When a 24-hour restaurant chain asks its customers for feedback and hears "dull," "institutional" and "stark" - and that it's "not top of mind," even if comparable sales are looking better than they have in a decade - it's time for some significant changes.
Pleased with its national slogan, "Come hungry. Leave happy," IHOP Corp. (Glendale, Calif.) set out to revamp its family-style diner (third-largest in the country) to match that feel-good vibe. It hired Louis & Partners Design (Bath, Ohio) to create an environment intended to inspire "friendly," "genuine" and "the family's first choice."
The appealing results can now be seen in the three new company-owned prototype restaurants that opened in Cincinnati late in 2004. Cincinnati was chosen for its Midwestern demographic and for the fact that there had not been an IHOP within city limits since the mid-80s, so the majority of the audience would be experiencing IHOP with few preconceived notions.
With this redesign, the brand wants to burnish itself as an American icon. "We wanted a fresh and contemporary look," says IHOP spokesman Patrick Lenow, "without the flash." Some other challenges: to appeal to a nationwide audience, to avoid looking so trendy that it would quickly date itself and not to have such expensive decor details that the value engineers couldn't make this viable for a major franchise rollout. Louis & Partners' approach focused on tweaking the familiar and capitalizing on nearly a half-century of nostalgic company history.
The most significant design element is the revival of the A-frame roof, an early signature of the chain that was founded in 1958, but which had not been used for its buildings since 1983. The roof is mounted high enough for there to be tall street-level windows that flood the restaurant with natural light. It looks striking after dark, an effective 24-hour landmark for a chain that is typically open around the clock. The designers also made the structure feel more inviting by placing benches by the entrance, along with plants around the building and on islands in the parking lot.
In these new models, there is also a consistently more sophisticated use of color and texture. IHOP's bold American flag red-white-blue colors were literally toned down to warmer tones on the interior, and now incorporate some yellow elements in the ceiling beams and mottled amber overhead lighting globes. The exterior features the IHOP blue roof and uses the red in the mullions. The façade also now has a faux stone wall (suggesting a chimney), which bears the IHOP logo. The entrance capitalizes on the A-frame clerestory ceiling, beckoning in sunlight and giving a luxurious sense of breathing space as soon as one walks in.
Inside, more visual variety is achieved while reducing visual clutter. Gone are plastic plants - "that didn't fit in with our efforts to be genuine," says Rick Celio, the company's vp, franchise and development - and instead there are several different attractive lighting fixtures, which are on dimmers to create a more low-key atmosphere in the evening. There are three different types of floor treatments, an earthy tile by the high-traffic entrance, carpet in part of the dining room and naturalistic vinyl wood flooring.
Wall decoration was also completely reconsidered. "Before, we might have had Norman Rockwell-like framed posters of a brother and sister holding hands, which were nice but didn't really have any connection to IHOP," says Lenow. "Louis & Partners went through our archives to develop a fun graphic wallpaper that could only be IHOP's and also found great retro images in our archives, like old pancake mix packages, plates, etc., which are reproduced for shadow boxes that can be hung around the stores." IHOP also added a whole new merchandising section of hats, sweatshirts, clocks, thermal mugs, etc., by the takeout counter.
To foster more intimacy and encourage lingering, Louis & Partners specified high-back booths (to provide privacy), lower ceilings in the dining area, tapestry back cushions and more comfortable upholstered seats on the chairs. Also, there is now "server banking" (checks and change delivered by the server to the customer at the table) instead of the old cashier model, which connoted "diner."
Recognizing that its biggest opportunities for expansion are in the snacking and "lunch part" and "dinner part" dining categories, IHOP is in the process of testing many non-breakfast menu items in Cincinnati for America's ever-more sophisticated palate. It is introducing salads with small-leaf spinach and crumbled blue cheese, brie and ham grilled sandwiches on sourdough parmesan bread and stuffed crepes. It sees itself as a family restaurant, a category distinct from casual dining (establishments like Applebee's or T.G.I. Fridays that often serve alcohol). IHOP's competition would be Cracker Barrel or Shoney's or industry leaders Denny's and Waffle House, "where no one looks at you askance if your kid makes a mess," says Lenow.
"Our only regret," says designer Kara Alvey, "is that we didn't make the spaces larger. I've seen long lines outside at 8 p.m.! That's something we never expected to see."
Client: IHOP Corp., Glendale, Calif.
Julia Stewart, ceo
Rick Celio, vp, franchising and development
Chris White, director, development
Rick McDuff, development manager
Design: Louis & Partners Design, Bath, Ohio
Louis Nonno, president
Chris Nonno, director, graphic design
Kara Alvey, director, retail design
General Contractor: Oliveri Construction, Canton, Ohio
Architect: Rauchenbach Marvelli Becker Architects, Sacramento, Calif.
Chipman Adams Architects, Park Ridge, Ill.
Booth Upholstery: Design Tex, Washington, D.C.
Carpet: Lees Carpets, Greensboro, N.C.
Decorative Glass: Wizard Art Glass, Chatsworth, Calif.
Fixtures/Millwork/Booths: Merric Seating, St. Louis
Flooring: Lonseal, Carson, Calif.
Lighting: Kichler, Cleveland
Louis Poulsen, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Paint: ICI Dulux, Strongsville, Ohio
Wallcoverings: MDC Wall Coverings, Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Photography: Art Dickinson, Cincinnati