Less can be more in a cost-savvy restaurant redesign, as long as you know your customer, work with the site and don’t mind a bit of maintenance. Lucy Robertson explores the art of a value makeover.
In the highly preened and polished world of reality television, all a struggling restaurant needs to get customers back in the door is install a marble bar and a shiny new Smeg. Or so the producers of hit Food Network series Restaurant Makeover would have you believe.
In the less glossy everyday reality version, the answer rarely lies in the marble bar. Granted, a few slick new surfaces might attract some extra passers-by at first, but it takes more than a handful of those to fund a big renovation.
So when budgets are tight, it’s worth looking at ways to get more for your decorating dollar with a value makeover.
“There are plenty of ways you can dress up a space without doing a full renovation or expensive refurbishment,” says professional interior designer Sarah Ferris, who works as a consultant for various restaurant and catering venues across NSW.
“The most important thing to consider before any level of redesign is your clientele and what kind of room they’re looking for,” she explains.
“If your market is young businessmen, you’d go for something contemporary, with clean lines and sharp, slick surfaces. If it’s a family restaurant, you’d choose comforting colours and aim for a homely, secure look.”
It’s a piece of advice that NSW South Coast restaurant Seagrass Brasserie in Jervis Bay can relate to. Owner and chef Kierrin McKnight says his bookings swell to almost double over the peak tourism season in summer, when diners are looking for an outdoor venue that evokes a sense of occasion.
To manage their design costs and cater for the summer rush without making the dining room feel cavernous and empty through winter, he and his wife bought a marquee to install in front of the restaurant for six months of the year.
“It means we can do 120 meals a night instead of about 65, and it also adds to the feeling of celebration that most holidaying visitors are looking for,” McKnight explains.
“The marquee we got was still expensive but a much better alternative than adding new permanent rooms, and it’s quite a beautiful structure in itself.”
Recognising what drives the soul of a restaurant and honouring that through any new design is what George Diako, co-owner of the Lighthouse Restaurant on Queensland’s Cleveland Point, managed to do in his own renovation of a historic waterside building.
“Our aim was to keep it simple, relaxed and quaint, without changing any of the structures of the actual building,” he says.
To reign in their costs and satisfy this design objective, the Lighthouse team retained all of the building’s old floorboards, windows and original colours.
“The end result is light and fresh and relaxed, but probably a lot more chic than it was before,” Diakos says.
Starting with an old, historic façade was something that Andrew Heffill, of The Butter Factory in Pyree, near Nowra, considered as a positive in design terms.
“We were lucky in that we already had an interesting backdrop to work with,” he says of the 140-year-old farmhouse, complete with 19th Century brickwork and hand-milled hardwood timber.
“It adds a bit of a different appeal for people, a bit of interest.”
When Heffill and his partner Maria took on the renovation project, they aimed to freshen the interior space without affecting the original architecture. The biggest job was the painting, Andrew says.
“I’d recommend making your retired father work for coffee when you have a big job that needs to be done,” he laughs. “Keeping the hard work in the family definitely keeps costs down if you can get away with it.”
But unpaid labour isn’t his only trick: “We have a gallery on-site, so we have a good supply of new art coming in that we use to brighten up the dining space.”
The ongoing maintenance of existing structures and furniture also seems to be a recurring theme in the secret to successful restaurant interiors—no matter what the renovation budget.
It’s certainly a key consideration for restaurant and catering megastar, TrippasWHITE.
Although many of the company’s refurbishments wouldn’t be considered low budget—especially its most recent makeover of the Centennial Parklands venue—the organisation places a strong focus on ensuring each venue is well-maintained both before and after renovations.
Fiona Rae, project manager at TrippasWHITE, oversees several company policies aimed at reducing wastage and maximising the impact of each restaurant design.
“I keep a detailed inventory of what is stocked at each venue, so if one restaurant needs something we can quickly have it shipped from another site and don’t have to buy a whole new item,” Rae explains. “For the same reason, we use exactly the same cutlery and crockery in all our restaurants.”
Maintenance policies that capitalise on certain design elements could save a restaurant tens of thousands of dollars, and are just as effective for small businesses as they are in multi-venue companies.
“We have a log-book in each restaurant where staff report any wear and tear they see on furniture, paintwork, or tables, and any crockery breakages,” Rae continues. “Between renovations or redesigns, it’s the little things that keep everything looking fresh.”
Jervis Bay’s Kierrin McKnight agrees, explaining he employs a cleaner who is “pretty much full-time” to oversee the maintenance of furniture and décor in the restaurant, as well as a gardener to maintain the outdoor areas.
“It’s not just a hygiene or an image thing—I think if you look after your décor and furniture really well, it will last longer and stay looking fresh for longer,” he says.
The same goes for permanent fixtures: “We have polished floorboards, which are easy to clean but do get scuffed. We repolish every three years and get them professionally buffed at least once a year to keep them looking good.”
Reinvigorating surfaces with a buff and polish or different type of paint can add a new dimension to a room, and decorator Sarah Ferris says this kind of textural design element is relatively cheap to introduce. “Look for texture in natural timbers, upholstery, vinyl, metal, stone or ceramic tiling,” she explains. “From a design perspective, it adds interest to a room and can give a tired space an instant lift.”
Other fail-safe aspects to consider are colour and light. “Think of colours in terms of how cool or warm they are and what emotion they evoke,” she says, “as well as any ties they might have to your restaurant’s logo or theme.”
And if you don’t change anything else about the interior of a restaurant, Ferris claims new lighting can draw in a customer’s focus while also hiding a multitude of sins.
“Lighting is vitally important in a restaurant. Get rid of all fluorescents—they’re ghastly and make it very hard for diners to relax,” she says.
“Whatever lighting system you choose, make sure it has a dimmer switch so you can make the space moody and intimate when you want to,” Ferris suggests.
So, next time you’re stuck for design ideas in your restaurant, have your dad change some light bulbs, mum stitch up the upholstery and your sister add a new lick of paint. Just like on TV … If not Restaurant Makeover, then perhaps Family Ties. ”