Your flagship restaurant is packed every night. Patrons post glowing reviews. Diners book reservations well in advance to score a Friday night table. Social media pages are brimming with gorgeous photos of food and ambience, drawing a lively crowd to dinner service.
It feels like the perfect time to open another location, and you know just the place. Now, all you have to do is duplicate your existing restaurant, right?
If only it were that easy.
Hospitality expansion is anything but a cookie-cutter process, and there is no magic wand. The road to expanding a restaurant brand is fraught with stumbling blocks, nightmarish tales of building code violations, restoration woes, and equipment and staffing challenges.
There is good news. Follow a few cues from the experts, and your expansion can be something to celebrate. We asked an architect, builder, chief operating officer, and trailblazing chef for their insight into expansion success. Here’s what they had to say.
Ask the Architect: Jeffrey Beers
Restaurants by Jeffrey Beers International share an instantly recognizable “it” factor. At heart, Beers is a true artist who grew up in a traveling family that exposed him to global flavors. He spent almost ten years with master architect I.M. Pei and a lifetime in the kitchens of the world’s best chefs. From Seoul to Dubai to Manhattan and everywhere in between, Beers’ passion for detail is legendary.
A few of Beers’ high-profile clients include the Four Seasons Hotel and Resort, Masaharu Morimoto, Gordon Ramsay (including Hell’s Kitchen in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas), Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Disney Hotels & Resorts, Dinex Group, Ritz-Carlton, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club. Beers is also a restaurant owner in his own right, and when it comes to expanding restaurant brands, he has seen it all.
“It raises the bar the moment you get into multiple locations, but if someone is wired for that and ready for the challenges, it is a great thing,” said Beers.
The architecture is a huge part of the equation, but restaurateurs and chefs might be surprised to learn that Beers believes the process should begin with considering the guest experience.
“In the culinary world, especially from chefs who have reputations that made a mark, they never forget that this is a consumer-based business,” said Beers.
It’s important to assess if an established brand in one location will fit into a different neighborhood and meet the consistent needs of diners. Beers says successful brands must include two critical business components and without one or the other, the risk of failure is high.
“I’ve seen many chefs go through this, and I strongly believe in apprenticing for someone who has developed a strong reputation, work ethic, and understands the business, and that means both food and service,” said Beers.
The other component that cannot be overstated is not to go it alone. “It’s remarkable what can come out of collaboration, especially in opening a second location and beyond because the restaurant brand is important, but each restaurant is a different space,” said Beers.
Measuring the popularity of the first location is not an accurate indicator for expansion where location is concerned. Beers says that’s because customer demographics at any new location will inherently be different than the first one. Again, it’s all about knowing your diner beyond what you put on the menu.
“Study your customers and cater the design accordingly — does the space need to be a little lighter or darker? Does it need to be more open? Should there be seating other than table seating? Should the bar be larger or smaller this time around? Pay strong attention to answering those types of questions and take cues from the architect,” said Beers. “Plan from how you enter to where your seating is and take into account the flow of the space all the way to the server and point-of-sale stations.”
Location has become as much about culture as brick and mortar. Chefs often wonder: is it smarter to try and duplicate a second location or to start anew with a fresh concept?
“Stylistically and design-wise, it has been helpful to me to understand the culture of the guests in that part of the world as well as what isn’t in that city — what works in Columbus may not work in Dallas,” said Beers. “You can invent something new, something innovative, but one has to be cognizant of what a customer in a given location wants in order to provide that experience.”
Ask the Builder: Omega Construction, Inc.
Omega Construction is among the busiest commercial contractors in the Southeast. The company specializes in new commercial construction and meticulous restoration of historic properties. Among many hospitality projects, Omega recently transformed a 1920s department store into the Hotel Indigo and Sir Winston Wine Loft and Restaurant, as well as Berrien House, preserving architectural masterpieces that would otherwise have fallen to time.
From scratch or repurposed, restaurant expansion always begins with site selection.
“Even in the same city, there will always be site-specific challenges and intricacies to impact schedule and budget,” said Todd Mayo, Omega Construction’s Georgia division manager. “The goal is to keep your brand image intact, and that’s where the contractor design/build element comes into play.”
In Savannah, Ga., new real estate is limited, so chefs who don’t already have a piece of property often choose to convert historic buildings.
“Unfortunately, new building codes related to life safety and mechanical components are very hard to integrate into a building from the 1800s, and much more expensive,” Mayo said. “Your builder will look at the structure of the building and recommend what makes the most economic sense — for example, it may seem reasonable to expand to upper floors, but the expense and impact to historical foundations may limit the ability to proceed without significant cost and planning.”
Omega Construction President Barry Hennings says choosing a builder with experience should be the qualifying factor. He advocates for hiring the contractor as early in the process as possible.
“Choosing someone who has done it all before is vital, as is pre-construction, so by the time you get a set of construction drawings, you have all the information needed to make informed decisions,” said Hennings.
