meg kearnyMeg Kearney, Project Manager, Windover ConstructionIn the restaurant industry, delayed openings are a persistent concern for restaurant owners and developers. Whether it’s a venture backed by a respected restaurateur or a brand-new restaurant from a first-time owner, delays are common. And while some circumstances are unforeseeable when it comes to restaurant construction, many can be avoided with proper planning, teamwork and execution.

As a construction management professional who has worked on numerous restaurant projects in Greater Boston, I have seen that if you’re not properly prepared, a multitude of complications can cause a delayed restaurant opening.

Three Key Decisions

Before a project gets off the ground, there are three main decisions restaurant owners must make that ultimately affect the project: choosing the project delivery method, setting expectations and identifying stakeholders. These provide the right foundation on which to build a successful project.

The first step involves deciding on the project delivery method and selecting your construction partner. The most common delivery methods are design-bid-build (DBB), construction management at risk (CM at Risk) and design-build (DB). To decide which is best for your project, you must understand the positives and negatives of each and assess those against your risk tolerance with regard to schedule and budget.

rail stop restaurant bar 03 credit peter vanderwarker photographyWindover worked with Beacon Architectural Associates and interior designer Niemitz Design Group on the design-build project Rail Stop Restaurant & Bar, which features a plethora of custom high-end finishes and furniture and boasts a rustic, vintage aesthetic. Images courtesy of Peter Vanderwarker

In terms of DBB, the owner contracts with an architect for design and uses those design documents to solicit competitive bids from builders. There is potential for lower pricing up front as builders work to outbid each other. However, you lose the value of having the architect and builder collaborate during the design phase over materials, approaches and value-added options that may yield savings in the long run.

CM at Risk transfers the risk associated with building your restaurant directly to your construction partner. With this increased stake in the project’s success, the CM at Risk is incentivized to ensure the project hits its budget and schedule. The construction partner is engaged early in the design process to offer counsel and feedback on value engineering options, materials and methods; to provide cost and schedule projections; and for procuring trade partners based on qualifications and fit, rather than cost alone. This results in projects with far fewer changes and surprises.

Taking CM at Risk one step further, DB is a more straightforward approach due to the transfer of risk to one single entity, the design-builder. The design-builder assumes contractual responsibility and risk for both design (architecture and engineering) and construction. The intensive collaboration between the design team and builder in the preconstruction phase generally results in fewer changes, surprises and delays during construction. In some cases, a design-builder can provide a turnkey restaurant for clients by managing the procurement and installation of all assets related to the operations of the facility including furniture, signage and artwork, IT, operating systems, finishings and more.

rail stop restaurant bar 07 credit peter vanderwarker photography copyRail Stop Restaurant & Bar, completed by Meg’s team at Windover Construction, was a turnkey design-build project, where Windover orchestrated everything from permitting, programming, budget, design and construction to procurement of finishings and furniture.

After selecting your delivery method and team, make sure your expectations are clear to all project partners. The key to streamlining decision making and to enabling your project team to advocate for you is to help them understand your vision and nonnegotiable parameters. Ensure communication channels are established early. It is far easier to correct what is on paper than to change what has already been built. It is equally important to hold yourself accountable for making decisions and providing responses as needed because even a short delay can impact an accelerated schedule. A trusted construction partner will build your decision-making milestones into the project schedule.

From project outset, identify who from your restaurant team will be key stakeholders and decision-makers, and ensure those individuals are accessible to your design and construction team from the very beginning. One factor common in restaurant construction that can create opening delays is waiting until the last minute to engage critical staff members such as a chef or general manager. If your chef prefers a specific kitchen layout and will have decision-making authority, make sure they are included in the design phase. With recent advancements in virtual reality, the chef can even “walk” the proposed space before it’s built to quickly evaluate any potential concerns, from materials used to kitchen configuration. Of course, kitchens must adhere to specific code requirements in their design and are complicated to construct due to the required technical MEP/HVAC work. Kitchens are also often completed ahead of the front of house, and for this reason, a last-minute configuration change can be detrimental to the project’s schedule.

Before and During Construction Pitfalls

Permit requirements vary from city to city, so make sure you’re working with a construction team that has experience and can help guide you through the process. Working with a trusted construction partner who understands permitting within the municipality or region is essential to ensuring groundbreaking occurs on time.

Procurement timing can take anywhere from 1 to 20 weeks. Working with new industry products to stay ahead of the curve or sophisticated materials to achieve a unique design vision can often mean long lead times. Your construction partner can offer valuable market knowledge when it comes to the procurement of materials, and they’ll build those respective lead times into the schedule. In working on the Bancroft & Co. restaurant in Greater Boston, we had a feature staircase that required the coordination of three separate vendors. Between the structural component, miscellaneous metal stringers and rails, and cast-iron stairs and treads, we had to plan well in advance and work together in the procurement process to keep pace with the project’s accelerated schedule.

In construction, no matter how well articulated and scoped the plan, even a small misstep can take it off track, especially at the pace a restaurant is built. Be prepared for these challenges by regularly communicating with your construction team and supporting an environment that enforces timely decision making. Your construction team should communicate early and often regarding the progress of your project schedule and any potential risks to that schedule. If anything threatens the critical path (tasks that control the completion of the project) they should immediately alert you to those threats and the corrective action needed. A three-day delay can be made up if caught early in construction but allowing it to go unaddressed can affect opening day.

windover bancroft credit peter vanderwarker (1)Windover completed Bancroft & Co., guiding the complex planning and construction of the upscale farm-to-table restaurant that features a floating steel mezzanine, cast iron stairway, exposed brick, high-vaulted ceilings and exposed steel structural accents throughout.

Wrapping the Project

The order, amount, and lead time of inspections varies from city to city. Having a construction partner who is knowledgeable of what the city requires is crucial. Each inspection may or may not require a fee, particular paperwork and may have specific or unique code requirements. Engaging your construction partner early in the design process allows them to leverage their knowledge of what would be required in a specific jurisdiction to pass inspections. Flagging these details early and incorporating them into the design makes the inspection process at the end of the project go more smoothly. If a needed life safety exit sign is omitted in design only to be discovered during the fire department inspection, it can result in added work and unexpected costs. Your construction partner will also account for the time needed to complete inspections in the overall schedule.

While there may be unavoidable circumstances that come between you and your opening day, there are things that can help keep your project on track. First and foremost, encourage a collaborative team environment with your project partners and engage them early, if possible. Refining the plan before construction commences is a much more economical and time-efficient process than having to go back and rework design during construction. And finally, just as restaurant staff are hired for expertise, experience and personality, make sure that the project team you select offers the same. The process will be far more rewarding, fun and yield long-term, trusting partnerships.