March 2017

How to Start Your Restaurant’s Renovation

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By Judy Henderson

If your restaurant is going to survive, you’re going to need to complete a renovation every seven to 10 years. I’m not talking about replacing the fabric on an existing banquet or adding an Edison bulb to an old pendent fixture – that’s maintenance. A renovation is more extensive; a rethink of the front-of-house and perhaps the back-of-house. This process usually calls for the extended closure of the restaurant and is undertaken in order to sustain your business.

A renovation is a daunting thing to do — turn off the revenue tap while spending like a Vanderbilt on what feels like guess work as to your future. It’s so uncertain that many restaurant owners choose to simply maintain what they have. The sad reality is, that decision invariably leads to a slow and often painful death of a once vibrant business.

However, done well, a successful renovation can increase margins and reach new markets that will sustain your business into the future. In the decades that I’ve been in hospitality design, I’ve managed hundreds of restaurant reinventions in different markets across North America. There are four phases to a renovation; follow them and your chances of success are significantly improved:

  1. Planning
  2. Design
  3. Construction
  4. Re-launch

I relish a conversation with a restaurant owner when they talk about market shifts – that allows me to create a design that will endure and be relevant long after re-launch. There’s no design without function and function comes from an understanding of your market and how it’s likely to shift in the future.

A decade or so ago, our dining habits were quite different — you called to make a reservation (for two, most likely), you dressed up and dutifully turned up on time. When you arrived, you were shown immediately to your table and kept your conversation to yourselves while you ate. Today, dining is a more fluid, casual experience. Larger groups assemble over time at the bar and diners are much more willing to interact with other guests, seeking an experience rather than simply consuming a meal in private. My example here might be a little stereotypical, but it serves to show the importance of looking to your market for guidance on when and how to approach a renovation.

The example also demonstrates how a restaurant’s function impacts the design. Today’s modern urban restaurants call for more bar capacity and larger tables. The thought of a communal table would have been comical when I started designing. Now, it’s an element that many restaurants owners consider, and with good reason.

The more insight you can bring to the table about the type of clients and their expectations, the better. Once we understand what you want to achieve from a business perspective, a designer can truly dress you for success.

Next time we’ll get into planning your renovation. It’s arguably the most important stage, so hold off on knocking down walls until then.

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The Importance of Planning your Restaurant’s Renovation

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By Judy Henderson

Planning a restaurant renovation is the key to success — miss this step at your peril. This process, conducted every seven to 10 years, will keep your restaurant in the game. Here are some things to consider when making your plan:


This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many restaurant owners don’t realistically calculate the time needed to get things done and wind up closed as high season approaches. Optimism has no place in a renovation project. Slabs of granite for the bar top can, and do, crack. Lighting fixtures get held up at customs and your electrician is balancing multiple jobs, so they will inevitably miss a day.

Experience has taught me to plan for life’s little hiccups so they don’t adversely impact the entire project. Get estimates on weeks of work from your designer, contractor, etc. Also, consider permits, city planning, health inspections and staff hiring.

Work back schedules

When you know how long your renovation is going to take, make a work back schedule – working back from the day you want to re-open. Most importantly – build in some contingency. Plan to reopen before high season and build in some time to iron out any kinks.


Keep everyone informed: staff, suppliers, and most importantly, customers. This is a great time to gather customer emails and send out a short survey asking customers what they think about the restaurant space and food. You can use this feedback in your planning and design. Send email updates throughout the renovation process to keep customers informed and excited about the new space and menu.


As well as customer feedback, have a wander around your neighborhood. Observe who’s buying property, have dinner at local hotspots — how would you make your space even better than the competition?

Floor Plans

Every good renovation starts with a floor plan. Unlike menu covers or staff uniforms, floor plans are not easy to modify once they’re in place. Plan your restaurant to look great even when it’s slow. Consider areas that can be screened or sectioned off. Consider private rooms and semi-private seating – these are must-haves for high-end urban restaurants in 2017!

Flow is arguably one of the most important factors of a floor plan. Flow determines the way customers, staff and food move through the restaurant space. Flexibility is also important. Being able to move tables, chairs and even wait stations around allows you to accommodate both large and small parties easily.

Create simple understandable traffic patterns – corridors for ease of movement around the restaurant and clear access to washrooms. Avoid having customers walk past the kitchen entry (staff will thank you for it). Avoid seating guests too close to the front door, as it can be noisy and drafty.

Bar placement needs to be considered — a bar at the entrance of a restaurant can do double duty as a waiting area. A bar in the center of a restaurant is easier for staff to access during the dinner rush. And a bar at the back of a restaurant is more intimate, away from the hustle and bustle of the front of the house. Decide which option is best for your restaurant.

Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail.” So make a plan. Next time we will talk design and how to add just the right finishing touches to your reinvented restaurant.


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