“The reason people go out to eat has evolved over time so it makes sense that design should evolve too,” says Robert LaPlata, principal consultant and founder of Forefront Hospitality, a consulting firm based in Chicago. He works with restaurant owners on design and renovation projects and says that today’s restaurant owners face a new challenge when designing their dining rooms.
“Convenience used to be a factor but now it has evolved into a three-headed monster of great food, great service, and atmosphere,” he continues. Today’s restaurants have to deliver on the design front in addition to great food and great hospitality. “Creating that sensory stimulation of feel, taste and sight is what it’s really about now.”
This is the perfect time of year for restaurant owners start refreshing or completely renovating their dining rooms, since January through March tends to be a respite from the busy holiday months. Renovating can be a costly endeavor but it’s one of the best ways to keep a restaurant current in today’s dining scene. Here, LaPlata shares a few ways restaurant owners can make sure they get the most out of their renovation or refresh.
Be clear about your goals.
There are several reasons why it might be time for an upgrade, says LaPlata. A drop in sales can be the first indication that it’s time to update: “Lagging sales is the first sign because that means competition is winning for some reason,” he says. Other reasons could be physical; maybe you’re looking to grow your bar business and need new seating there, or you want to add a private dining program and require an event space. Or it could just be time for a change. (That decade-old carpet is likely looking a little tired.)
Remember that renovating is really about elevating what your restaurant already does well and making it current in today’s dining landscape. “What renovating does for operators is offer a way to enhance the entire dining experience,” LaPlata says.
Take inventory of what you have.
Renovations don’t have to mean a completely new dining room. “Look at the physical space — the tables, chairs,” says LaPlata. Do the walls need a new coat of paint? Is the fabric on the chairs worn? Is the artwork out of date? What still works, and what needs to go?
To get an idea of what diners are looking for and what updates you might make, take a look at restaurants around you for inspiration. LaPlata advises: “Look at trends. Renovating is really a chance to reinvent yourself.” On caveat here: make sure the trend makes sense for your concept. Don’t splash your walls with tropical prints if you’re not serving tiki cocktails. “You’ve got to balance the renovations and your core values,” LaPlata says.
Make a wish list…
Luxe touches and top-of-the-line fixtures, furniture, and appliances add up. Owners need to narrow down what’s most important. “It’s about ROI,” LaPlata says. “Operators need to think, if I make this investment will I see a return on it?”
Depending on the focus of your restaurant, it may make sense to keep certain parts of the dining room the same and narrow down a few items that need to be replaced or revamped. “There are so many ways to refresh a dining room. Little things like painting and light fixtures go a long way,” LaPlata says. “Ten or 15 years ago everyone was putting down a white tablecloth with butcher paper — maybe it’s as simple as taking away the tablecloths or having wood tables.”
…And edit that list.
Look at your budget and see what you can afford to do. It sounds simple, but many operators start a project without knowing their budget and its limits, LaPlata says. “Once you know your budget break it down in terms of what will offer the most bang for your buck.”
Make a plan.
The biggest mistake that LaPlata sees restaurant owners make is that they take on a project without a concrete plan for how to execute it. Trying to tackle too much can derail renovations and decrease your ROI. Create a plan for the project, with clear steps and stakeholders and deadlines. Communicate it clearly to your team and to external partners to set expectations, and stick to it. “No matter what you do, make sure you have your ducks in a row and have a plan,” he says.
If you hire outside help, use it.
There are plenty of professionals you can hire to help plan and execute a renovation or a refresh. “Some owners may want to hire an interior designer or a consultant,” says LaPlata. A designer focused on the project also gives you the freedom to focus on other parts of the business while the renovation is in progress. Plus, “sometimes an owner just needs another set of eyes and a fresh perspective.”
Once you have someone on board, don’t be shy about leaning on them for support. “I see operators trying to do everything themselves. I always tell clients, you called a consultant for a reason — you made an investment in having someone’s educated opinions.” It’s best to reach out to someone who has done this before than try to figure it out alone. “If you make a mistake and it snowballs, it could cost you more money in the long run.”