking on more than you’re prepared to — say, a million-dollar renovation — and doing enough that customers notice a difference. Respect your investors and do some value engineering to determine your biggest priorities.
Alex tells us: “There are always two budgets: one budget you know you can spend, and one budget that you want to spend. You have to fall back to that number that you can’t go past.”
3. Listen to your customers.
A remodel is the perfect time to take into consideration the feedback you get from customers. Beth installed noise panels to make the space a bit quieter and redefined the seating to make it more inviting. There used to be a main dining room and a smaller dining room in the back, which they used for private parties and general seating.
“Now what you see are three different areas of seating that are equally sexy and inviting,” she says. “The back room is all these wonderful booths. Each little dining area became much more appealing to the general diner. We didn’t want to lose any seats, but we lost a few here and there. We felt with the integrity of the dining room and what we were doing, it was important.”
4. This is an opportunity to change your business.
Sure, there’s the artwork and decor to think about. But when it comes to remodeling a restaurant, there are also structural enhancements that can improve the fundamentals of your business. Alex had never had enough storage space to create the wine program he wanted at Fruition, so he used the remodel to build out capacity for 600 more bottles.
“That was really a focus,” he says. “It’s something that has never lived up to the food, and it should.”
5. You have to be hands-on to maintain control.
The more you insert yourself into the minute details of the construction, the more control you have. Being on site as things are being gutted and rebuilt gives you the opportunity to be part of more conversations and influence the end result.
“I basically was a subcontractor to the Fruition remodel,” says Alex. “There’s a lot more communication that way. I would go down at 8 a.m. and just walk around the dining room while they were there working. If I saw something I’d ask a simple question. But if you’re not there, you come in and it’s done, and that’s pretty much the deal.”
6. Your people are your biggest asset, not your four walls.
Keep in mind that your regulars may be attached to your restaurant just as it is. There’s always a danger when making big changes that you may alienate some loyal customers in the process. When people worried that the menu was changing, Beth reassured them that they were “still Rioja.”
One solution is to make guests a part of the restaurant’s evolution, as Alex did when he re-opened Fruition eight years to the day of its original opening. He invited everyone who had dined at the restaurant that first night back in to celebrate. “We wanted to treat them and say thank you for supporting us day one and, for many of them, over the years.”
“It’s really the people that make the space, not the space,” he adds. “It’s not about the four walls, it’s about the people inside.”
7. Your staff is counting on you.
Rioja was closed for renovations for an entire month. Aside from planning for the project from a financial standpoint, Beth also had her staff to think about. “We’re dealing with people’s lives,” she says. “It’s really tough.”
She informed her staff about the plans as early as possible and chose a quiet month (January) to do the work. She also looked for other resources for them: some staged at other restaurants, some used unemployment benefits, and some went on vacation. “We’ve always paid vacation,” Beth adds.
The result was a huge success — almost 100% retention in Rioja’s front of house.
8. There will be a learning curve.
Don’t expect to re-open your doors to perfectly smooth service after making big changes to your storage and dining room. Consider holding a mock service beforehand so the staff can get used to the new layout.
“They have new table numbers to learn, new seat numbers to learn, they don’t know where anything is,” says Beth, who initially didn’t think a mock service was necessary. “I’ll tell you, the first couple of nights were like, wow. You’re trying to get your groove and figure out where to find your forks.”
9. You can’t get the best of everything.
It’s natural to want the most expensive, beautiful things for your restaurant, but remember that there are less expensive alternatives out there. Decide what’s most important to you, what will make the biggest impact, and what you’re willing to splurge on. For Beth, it was the lighting, which changed the ambiance of the dining room dramatically. She also bought new uniforms for the staff. “The whole project becomes a big picture.”
10. Be honest with yourself about the future.
Where do you see yourself in five, 10 years? Will your restaurant still be open? Will you be thinking about another remodel? Before you get started, be positive that a remodel is a good decision for your restaurant. Weigh your options and think about the payoff over time to see if it’s worth it.
“We’re always looking to the future, and how we’re going to be better than we were before is the key to that,” says Beth. “With any major purchase, you have to think about how that plays into it.”