He defines the pre-construction phase as a critical time where problem-solving skills take shape, such as understanding the project scope, timeframe, risk analysis, potential roadblocks and cost impacts. “Internal pre-construction and estimating personnel work side-by-side with the design team,” said Hennings. “It’s their job to take the restaurant chef or owner from an initial idea to the building permit in hand, ready to begin work.”
Working with a contractor who will help guide the process and be a partner is imperative. Mayo stresses the importance of having trust in each other as the backbone for success.
“The chef and restaurant owner have to be able to dream and be creative, and it’s our job to figure out the most economical and easiest way to make it happen, and this is what contractors call value engineering,” said Mayo.
“It may not be feasible to hang a 5,000-pound chandelier from an existing ceiling, but instead we would consider economical ways to implement structural components to support it as a solution.”
Restaurant teams should also look for contractors who have a sense of passion for the project. Case in point: when Bitty & Beau’s selected Omega Construction to design / build their Savannah location, it took on a life of its own because they believed in it.
“Local architect LS3P pitched me the Bitty & Beau’s concept, along with some preliminary design documents as he knew it had a personal touch for me,” said Mayo. “They needed someone from the very beginning to help take them through the process.”
Bitty & Beau’s founder Amy Wright was CNN’s Hero of the Year in 2017. The mom of four named the chain after her two youngest children, Bitty and Beau, who have Downs Syndrome. Each of the locations provide employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Staff members earn a paycheck and gain a sense of pride as capable members of America’s workforce. It was more than just another construction project for Omega.
“Giving these young adults, who are typically overlooked in society, a chance to work and feel valued was the greatest motivation,” said Mayo. “I could see my own daughter working there someday.”
To bring the project to life in Savannah, the Omega team worked with subcontractors and found families with children with special needs to donate to the cause to help the project fall within budget.
“We worked diligently with the architect and city officials as the selected location wasn’t designed to be used for a restaurant,” said Mayo. “The process of designing and value engineering the building to save thousands of dollars took months of planning and negotiating.”
Omega Construction’s Expansion Contractor Tips
- Ask your contractor for transparency and frequent updates. Surprises are no good when it comes to restaurant construction.
- Pick a contractor who believes in you and your restaurant right off the bat.
- Demand your contractor be realistic with budget talks and code compliance, as restrictions have increased along with restaurant growth.
- Find vendors and the right restaurant equipment providers specific to the second location.
- Engage them early within the design process.
- Pick a contractor who understands hospitality challenges and can anticipate whatever may come.
- An owner may have a vision, but sometimes can’t convey it to the proper blueprints — that kind of trial and error costs a lot of money, so work closely with a designer to plan ahead accordingly.
- Avoid big alterations later by planning in advance. For example, you may want banquets against one of the walls, but the layout may not support it.
Ask the Chef: William Dissen
William Dissen’s restaurant, the Market Place Restaurant and Lounge in Western North Carolina, is located in Asheville, where farm-to-table was cool long before anyone had even coined the phrase. So it wasn’t surprising that some of his guests scratched their heads when Dissen chose Charlotte, N.C. for his second location called Haymaker.
Dissen’s decision to open Haymaker in one of the most corporate cities in the country was a risk. But two years later, he is finally feeling like things are settled. And business is booming. What he learned along the way is a blueprint for chefs making similar choices to expand in new markets.
“Charlotte is building on an identity,” said Dissen. “Opening a new business is like birthing a child, and it almost takes an act of God to make it happen, from loans to creating a brand.”
Just as experts suggest, Dissen didn’t try to duplicate the Asheville restaurant mentality in the second location, though his reputation and talent preceded him to the banking town. For Charlotte, Dissen knew he needed to create an independent, new brand, even though the business models were similar.
“In your first restaurant, you have to be somewhat independent and fly by the seat of your pants, and I was like that when I got started,” said Dissen. “But when you are trying to build, you have to create a structure and expectations for your staff, especially if like us, you want to create a company culture.”
Dissen knew he had to capitalize on what helped him stay successful in Asheville – the trifecta of excellent cuisine, service and atmosphere. He kept up with trends but maintained consistency. He knew the new space had its own story to tell.
“Asheville is a little hippie, outdoorsy, and in touch with nature with live music on the corner and festivals on every block,” said Dissen. “Charlotte has beautiful, wonderful neighborhoods, but it doesn’t have that counter-culture vibe of Asheville.”
Dissen knew he would have to relate to guests and share his personality behind the food. His background may have been in fine dining, but he was starting a new business. He asked the most important questions a chef/owner could consider: What do people want? What is going to fill my restaurant? What will make it possible to stay true to my core values?
“I wanted to have a place where people could get a couple of glasses of wine and small plates without breaking the bank, or dine traditionally and do two or three courses,” said Dissen. “Folks that come in and hang out have a great time, great drinks, and great food, and that checks the box for everyone.”
Dissen also knew in his second location he would want to stay true to his background and tendency to favor sustainable goods. That had to extend to Haymaker’s environment. He was familiar with green design already, having eight solar panels and bamboo flooring.
