For restaurant franchisees, developing, maintaining, and remodeling their buildings can be as important to business success as the rest of daily operations. Over my 30 years of experience designing, drafting, and project coordinating, I’ve found there are a few critical factors that can significantly determine the success of a restaurant architecture project.
1. Get in the Zone
While most higher-end restaurant franchises have prototype buildings that can theoretically be placed on any site, in reality, city and municipal zoning regulations can greatly affect the usability of a given site. As architects, we perform a lot of due diligence with the city or municipality to understand zoning issues for site and exterior building design, and more.
The development process—working through what it takes to get a site approved through the city or municipality—can get very detailed. It can dramatically affect your restaurant design. Zoning regulations can affect the location of the building on the site, the parking, the landscaping, the drive-thru, and your signage.
Local zoning can even dictate what your exterior building can look like. Between 15%-25% of the cities we’ve dealt with have an opinion about the exterior of your restaurant. For example, they may specify what exterior materials you have to use, such as requiring a certain percentage of brick, metal, stone, glass, and/or EIFS.
As soon as a potential new franchise site is identified, we recommend conducting a feasibility site plan by seeing how your prototype building will fit there. A quick analysis can help you identify if the site will actually work for zone regulations like parking requirements and building setbacks.
For example, in a tight space, your building has to be set back a specific distance, and that eats into your available parking. Sometimes you can get a variance or get a cross-easement agreement with the adjacent land owner, so you can share parking or share access through the middle of the property lines.
Likewise, some municipalities will require a certain drive-thru car stack—how many cars can fit in your drive-thru at any given time—which may be above and beyond what a given site can accommodate. Early feasibility studies with your architect will help quickly determine if the potential site will work for your franchise needs.
2. Change Happens
In addition to adjustments made based on local zoning regulations, there are practical changes that almost always have to be made to prototype buildings to ensure they work for the franchisee.
In our work for clients like Border Foods, there are certain things we’re always adding to the architectural plans. We start with prototype plans that are the same ones used by other franchisees across the country, but there are certain construction items that get modified based on experience and franchisee preference. Once we’ve built a prototype in the field, we often find changes the franchisee wants to make in future buildings. For example, Border Foods often adjusts the size of the prototype to better fit their needs. Many of these appear to be minor, but have a real impact, such as modifying the design to fit 68 seats in a 40-seater prototype.
Another interesting example was a prototype building that included a polished, dyed floor in the dining area. It looked really cool, but when it was done, you start to think about the obvious: you get to see cracks in the concrete. And with the dark, black stain, it just looks dirty, especially in the winter time, which is not a very good design for a restaurant. So we began using quarry tile in the dining area. It hides all the flaws in the concrete, it’s non-slip, and you don’t see the dirt. That’s a shift we made with the franchisee after trying out the dyed floor. It has its place, but not in a restaurant in the north when you have snow, dirt, salt, and sand from the parking lot and sidewalks.
In the end, it’s all about helping the franchisee solve problems and get the doors open.
3. Design Drives Business
Gone are the days when cheap and fast fare were the only things needed to lure repeat customers. Today’s consumers want an elevated experience. Increasingly, innovative design and architecture are hallmarks of upstart quick-service and fast-casual brands.
Many of the franchise restaurants we’re working on these days have prototype buildings that use a variety of different materials and construction methods, with different sight lines, shadowing, and interior finishes. We’re also using different ceiling lines, with open-to-structure dining — where the building structure is exposed and the HVAC is painted out—and have included fun details like having an illuminated wall behind the service counter. Combined, these architectural elements help create a space where customers feel relaxed and want to hang out.
These modern design elements aren’t necessarily budget killers. For example, one of our clients’ prototype buildings called for a cement board, called Nichiha, that’s really expensive. We helped them identify a different type of cement board that works just as well for a lot less. They get the same look, but we’re basically value engineering the material. So while the Nichiha might be $20 a square foot, the other material was about half the cost.
As more franchise restaurants go upscale and competition becomes stiffer every day, embracing the Power of Design is key to enhancing the experience of your customers, so they stay longer and return more often.
4. Relationships Are Key
Of all the items on this list, this is the one I’ve found to be most critical. Develop a relationship with an architect you can trust. That’s why clients like Border Foods have been working with the architects at PlanForce group (and under our old banner of WCL Associates) for more than two decades. The relationship between the franchisee and the architect — knowing what the client wants and how they like to work — really helps expedite the design process.
It’s really important to work with someone who knows your likes and preferences and how they differ from those of the parent brand. For example, one of our franchise restaurant clients always wants an interior trash room. The prototype doesn’t have that, and it makes the building a little longer. Because we’ve been working with them for so long, we know to put that in their new stores, whenever there’s room. Simple things like that can make a huge difference.
I love working on these franchise restaurants, because I know them, and I know the franchisees. We’ve built a really good relationship over the years, and I love going on construction site visits and meetings, to see the stores being built and how everything goes together. It’s really satisfying to see how the work we’ve put in over the years helps my clients to be successful.
Jeff Schrafft serves as a Design Technician for PlanForce.