2009 March: A Grand Theme

2009 March: A Grand ThemeFifteen years ago, Don Bellis wanted to bring the concept of wood-fired pizza to the west coast. A little homework with other business owners told him that the new restaurant would be his life, and he’d likely spend more time at the restaurant than at home during the oncoming years.

So he decided to create a restaurant around a theme that appealed to him and his business partner, Jay Gigandet: classic rock.

Beginning with creating the menu for Rock Wood Fired Pizza around classic rock songs, they also embraced a décor that could probably best be described as industrial salvage chic. Think flames painted onto bathroom stalls. A crumbling brick wall in a dining room. Rusted steel beams overhead in the bar area. And, in some restaurants, vintage vehicles.

The theme is mostly a reflection of the owners’ sense of style. They’ve simply dreamed up features they’d like to see in restaurants and added in the elements as they built. It’s cost them –– but what it has brought them is local notoriety and, in the end, paying customers.

But, Bellis notes, any restaurant that embraces a theme needs to make sure it has the food to bring customers back. No one will eat bad food just to look at a cool room.

“Atmosphere and theme will only get you so far,” Bellis says. “If you don’t have quality food to back it up, you’ll never make it. We can get them in the door with our theme, but once they have the food, they’re hooked for life.”

Others agree. Randy White, CEO of White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a restaurant consulting fi rm based in Kansas City, notes that food has to come first. “Everybody thinks a theme will create an experience, but it doesn’t really,” White says. “The downfall of the themed restaurant in the past was the themes raised the construction price and they had to raise the price.”

Themes can be as subtle as choosing colors and textures for the interior of a restaurant, White says. He points to Panera Bread as a successfully themed restaurant, mostly because it feels comfortable and brings patrons in with its mix of neutral colors and casual textures. It’s comfortable and homey, and customers feel they can sit and stay, which is what the restaurant operators want. “The truth of it is, with great theming, sometimes people don’t notice it,” White says.

To choose a theme, first choose your food, then decide the price point you’d like to hit. If you want to draw families with children, use bright colors and resilient furniture and finishes that can withstand tough traffic. If your restaurant is designed to draw a more high-dollar diner, consider dark wood, brass, marble finishes and more reserved colors.

One of the strongest elements that can help determine the theme and mood of the restaurant is lighting, as well as acoustics. White says these two pieces are neglected in many restaurant plans, and they might determine if a restaurant gets repeat business more than any other element. “There is an art to doing lighting appropriately,” White says. “Same for acoustics, and many restaurants totally ignore acoustics. Loud environments induce stress in people. I’ve been in restaurants where the wait person has to stoop down to hear you.”

Most themes these days tend towards casual, White says, as the American appetite is swinging towards affordability. “You don’t see as much high end,” White says. “The price points are more affordable, especially if you are targeting families.”

For Billy Lane, owner of Pizza Lane in Sumter, South Carolina, creating a theme was a way to distinguish his restaurant from all of the other pizza restaurants around. Lane was operating as a Pizza Inn franchise, and when he reached the 20-year anniversary with Pizza Inn, he decided against signing a new franchise agreement. He wanted to create a place that honored the local history of his town and capitalize on his own love of antiques. Over the past 15 years, he has added various elements to the restaurant that come from some of Sumter’s long-time businesses and remind patrons of years past. For the younger crowd, it can be an education in the history of their hometown.

“Everything in the restaurant, including the architectural pieces, and drug stores, service stations, barber shop, everything I could get that was legitimate memorabilia, I have it,” Lane says. “All of the people in this town love to come in and reminisce.”

The first room in the restaurant incorporates old teller windows from a bank. Two other rooms borrow their theme from local theaters that once operated in the town, while the last is styled as an old filling station.

“I think if I would have kept my same décor, which was run of the mill Pizza Inn décor, I don’t think I’d be in business today,” Lane says. “When you walk into our restaurant, it’s like coming into a carnival. It’s incredible. It changed everything. People want to come in because of it.” ?

Tips for creating a themed dining room

It’s not as simple as scattering sports memorabilia around. A theme needs to consider every aspect of your restaurant. Here are some basic tips for successful theming from designer Randy White:

? Start with the food. The type of food should have a large part in setting the décor.

? Determine a price point. Remember, custom details cost, and can drive up the cost of construction and, ultimately, the price points on the menu. Be careful that your décor isn’t so expensive that it causes you to raise costs.

? Select casual details for family friendly, lower price points. Bright lighting is one element that can help set that mood.

? Select upscale materials for a high-end menu. Neutral colors, dark wood, brass and marble, as well as low lighting, signal a higher price point.

Robyn Davis Sekula is a freelance writer living in New Albany, Indiana.