Restaurant redesigns and renovations are a big undertaking for quick-serve brands and often involve a certain level of risk. But renovations are also increasingly appealing for operators looking to improve their store design and environment and the financial benefits that might come with it. Through a redesign, brands have an opportunity to strengthen their connection with customers, and a forward-thinking plan can ensure operators get the most out of the transition.

Any good plan for a large-scale renovation starts with forethought and a deep study into the design and construction processes, says Tré Musco, president and chief creative officer of design firm Tesser. Auntie Anne’s employed Tesser to work on the pretzel brand’s first store redesign in company history. The 1,540-unit franchise unveiled its updated prototype in early May in its original Park City Center mall location in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Founder Anne Beiler opened the store in 1991 and was integral to the company’s redesign plans.

Musco says working closely with a designer and studying customer input before making any kind of plans is key for brands that want to create a successful renovation plan.

“[Customers] talked to us a lot about how Auntie Anne’s was unique, but how it could be refreshingly old-fashioned,” Musco says. “It’s a cool idea. Everyone’s trying to be so modern … and when everybody’s modern, everybody starts to look the same way.”

The renovated stores are meant to have a warm, inviting feel to them, as if customers are ordering in Beiler’s personal kitchen. To achieve that, Tesser partners interviewed Beiler in her own kitchen for input.

“New design elements at Auntie Anne’s locations include warm wood tones on the storefronts, blue pendant lighting with a copper inner accent, a modern display case, copper ovens, a blue-colored mixer, and additional brand messaging integrated into the décor,” says Sean Keyes, associate vice president of design and construction for Auntie Anne’s.

While Auntie Anne’s new design is brand-centric, the challenges executives faced during the redesign process were common for any brand refresh, Musco says. Questions that needed to be answered beforehand revolved around timing, keeping a consistent brand image, and the economics of business during construction, he says.

The first consideration for any redesign should be time, says Joshua Zinder, founder and principal of Princeton, New Jersey–based design and architectural firm JZA+D. Zinder says a restaurant can accomplish a significant overhaul in less than two weeks with proper preparation; his firm created a 10-day makeover process with that principle in mind.

“The biggest benefit of a short renovation is that the owner has less downtime,” Zinder says. “The restaurant being able to reopen faster maximizes the return on their investment.”

Depending on the complexity of the project, drafting a design can take several weeks, he says. Compiling construction documents is the next step, followed by hiring a contractor, and both of these steps can take three to nine weeks total. Approval from a restaurant’s municipality also factors into time, Zinder says, and that step can take as long as three months.

“While waiting for approvals, the contractor would get started buying and stockpiling materials and prepare for the work, and furniture and furnishings can be procured and specified,” he adds.

When Austin, Texas–based Schlotzsky’s went through a system-wide reimage starting in 2010, the brand made significant design overhauls that also included new menu additions to spotlight.

“We were an established, well-known brand, but it was time for a new look,” says Schlotzsky’s president Kelly Roddy. “The reinvention … included an overhauled look with vibrant colors, playful slogans, contemporary furniture, and artwork, all focused on our new, round, circular theme.”

Restaurant owners must consider what kinds of additional equipment may be needed and other changes that will affect employees and the business operation, experts say. If the renovation process will step on employees’ toes during its entire length, it may not be such a hot idea to keep the store open.

Whereas Auntie Anne’s closed each store for business during the actual construction in the renovation process, Roddy says, Schlotzsky’s kept its doors open for business during construction, and much of the work happened outside operating hours.

“We had the opportunity to build a relationship with our guests and establish a level of trust with them,” he says. “Our guests were able to witness the efforts we were making to improve our restaurants and that we were building the business with the consumer in mind.”

Though it was closed during construction, Auntie Anne’s found an opportunity to make connections with its customer base during the concept phase of its redesign through consumer feedback, Musco says. He says customers will often “give you permission” during the consumer-study phase to change and explore a brand’s existing design. At the same time, customers’ desires must line up with a brand’s executive demands, he adds. In Auntie Anne’s case, the design plans needed to be friendly and attractive to premium mall developers.

For many franchises, the bridge from old to new brand identity revolves around customers’ connections to the food they offer. Musco says that after careful study, Tesser and Auntie Anne’s decided to emphasize the homemade quality of the pretzels and to match that emphasis with the renovation plans.

“By making our stores look more like a warm, inviting kitchen, we are demonstrating to guests and employees that we are who we are: an authentic company,” Keyes says.

Roddy says Schlotzsky’s made that new store-to-customer connection through planned events and reaching out to consumers. In 2011, the franchise hosted a 40th birthday celebration, and customers were invited to come in and experience the new store design.

Throughout the renovation process, the one constant that affects design decisions for brands is the importance of staying connected with customers, experts and operators say.

“There is always potential to lose profit during renovation, but we knew once the process was complete, we’d more than make up for it once our guests saw the improvement,” Roddy says. “It was a win-win for everyone.”

Back of House, Consumer Trends, Design, Fast Casual, Sandwiches, Story, Auntie Anne's, Schlotzsky's