Restaurant brands that are reimaging themselves are paying close attention to the visual experience within their new prototypes.
While many redesigned restaurant models include expanded or more flexible seating options that aim to be more convenient for guests and more efficient for staff, they also feature upgrades meant to give customers visual cues about the food and service. For instance, chains such as On the Border, Panda Express, Domino’s Pizza, Wendy’s and Granite City Food & Brewery are investing in more display cooking and digital signage elements.
Quality on display
Several chains are testing out more display cooking in their new store models, from an open kitchen at a new On The Border to the “Pizza Theater” in place at a handful of remodeled Domino’s units.
Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Columbus, Ohio-based WD Partners, said lots of sight lines into the kitchen at full-service restaurants or even a limited-service restaurant like Domino’s can be as important to consumer perception of food quality as the photos on the menu or menu board.
“That move toward more theater is being pushed around the idea of freshness, wholesomeness and made-from-scratch cooking, and the desire to create those perceptions,” Lombardi said. “Consumers can’t discern between what’s made on site or what’s finished on site, so even a finishing kitchen that is open to them would work.”
At a recently opened prototype in Bedford, Texas, 155-unit On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina  incorporated a more open kitchen where guests could catch a glimpse of food being built. The chain also makes fresh guacamole tableside. Chief executive Stephen Clark said On the Border considered changes to everything the consumer sees in the restaurant.
“It’s meant to enhance the overall guest experience and perceptions of the brand,” he said. “We’ll be looking at music and uniforms, plateware, glassware, and the menu look, feel and design, in addition to culinary enhancements to core items and … new items.”
Domino’s only has about 12 of its 4,900 domestic restaurants fully remodeled to include its pizza theater , where guests can look into the kitchen and watch dough being tossed and pies getting topped, but spokesman Chris Brandon said future remodels and new builds would incorporate the more open kitchen whenever possible.
He stressed that the design upgrade was not intended to keep pace with fast-casual competitors but rather to reclaim the chain’s heritage as a pizzeria.
“The cool thing about this is we’re continuing a tradition from our stores and most pizzerias,” he said. “People wondered if we’re jumping on the bandwagon of being more interactive and digital, because a lot of QSRs have gone that way, but we’re not mimicking anybody. It’s more about re-energizing the tradition of the pizzeria, where you see the prep process and watch cooks tossing the dough.”
Guests at the newest Granite City  location can’t see inside the giant brewing stills where the chain’s proprietary beers are made, but they’re no less a focal point than other display-cooking elements at other restaurants.
A significant architectural difference for Granite City’s prototype in Troy, Mich., is that the on-site brewery is more central and visible from the bar area, which chief executive Rob Doran hoped would build up bar business even more.
Granite City also rearranged seating in the redone bar area to capitalize on the visual cues from the brewery. “During our research, we learned that 40 percent of people came to our restaurants in parties of two, but there weren’t any two-tops to be found,” Doran said. “We swapped out a lot of four- and six-seaters for banquettes with more flexibility. The customer has really responded with a lot of repeat business.”
Signs of the times
At the newest location of nearly 1,500-unit Panda Express , a prototype in Balch Springs, Texas, nearly all the menu signage is digital above the make line and in the drive-thru lane. The chain also has switched much of its lighting to light-emitting diode, or LED, which not only looks more modern but is more energy-efficient, said Tabassum Zalotrawala, Panda Express’ vice president of architecture, engineering, facilities and strategic sourcing.
The new location opened in late August. Panda Express will open a second prototype later this fall in Memphis, Tenn.
More chains have turned to digital signage to improve their buildings’ perceptions or occasionally distract customers during their wait times for pick-ups because the technology is improving and the costs to implement it are coming down, Lombardi said.
“I think we’re just touching the surface of what we’ll see in digital in the years ahead,” he said. “I think you may even see it more in drive-thrus, between the ordering station and the pick-up window. There’s an opportunity for a lot more innovation around storytelling.”
Like Panda Express, Wendy’s  has made digital signage part of the new designs it has tested throughout the past year.
In addition to digital menu boards, Wendy’s also has included free Wi-Fi as part of the in-store experience at its prototypes, which has had an effect on the types of seating offered. Along the tall windows in the back of a prototype restaurant in Columbus, Wendy’s had a “Wi-Fi bar,” meant to encourage people to sit and linger. Similarly, Panda Express noted people taking advantage of communal tables to sit and use the chain’s Wi-Fi.
Wendy’s, which operates or franchises more than 6,500 restaurants, announced in its most recent earnings call that it would accelerate its pace of remodeling from 50 reimaged units and 17 new builds this year to 100 remodels and 20 new builds in 2013. Executives said the 10 new-prototype restaurants that opened last year have shown a sustained average lift of 25 percent to average unit volume.