Restaurant Evolution: When to Change & When to Expand

Restaurant Evolution: When to Change & When to Expand

Restaurant Evolution: When to Change & When to Expand

OpenTable partnered with Kristen Hawley, founder of the popular Chefs + Tech newsletter, to create How to Grow & Thrive in the Restaurant Business, the ultimate guide to serving guests and growing your business at every phase of a restaurant’s lifecycle. We’re teasing excerpts all week, so follow along and download the whole guide here.

Is It Time to Change?

Sometimes, even after endlessly tweaking and optimizing your restaurant operations and marketing approach, you come to the realization that it’s time for a change. It doesn’t have to be a big change, either; don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself all the time. This could be because it’s been years since your restaurant has had a change, or it could be that you sense something’s not working as well as it should be, and you need to adjust to survive.

No one is immune to this. “I’m a firm believer in always taking inventory both personally and professionally of where you’ve been, where you’re currently at, and where you want to be,” says Kevin Boehm, restaurateur behind Chicago’s Boka Group. Don’t fear the big projects; that’s how you stay in business.

Change the service. “At one point we realized the service and ambiance was very haughty—the style the clientele liked in the ‘70s and ‘80s but what today would be seen as stuffy service,” says Eric Ripert of New York’s revered Le Bernardin. “In the ‘90s we decided that style wasn’t relevant anymore and we decided to relax our service. We kept the formality in terms of steps of service, the technicality and the excellence, but we changed the way waiters interacted with clients.” In 2016, after 30 years of operation, Le Bernardin was named one of the top restaurants in New York City by writer Adam Platt.

Change the space. Obviously, in Le Bernardin’s 30 years of existence, they’ve experienced more than just service changes. “Five years ago we redid the dining room entirely,” says Ripert. “We felt the service had evolved, the food had evolved, and the decor was no longer in harmony with our food and service.” Le Bernardin chose a more contemporary design, bringing more energy and interactivity to the room. “Keeping the same comfort but taking the stuffy away.” A New York Times restaurant reviewer reacted to the change, saying, “The old dining room was always compared to a corporate boardroom, but for some reason its monumental scale and profusion of framed canvases in an antiquated style made me think of the atrium of a minor art museum. That’s all different now… The achievement of [the new] design is that the interior now walks in step with Le Bernardin’s cuisine. Both are up-to-date, lively, intimate and playful.”

Change the chef. Chicago’s Boka Restaurant has had three chefs over the course of 13 years. “When we opened, we got busy, then slowed. We got our second chef, he won Food and Wine’s Best New Chef in 2008 and we got busy again. In ‘13 it started to wane a bit and we brought Lee Wolen, our current chef,” says Boehm. Each time the chef changed, he explains, it had the feel of a brand new opening.

Change it all. With Boka’s chef changes came menu changes and space changes. “It was a relaunch,” says Boehm. Even though Boka was successful and doing fine, he says, the team wanted to get back to where they were at their peak level. “The only way to do that was to build upon where we’d already been, so we gutted the restaurant and completely rebuilt it.”

…And listen to feedback. PR staff, whether agency or internal, are great barometers for understanding how well your restaurant is being received, both in the press and with diners. Because PR pros get feedback directly from media—those who craft your restaurant’s press image—they’re able to identify any issues (or success stories) early on. “Generally, feedback that we see in reviews is especially important, and we always flag that for clients,” says Elizabeth Hamel, account supervisor at Wagstaff Worldwide. “If one person says something I’ve never heard before, I don’t usually bring that up.” Conversely, “If I start hearing the same thing over and over again, it’s time to address it.”

These issues can range from small to large. “If it’s something really major, like they got a terrible review, or the menu isn’t working, or the concept doesn’t work, we’ll have those conversations,” she adds. “But usually we don’t have to tell a restaurant these things, because they already know.” In this scenario, consider a PR agency the messenger, but restaurateurs should look to their own teams for major decisions.

Restaurant Evolution: When to Change & When to Expand

Is It Time to Expand?

Your restaurant is successful. Your vision is solid. Your marketing strategy is working and you are enjoying increased popularity. What’s next? Perhaps a second location— either more of the same, or perhaps a new concept.

“It’s very easy to dilute what you’ve done in the opening of the first when when you open the second location,” says restaurateur Bill Chait, formerly of the Sprout Group in L.A.

Ask yourself:

Do we have the resources? Not just money—do you have the right people? The right roles? In some cases, restaurateurs are driven to open new concepts because they want to develop talent who deserves to move up. This is an excellent situation to find yourself in.

Do we have the time? There aren’t enough hours in the day to replicate everything you did with your first opening without the ability to do some of those things yourself. A trustworthy team is critical for this.

Do we have the right systems in place in the original location to sustain a second? A second restaurant does not operate in a vacuum; the original location will feel effects even if the second concept is completely different.

Understand why you were successful in the first place. Is it your pricing? Is it your food quality? If you’re not replicating what made your first restaurant work, you won’t be connected to the same segment when you open a second.

“Deciding we were ready to expand was a combination of believing we had developed the managerial talent to still execute well, combined with the demand for reservations,” says Dan Simons, co-owner of Founding Farmers. “We had more demand than we had seats. There was a line out the door.” Once you’ve made that decision, though, the details matter.

Restaurant Evolution: When to Change & When to Expand

Ask yourself:

  • Will this be a second location or new concept?
  • What flagship elements do I need to keep and translate to the new location?
  • What do I need to change? This could be a lot or a little, depending on your location. What hours can your new market support? What menu items won’t work? What resonates? You can’t expect the exact same things to work in a new location— something as simple as work schedules in the neighborhood will affect business.
  • Who will run the restaurant? Do you want to take staff from an existing location? What does that mean for the existing location’s continued success?
  • What intentional changes will you make? What can you build upon

When Simons opened the second Founding Farmers location, he intentionally targeted the D.C. suburbs after a successful downtown location. “I felt like a lot of guests out there would know us from downtown, and now we’re just putting one closer to where they are. We made sure to evolve the design, and the food and beverage menus, we wanted to give our guests an evolution of the brand, not a replication.” Not only did he extend his reach, he gave the same customers more opportunities to engage with the Founding Farmers brand.

Photos courtesy of Founding Farmers.

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