10 things you need to know before starting a restaurant remodel

If your restaurant has been open for 10 years and business is good, that’s something to celebrate. But at some point in the life of a restaurant, it becomes time to reinvest in your own success to stay relevant in a landscape of bright, shiny, exciting new openings.

How do you know when you’re ready for a remodel? For the owners of Denver restaurant Rioja, launching new concepts helped owner Beth Gruitch see her original restaurant with fresh eyes.

“We had just finished doing Stoic & Genuine, which is our fourth restaurant, and we were so happy with it,” says Beth. “When you’re in your environment, sometimes you need to walk in through your front doors and really look at it with a fresh look. It’s important to Jen [Jasinski, my business partner] and I that our restaurants stay relevant and current.”

We talked to Beth all about the remodel process, priorities, and what she wishes she had known before they got started. Read on for their top tips and takeaways.

1. You have to evolve to stay relevant

For Beth, Rioja’s remodel was an opportunity to build up some buzz about the restaurant, especially for customers who hadn’t visited in a while. “There’s a lot of competition in town, and it’s important that we stay as leaders in the community. I don’t ever want to look dated in what we’re doing. We want to be leading that pack and setting the standards.”

Sometimes the choice to renovate can be purely aesthetic. Maybe the space you inherited had a mishmash of finishes and building materials, and the passage of time has made you want to unify your restaurant’s look. Evolving into a look that simply feels more you is a perfectly valid reason to renovate.

2. Your projected budget is never your real budget

Fact: remodels always cost more than you expect them to and more than you want them to. It’s important to strike a balance between taking on more than you’re prepared to—say, a million-dollar renovation—and doing enough that customers notice a difference. Respect your investors and do some value engineering to determine your biggest priorities.

3. Listen to your customers

A remodel is the perfect time to take into consideration the feedback you get from guests. Beth installed noise panels to make the dining room a bit quieter and redefined the seating to make it more inviting. There used to be the main dining room and a smaller dining room in the back, which they used for private parties and general seating.

“Now what you see are three different areas of seating that are equally sexy and inviting,” she says. “The backroom is all these wonderful booths. Each little dining area became much more appealing to the general diner. We didn’t want to lose any seats, but we lost a few here and there. We felt with the integrity of the dining room and what we were doing, it was important.”

4. This is an opportunity to change your business

Sure, there’s the artwork and decor to think about. But when it comes to remodeling a restaurant, there are also structural enhancements that can improve the fundamentals of your business. Perhaps you never had enough storage space to create the wine program you really wanted. A remodel is the time to look at your business wishlist and turn a dream into a reality.

10 Things You Need to Know Before Starting a Restaurant Remodel

5. You have to be hands-on to maintain control

The more you insert yourself into the little details of the construction, the more control you have. Being on-site as the space is being gutted and rebuilt gives you the opportunity to be part of more conversations and influence the end result.

You may feel like you’ve taken on a part-time job, but the short-term sacrifice of showing up as your restaurant is rebuilt usually pays off. Arrive at the site early in the morning, preferably as soon as work starts, and watch and listen. Ask questions that occur to you about what’s going on. In this way, you can stay involved in the process and they’ll be no unpleasant surprises when the work is completed.

6. Your people are your biggest asset, not your four walls

Keep in mind that your regulars may be attached to your restaurant just as it is. There’s always a danger when making big changes that you may alienate some loyal customers in the process. When people worried that the menu was changing, Beth reassured them that they were “still Rioja.”

One solution is to make guests a part of the restaurant’s evolution. You might consider inviting your regulars in for a grand re-opening celebration.

7. Your staff is counting on you

Rioja was closed for renovations for an entire month. Aside from planning for the project from a financial standpoint, Beth also had her staff to think about. “We’re dealing with people’s lives,” she says. “It was really tough.”

She informed her staff about the plans as early as possible and chose a quiet month (January) to do the work. She also looked for other resources for them: some staged at other restaurants, some used unemployment benefits, and some went on vacation. “We’ve always paid vacation,” Beth adds.

The result was a huge success—almost 100% retention in Rioja’s front of house staff.

8. There will be a learning curve

Don’t expect to re-open your doors to perfectly smooth service after making big changes to your storage and dining room. Consider holding a mock service beforehand so the staff can get used to the new layout.

“They have new table numbers to learn, new seat numbers to learn, they don’t know where anything is,” says Beth, who initially didn’t think a mock service was necessary. “I’ll tell you, the first couple of nights were like, wow. You’re trying to get your groove and figure out where to find your forks.”

9. You can’t get the best of everything

It’s natural to want the most expensive, beautiful things for your restaurant, but remember that there are less expensive alternatives out there. Decide what’s most important to you, what will make the biggest impact, and what you’re willing to splurge on. For Beth, it was the lighting, which changed the ambiance of the dining room dramatically. She also bought new uniforms for the staff. “The whole project becomes a big picture.”

10. Be honest with yourself about the future

Where do you see yourself in five, 10 years? Will your restaurant still be open? Will you be thinking about another remodel? Before you get started, be sure that a remodel is a good decision for your restaurant. Weigh your options and think about the payoff over time to see if it will really be worth it.

“We’re always looking to the future, and how we’re going to be better than we were before is the key to that,” says Beth. “With any major purchase, you have to think about how that plays into it.”