“Haymaker was built from lots of salvaged wood, and we wanted to be thoughtful about how we source and also how we build,” said Dissen. “The result is that Haymaker became its own sense of place and community but is still a fun and upbeat space.”
Chefs may be flavor chasers, but Dissen says in multiple locations, it has to be all about people. That’s where the success stories from your first location really translate, because no one can be in two places at once.
“My advice to chefs opening a second location is to establish great systems so you can teach people how you want your guests to be treated,” said Dissen. “Exhibit the behavior you want to see in your staff and train your managers well.”
Ask the Chief Operating Officer: Brett Traussi, Dinex Group
Mention the name Daniel Boulud anywhere in the world, and chances are someone has heard of his restaurants. Through db Bistro Moderne and Boulud’s namesake Daniel, along with numerous other locations, The Dinex Group has helped pioneer the path to contemporary restaurant empires. Brett Traussi is a restaurant kingmaker and Boulud’s right-hand man. In his position as Chief Operating Officer, Traussi is charged with breathing life into ideas and weeding out the impossible from the probable.
In a vibrant company full of creative people, it’s Traussi who must juggle and direct growth from operations to business development, communications, and human resources. With so much under his supervision and direction, it’s tempting to think Traussi is never surprised when he oversees a new location. But he says even if a new location is ten blocks away, there will be a myriad of differences to consider.
“Every single time, every location has a slightly different mojo, different neighbors, landlord, and traffic, and a restaurant is 1,000 details,” said Traussi. “The hard part is deciding which ones define our brand and which ones should be curated for particular places or people – and that doesn’t even start to talk about construction and all those surprises.”
Traussi handles challenges that arise armed with advance planning and staying ahead of the details.
“Time is often your enemy, so you need time to think and plan, take care of your existing business, and take a little care of yourself as well — I like to imagine all the problems that may be headed my way: what prejudices people might hold regarding our brand and how to react to them, how guests will react to the decor and use the space, and what does the neighborhood cry out for,” said Traussi.
He echoes Beers in advising that there is safety in numbers and collaboration. “Really spend time not just worrying about problems but how you will react to them, and run your ideas past your friends and colleagues. They will tire of this, but keep talking.”
On the construction side, Traussi admits there are pitfalls at every turn and they’re not always the fault of the contractor. Time and uncertainty are the chef-owner’s enemy, but not if they are ready to react to issues that pop up.
“If you don’t like the price that a subcontractor submits, you have to have time to get another bid, and if the contractor sees that you’re disorganized or they’ll be held up by another trade, your price will go up,” said Traussi. “If you have to buy drapes before the windows go in, you may not measure correctly. And this list is endless.”
Traussi keeps a list of mistakes he has made in the past and issues clarifications with construction bids to avoid repeating them. “It is inevitable that new mistakes will pop up, so ‘make a new mistake today,’ is a phrase that has escaped my lips, and it beats making the same mistake twice,” Traussi said.
Good cooking is not enough when it comes to opening new locations. Traussi is a fan of communication and making sure the team understands your vision and motivations to help them better understand your thinking.
“Employees know every decision isn’t going to go their way, but understanding why goes a long way, so define the expectations and try and stick to them. You probably won’t meet them every day, but it’s good to know the goal and keep working towards it,” said Traussi.
“Not everyone — well, no one — is Daniel Boulud except for Daniel Boulud! For everyone else, talent can only go so far, so don’t underestimate the power of talented chefs and managers,” he said. “You will never have the perfect team at all of your locations, but if you don’t have the right people at the top, all your efforts can go to waste.”
Plan and be as organized as possible to the opening focus can be on the guest, Traussi advises.
“I can’t tell you how many openings I’ve done when the team is training but the manager is out shopping somewhere for items that were forgotten or left to the last minute,” he said. “Openings are exciting. Lots of people enjoy the challenge and camaraderie and know they’re going to work incredibly hard, but have a plan, make a schedule and a to-do list, even if it’s a handwritten paper taped to the wall.”
If Traussi could only give two pieces of advice to chefs expanding to a second location, he would share these suggestions.
“Hire a good lawyer and negotiate a good lease, because that document will control your life for years to come,” he said. “Second, have a clear vision and somehow, somewhere, find the time to research, collect ideas and menus, images of designs and restaurants you admire. A little bit of luck helps, too.”
Brett Traussi’s Tips for a Less Stressful Design / Build
- Listen closely to what people say. Everyone shades meanings and tailors their language to suit their needs.
- Think of people’s motivations: an architect you don’t really know will rarely tell you a space doesn’t work.
- Understand the “critical path” — what needs to get done today to keep the job on schedule.
- Communicate. There’s no guarantee that a subcontractor will drop everything the moment you need them, because they have a lot of balls up in the air, too.
- Finally, try and figure out the relationships and alliances amongst your team. While you’re likely pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into your dream, your designer or contractor has ongoing relationships between the people who build restaurants every single day and their livelihood depends as much on those relationships as they do in keeping their client happy.