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Eat or be eaten: Three steps to restaurant nirvana

Building a restaurant concept requires time, patience, energy and a clear vision. While a majority of entrepreneurs are great at coming up with the next hot concept, their professional experience is not as honed when it comes to developing the architectural, design and other elements needed to correctly convey their brand position.

"So many people think all you need is a menu to open the doors," said Michelle Bushey, chief design officer with Vision 360 Design. "But there are some steps that need to be followed in order to be successful.¨

By taking an integrated approach to concept development, each aspect of the restaurant comes together at precisely the right time and through a step-by-step process.

The process starts with everyone seated at the same table — from architectural and design experts to the marketing team, operations support and food and development chefs.

"With everyone in the room, you can all start talking about the concept: where it is, what its goals are and where it's going,¨ Bushey said. "You get incremental advantages in the fact that you create a holistic brand.¨

Having a good business plan for any concept plays a huge role in its developmental success.

"Creating a plan in which to work from takes time and research," said Brad Belletto, CEO of Vision 360. "Your plan should provide breakdowns of costs and expenses, which will help determine the amount of business you need to both break even and to make a profit. Some clients use market research firms, but if you don't have that in your budget you can start putting the information together yourself through your local Chamber of Commerce or commercial real estate brokers."

Almost every community has a Chamber of Commerce, which can provide demographic and real estate breakdowns of the region an owner or operator is trying to reach. More research can be done by visiting regional and national restaurant association websites.

And once you have defined your brand, it's important to know how your brand will relate to the customer.

"Even the most successful brands must constantly adapt to keep pace with cultural changes and shifting consumer preferences," said Linda Duke, founder and president of San Rafael, Calif.-based Duke Marketing, a full-service marketing company with expertise in integrated marketing communications specializing exclusively in multi-location and franchise organizations.

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Owning a powerful brand enables you to capture and retain consumer loyalty, and provides the leverage and credibility to expand your brand into new markets and categories and to introduce new products."

The Vision 360 team was instrumental in the development of Bison Jack's, a build-your-own sausage and hotdog concept that opened in 2011 in Madison, Wisc. The restaurant, owned by entrepreneur Joe Ricketts, uses bison for all of its hot dog and hamburger menu items. The entire concept was developed by Vision 360, who also oversaw the initial operations, with input from Ricketts along the way.

"We went from a bar napkin concept in January 2011 to a complete operating restaurant in nine months," Belletto said. "We had nothing. No name. No recipes. What really formed this model was the passion that Mr. Ricketts had for creating a healthy food concept and all of us coming together to produce the prototype at an accelerated pace."

An integrated approach to brand development extends beyond operators and entrepreneurs looking to launch a concept from scratch.

For example, when Daphne's California Greek, formerly known as Daphne's Greek Cafe, underwent a complete brand redesign in 2011, it required a team effort from each department within the Daphne's system.

"What took a little time was we did a fair amount of research," said Daphne's CEO Bill Trefethen. "We did surveys and held focus groups, and then we looked at the market and the trends going on in the space right now. It all ended up taking three months and so we couldn't do anything until we had the research. But the research did confirm where we wanted to be."


Whether a restaurant operator is looking to rebrand an existing restaurant concept or start a new one from scratch, development of the concept is closely followed by its design.

During the development of Bison Jack's, the first thing that was decided was the concept's name. From there, the restaurant's architectural and design elements were determined, along with the menu and graphics. The team at Vision 360 Design knew they wanted the restaurant to have a Midwestern sensibility and feel. Once that was determined, the name, logo and in-store graphics were created to seamlessly integrate with the restaurant's overall look and feel.

"It's important for the food, graphics, branding and architecture to all tell the same story. If one thing gets off brand, it's a lost opportunity to stay on people's minds," said Vision 360's Breedlove.

When designing Bison Jack's, the Vision 360 team worked to establish the type of message the restaurant needed to convey and how that communication should relate to guests.

"We wanted it to convey a sense of Americana and wholesomeness and so, for us, we started looking at images that were pure, vintage and more genuine," said Bushey. "Not red, white and blue necessarily — we were going for a Midwestern sensibility without coming across as country."

Subdued reds and browns are used throughout the restaurant to connect customers with the concept and the bison it serves. The materials convey the type of Midwestern town Bison Jack's represents and seamlessly ties into the menu, graphics and interior images that create the overall concept.

Images are scattered across the walls and serve as another way to extend a concept's visual message. Elements such as murals, framed artwork or other artifacts on restaurant walls can help operators further contribute to the guest experience.

Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill's clean logo and exterior design lends itself to the urban-style decor used in the restaurants' interiors. Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, based in Carlsbad, Calif., uses a "brand wall" at each of its locations to convey the chain's 25-year heritage through timeline photos. And Sedona, Ariz.-based Wildflower Bread Company uses hand-blown glass made by local artists.

The interior design is an extension what customers see from the exterior architecture, as exterior elements must play into what individual groups of customers are looking for inside, as well. The urban and industrial feel of Chipotle Mexican Grill appeals to an audience of Generation X and Y; however, that design is in sharp contrast to the softer-focused Panera Bread, which is trying to appeal to a more upscale, sophisticated audience.

Meanwhile, the logo and in-store materials at Bison Jack’s reflect a rugged image of Midwestern appeal while maintaining its focus on bison hot dogs, bratwurst and hamburgers.

“What you do with print, menu and logo development needs to relate directly to the food and design of the brand,” Bushey said. “It’s a package deal. Your brand identity should be cohesive from start to finish.”

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