BY NICHOLAS UPTON
Top left, the scene at a 100-year-old building in Yakima, Washington, before the renovation. Above right, removing 3.8 tons of brick and bottom left, the “after” location for a new Pita Pit. Franchisee Jason Eaton said the project meant a lot of calls with the brand to get approval for non-standard design features.
Real estate is bonkers. The competition for inline spaces is stiff and it’s a brawl for a coveted end cap. That means franchisees are looking at every way to keep growing, including taking on the challenge of historic buildings.
Four brave franchisees took on the challenge and lived to tell the tale—or are living through it.
Scott and Trevor Lewis put a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s in an old bank. Esat Yilman put a Gloria Jean’s Coffee into a 100-year-old building in Pittsburgh. Jason Eaton opened a Pita Pit franchise in another 100-year-old building in Yakima, Washington. And Bijal Patel put a Which Wich location in the heart of the revitalization efforts in Norfolk, Virginia.
While they say they’re happy with their locations or the ongoing construction work, they all said one thread binds their historic build-out efforts: it is slow going.
“It has been a slow process. I worked for the sheriff’s office here in my county. Resigned from there in May of 2017 thinking I would get stuff up and running quick like,” said Scott Lewis, who said he still hadn’t broken ground by mid-February of 2018.
He said updating permits and getting everything buttoned up with the state has been the major slowdown.
And Yilman knows even once construction starts there are obstacles. “We started construction in December 2017, but it’s not all my construction, the landlord is doing a second bathroom, so that’s slowing me down. And we had to remodel the fire system, so that’s a hassle,” said Yilman.
“I knew at the beginning that it wasn’t going to be as easy as a new building. To be honest, I’ll be OK as long as we have a good- looking space.” Patel said these kinds of locations require a franchisee who is ready to hurry up and wait. Get everything you can do done, then prepare to change plans. “If this was my first store, this would be a little frustrating, but this will be our fourth store so I have enough to keep me busy,” said the Which Wich ‘zee. “So if a franchisee were to embark on an opportunity like this, they would have to look at it and realize that their timeline may change several times. I was expecting to open this at the end of summer 2017, obviously that didn’t happen.”
He said communicating with the construction team, architect and other stakeholders through the process is key. The franchisor needs to be in the mix, too, because historic buildings don’t often fit the modern footprint.
Some locations are expansive and grandiose monstrosities and others are small, portioned crannies. And others feature immovable chucks of yesteryear. Each layout has its own challenges and opportunities. Lewis, who already owned the real estate for his Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, had to find a way to utilize two age-old bank vaults. Instead of slowing the process down further to remove them, he opted to turn them into a private dining room and arcade.
The scene inside a 100-year-old building in Pittsburgh while renovating for Gloria Jean’s. “That’s the part I’m looking forward to, is seeing people have fun with the history,” said Lewis. Looking like 1906 Eaton said his Pita Pit is unique because of the historic building, but it required a lot of communication with the brand to get everything approved, from the non-standard tiling to unique signage. He said that work had to mesh with the many city rules around historic renovations. “With the historic build-outs, drop ceilings are not allowed. So we have to make it look like it was 1906, no drop ceilings, no wood tile,” said Eaton. “We have to use a different tile than we ever had.”
Pita Pit had some “cool old logos” he used to fit in with the feel of the renovated historic stretch of town outside and a vintage treated neon sign inside. It changed a few operational things, too, because the ceiling had to be built to cover up the original ceiling and crown molding, the mechanical drawings all had to change. And to make use of the large space, he put a private conference room right in the store—a nod to all the lawyers and offices in the area nearby.
“The idea here is if anyone wants to come in for a quick 15- to 30-minute meeting, not only have a private meeting and get lunch at the same time,” said Eaton.
As for those big development grants that cities like to talk about, most end tenants don’t see that money. Lewis, as the landlord, got some help that went straight to construction.
Since Eaton did a lot of the work himself, the restoration grants and tax breaks just helped him stay closer to typical location costs.
“It was still more than a typical build out; just the permits was probably an extra $30,000, then the flooring was more expensive. We updated the wiring, then the ancient heating system went out when we started construction,” said Eaton.
Patel said, however, grants made a major impact on his build-out. “Because they are able to receive tax dollars, we’re able to lower cost,” said Patel. “Basically they’re going to do the full in-store build-out without furniture. I didn’t believe it at first.”
He said he’s still looking at $200,000 to $250,000 to finish it all and buy equipment, but he’s saving $120,000 to $150,000 because of the additional tenant improvement funding.
Above all though, he said, being prepared helped keep the costs down and the building efficient.
“Anybody that is looking at doing it, definitely go through the building one, two, 600 times before you jump,” said Patel.