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Home / Special Report / Restaurants trying new designs
to attract diners

Restaurants trying new designs
to attract diners

Rochester-area restaurant owners, always a little bit behind the times, are starting to adapt to this change, owners and architects say. Open kitchens, outside seating areas and unique indoor designs are starting to become more common as area restaurants try to distinguish themselves in an extremely competitive market.
“Cities like Rochester are beginning to discover what the rest of the world already knows,” says Mario Daniele, owner of Mario’s Via Abruzzi in Brighton. “We’re just catching up.”
Restaurants are aiming more and more to provide entertainment as well as a good meal, says Christian Leighton, owner of the Rochester-based design firm Positive Environments Design, which has designed more than 20 area restaurants.
“Atmosphere is as important as the food and the service,” he says.
Sami Mina, owner of Aladdin’s Natural Eatery restaurants and the Pomodoro Grill on University Avenue, says because the restaurant business is a relatively easy one to get into, there are many owners who do not have the ambition or the resources to invest in alluring interior design or architecture.
This is especially true in cities the size of Rochester, where Mina says there are few established owners dedicated to the restaurant business.
Daniele says he thinks Rochester lags behind because too many area owners, by nature or necessity, are interested only in immediate profit and not long- term success. Also, with limited resources, most area owners must move into pre-existing buildings rather than build from scratch, limiting the creative options available to them, he says.
However, as diners have become more educated–and traveled–Rochester owners have begun to answer their demands.
Leighton says area diners who visit larger cities in the United States and abroad come home and wonder why Rochester does not offer more exciting restaurant designs they see elsewhere.
However, in the past three to four years, area restaurants have begun to experiment with more contemporary designs.
“Rochester is just starting to get a little more adventurous,” he says. “We’re moving away from that “Holiday Inn’ look. … Someone just has to be adventurous enough to do it.”
One of the adventurous ones is Daniele, whose Mario’s Via Abruzzi opened in 1995. Abruzzi, a region of Italy about 75 miles northeast of Rome, is home to Europe’s most highly regarded culinary school, Santa Cecilio, Daniele says.
Daniele says he wants customers to be impressed the minute they see the structure and carry that good mood through their dining experience.
The restaurant, next to Clover Lanes on Monroe Avenue, was modeled after three castles Daniele studied in his native Italy. He hired Barkstrom & LaCroix Architects, which incorporated the castles’ high ceilings, columns and arches into the Abruzzi building to provide customers a taste of Italy half a world away.
In keeping with a presentation-centered philosophy, more restaurants also are constructing open kitchens.
“I think in the last four to five years the open kitchen idea has grown,” says Randall Peacock, president of the Rochester chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
The open kitchens provide customers a glimpse of the “netherworld” of a restaurant, he says.
Christina Stamatis, co-owner of Koozinas in Canandaigua, says open kitchens provide an “added flair” for customers.
“People like to see the action,” she says.
Mina, who opened the Pomodoro Grill in 1995 in the space Blade’s Restaurant used to occupy, kept the open-kitchen tradition he has used at his Aladdin’s restaurants at the new locale.
“I thought it was a nice concept to follow,” he says.
Open kitchens benefit both the cooks and the consumers, he says. An open kitchen allows cooks more space to move about and makes utensils more accessible, which encourages efficiency and morale. Plus, diners get to see how clean and presentable the environment is where their food is prepared.
“I think it’s a boost of confidence to the clientele,” he says. “Nothing to hide.”
Another trend with Rochester-area restaurants is taking place outdoors.
“Everyone is really thinking of outdoor seating,” Mina says. “The good weather encourages people to stay out much later.”
Mina spent approximately $120,000 renovating the outside deck alone at the Pomodoro Grill after moving in, he says.
Daniele, whose Abruzzi features a 1,500-square-foot courtyard attached to its banquet room, says the fresh-air outdoor seating gives diners the relaxation they are looking for.
However, being Rochester, outdoor seating is a gamble, says Sam Fedele, son of Red Fedele, owner of the Brook House Restaurant on West Ridge Road. To take some of the risk out of it, the restaurant hopes to spend some $50,000 to build an enclosure over half of its deck space so it can be used year-round.
Daniele also plans to spend approximately $50,000 to build a canopy over his outdoor-seating area. He says he wants to be able to serve his customers no matter what mood Mother Nature is in.
“I want to get over the fear that I can’t entertain over there,” he says.
Whatever the latest trends are, building codes and zoning regulations can have a big effect on what restaurant owners can do with their establishments.
Both the Brook House and the Via Abruzzi projects are on hold pending approval from the towns of Greece and Brighton, respectively.
In fact, complying with the New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code can be the most expensive part of any restaurant venture, says Peacock of the architects’ organization. The code–which is revised on a regular basis– sets standards for exits, restrooms, fire- alarm systems, seating capacity and more.
In addition, restaurants, considered a public accommodation, must meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards for accessibility.
Costs to meet code requirements can add up for owners, Peacock says.
“That’s why you don’t see a lot of people these days converting old houses on Park Avenue into restaurants,” he says. “It’s gotten really difficult to do that.”
The code does allow some leeway. For example, each kitchen in a restaurant is required to be walled off by a “two-hour rated partition,” a wall that has been tested to withstand fire for two hours. However, if owners want to install an open kitchen, they can substitute a sprinkler system for the partition.
But, for the most part, Peacock says owners view meeting the regulations as a necessary cost of doing business.
“Most restaurant owners know what’s ahead of them,” he says. “They know the territory.”

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