February 17, 2015 |

‘Move over, darling’

By Heidi Lynn Russell

exterior, patio, dining area, expansionDining room expansion gives you plenty of options

Eight years ago, when competing pizza chains choked his business, Jim Jacobs renovated his dining room, adding a lunch buffet at Pisanello’s Pizza in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

The result was magic. Customers on lunch breaks crammed the place. Ironically, that triggered a new challenge: “People I know in town would say, ‘I went to your place and I couldn’t get in.’ Whenever we were crowded, it was difficult. We had no room to do the amount of business we were doing,” Jacobs says.

This past December, Jacobs decided to go a step further. He’s breaking down a wall to an adjacent space that he normally leases to other businesses. This will increase seating from 44 to 70.

The dining room is important because the dining experience differentiates Pisanello’s.
“One reason it works well for us is that just about all the national chains are here in town,” Jacobs says. “But their pizza is mediocre, and, other than Pizza Hut, they offer little or no dining room experience for the customer. We do. And that’s the difference. Because of that, we have a little bit of the corner on the market.”

As Jacobs has discovered, adding to the dining room is a great way to increase business. Logistically though, how do you pull that off? And if you don’t already have the extra space for expansion like Jacobs, what can you do to increase your current seating in a tight space without compromising dining experience?

Here are key questions to ask yourself, offered by Chris Tripoli, President of A’la Carte Consulting Group, a restaurant consulting firm in Houston, Texas, and George Poulin, associated architect at Strada Architecture LLC in Philadelphia:

• Can utilitarian space evolve into income-producing space? Have a small beverage station in the dining room or a stack of booster chairs? Take those out to make space for one or two extra booths or tables, Tripoli says. “Find a corner in the kitchen and place the things on the counter. Or, look up! High chairs can hang on ceilings, and you can use a step stool to get them down,” he says.

At Prego restaurant in the Rice Village neighborhood of Houston, Texas, the owner transformed a storage room into a small dining room for eight to 10 people, Tripoli says. “He built the storage space into the kitchen by installing shelves above the prep table. Then he painted the storage room for dining. It’s popular! People call and reserve it now.”

Design-wise, don’t forget amenities, such as audio-visual and increased lighting controls to improve ambiance, Poulin says. Also, allow space for tables that can be arranged in multiple configurations, he says.

pizzeria, interior, dining area“Consider the flow through the restaurant from the kitchen to prevent log jams or hazardous conditions. Local municipalities may also require additional restrooms based on the revised seating count,” Poulin cautions. Use an experienced designer who can assist at all stages of the process. An early investment in design will avoid potentially costly mistakes in the long run, he adds.

• Have you evaluated parking? Before you expand the building and take up parking spaces, research local ordinances to ensure that a reduction in parking capacity is allowed, Poulin says. “If reducing parking, ensure the flow in and out of the lot is not negatively impacted by your expansion,” he adds.

Tight parking is okay, as long as you reserve a couple of spaces for carryout. “The moment it looks inconvenient, they start calling someone else,” Tripoli says.

You can be as creative with your parking as you are with the dining room, Tripoli adds. La Vista, another Houston restaurant, put benches around the first two parking spaces nearest the front door. While people wait there, staff members run out samples.

The owner dubbed the area “The Asphalt Lounge,” Tripoli says. “Then he created T-shirts for staff that say, ‘La Vista’ on the front and ‘Home of the Asphalt Lounge’ on the back. You can look at this problem two ways: You can say, ‘I’m running out of space, losing business, no one wants to sit, everything is too small,’ or you can think unconventionally, with banquet tables in the kitchen and an umbrella and cocktail waitress in the parking lot.”

You can also consider adding to your “dining room” by lining the outside sidewalk with bistro tables for night-time meals –– or moving your waiting area outside and using that same space indoors for an extra table, Tripoli says. “Restaurants in older areas have done it for years –– Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago,” he says.

• Can you stay open during renovation and keep things “fun” while you’re growing? When Jacobs rehabbed eight years ago, he had to close dine-in for one week. But he allowed people to order and pick up food at the kitchen back door.

Ironically, business has shifted. Before his lunch buffet addition and dining room renovation,
65 percent of orders were carryout, and 35 percent were dine-ins. In the past eight years, 65 percent are now dine-in, and 35 percent are carryout, he says.

Tripoli says even if you have to tear down a wall like Jacobs is doing, you can still have fun by building anticipation with your customers and not closing down at all.

“You’ll have a construction dust wall — a sheet rock wall, a temporary wall. Everyone will be guessing what’s happening on the other side. So paint on the rock — or have customers paint on it! Write a message like, ‘We’re expanding!’ Just have fun! Once the new space is tiled, take it down and … Voila! It creates curiosity. Don’t lose that promotion opportunity,” Tripoli says.

Tip: Small Spaces

So you just want to maximize your current space without actually doing a construction/expansion project? It’s doable, says architect George Poulin.

His tips:

  • Avoid fixed seating, which is inherently inflexible and unable to be configured for different party sizes.
  • In some cases, a mezzanine may offer additional seating capacity where the ceiling height exists to accommodate it.
  • For casual or take-out spaces, a bar-height counter along a window may offer valuable seating for a limited footprint.

Heidi Lynn Russell  specializes in writing about the issues that affect small business owners. She is a regular contributor to Pizza Today and lives in Wilmore, Kentucky.