2011 October: Change is Good

Don’t look for scuffed paint, worn window blinds or broken tile at Milton’s Pizza and Pasta, a 28-year-old pizzeria with dining rooms that still look like new. A regular schedule of dining room renovation and maintenance helps keep them that way.

“We want to keep the restaurants fresh and current, so we have a hard and fast rule that we’re not going to go past five years without doing (updates to) carpet and paint. We do anything décor-related,” says Jeff Janik, owner of Milton’s, which has two locations in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Robert Giambanco, owner of Guiseppe’s Pizzeria and Italian Cuisine in Sebastian, Florida, follows a 10-year schedule for doing major refurbishing of his dining room. Like many operators of established pizzerias, Janik and Giambanco know that keeping customers coming back means not just serving good pizza, but meeting their expectations for providing a well-maintained, attractive place to eat.

Time frames may vary, but establishing a regular renovation schedule is one way that many pizzeria owners make sure their dining rooms don’t fall into disrepair or look out-of-date. Though five years is the maximum he will go without freshening the décor, Janik is open to launching a renovation project before that deadline rolls around, particularly if he believes it will boost his business.

That’s what happened with his most recent $400,000 dining room renovation that was finished a year ago and includes new paint, seating, carpet and a bar.

“If we can see a way to do things better we won’t wait,” says Janik of the project that was spurred when he noticed other restaurants had opened nearby with bars that serve mixed drinks. Janik felt he needed to renovate to compete.

“We didn’t want not having a bar to be a reason for people to say, ‘Let’s not go to Milton’s,’” he says.

The renovation took three months and the square footage in the dining room was increased from 4,500 to 6,000 square feet. The work was done mostly at night and during off-hours. He didn’t even consider temporarily shuttering the restaurant during the project and reopening it with a celebration.

“I can’t stand the thought of closing the business down,” he says. “I can’t stand the idea of giving people an opportunity to try another restaurant. Once people change their dining habits, they’re changed forever.”

Giambanco also kept his restaurant open during most of his dining room renovation completed a year ago. “We did most of it after-hours,” he says. “I think we closed for about a week.”

Janik and Giambanco say customers at each of their restaurants watched the progress of the renovations taking place with interest. “We closed a section of the dining room down and had tarp over it,” Janik says. “Our guests were excited to see the process themselves.”

Lou Ilibasic, a project manager for Kicon, a restaurant contracting firm in Addison, Illinois, agrees it is usually best not to shut a restaurant down for a project, simply because owners usually need the cash flow.

In some cases, however, he says it can make sense. He cited as an example a restaurant his company worked on that had a name and reputation that had gone downhill because the owner had not invested in upkeep. In that case, the restaurant closed during the project and, to make sure people noticed the dramatic changes that were made, reopened with a bang.

Ilibasic’s tips for doing a dining room renovation also include being sure to choose a commercial contractor who is used to accommodating clients by working at night or other off-hours to get the project done in a timely manner.

To save time, Ilibasic says it’s also important for pizzeria operators to know before they go into the project how much they want to spend and have an idea of the look or ambience they want to create. Working with a contractor who specializes in renovating restaurants can help with the choice of materials and finishes.

“You can come in with a tile you like and I can say, ‘OK. Here’s one in a similar color and look, but it will be easier to clean and it has grit in it so people won’t slip,’” Ilibasic says.

Another way to reduce costs is by working with a kitchen supply company that will create a kitchen and dining room layout for the owner who also buys their new chairs, tables or appliances from that company. When shopping for what will go into the renovation, Janik and Giambanco agree it’s important to keep an eye on the bottom line.

“Make sure you shop frugally for everything. Nothing is cheap. It’s just as expensive as opening a whole new restaurant,” says Giambanco, noting that his renovation cost $300,000. Besides dining room improvements, it included adding an outdoor patio and updating the kitchen.

Despite the cost, he says his business has increased since the dining room renovation and he — along with his customers –– are pleased with how it turned out.

“People are ecstatic,” he says. “I have people still telling me a year later, ‘Wow. It looks great.’”

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer living in the Chicago area. She specializes in business and health stories.