Never underestimate the power of the outside -- of a restaurant, that is.
When Eat'n Park overhauled its longtime Squirrel Hill location last year, management didn't just remodel the interior dining area. A stone facade made the local establishment look like something from the new century, rather than an ode to the last one.
And sales rose more than 10 percent.
"People are drawn to new restaurant experiences. Even if it's the same restaurant," said Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing for Eat'n Park Hospitality Group Inc.
The Homestead chain that's been around long enough to count as a Pittsburgh institution isn't rushing to open new Eat'n Park sites but it has ordered up some dramatic overhauls of locations that have been part of family dinners and teen gatherings for decades.
A Banksville restaurant that has been in place for more than 40 years will be torn down after a new location is completed on nearby land that until recently held an auto body shop. The existing restaurant site will eventually become a parking lot.
A Whitehall restaurant that has been serving up food along Route 51 since 1954 is slated for an overhaul.
And on Friday, the company held a grand opening along Route 8 for its Shaler restaurant built in 1974, celebrating the completion of an overhaul and expansion that began in February and included moving the entrance, the bakery, the restrooms, the cooler, as well as adding a pick-up window and updating the signs outside.
"Making these kinds of investments, we find, is a great way to grow sales," said Mr. O'Connell.
Eat'n Park has grown its overall annual revenues to $355 million, up 7 percent from last year, in part through ventures outside of its namesake restaurant business. The parent company has two divisions, Parkhurst Dining Services and Cura Hospitality, that run food operations for universities, hospitals and businesses. The restaurant division contributed about $176 million.
There are more than 75 Eat'n Park locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, but last year the company opened a new smaller prototype called Hello Bistro that has done well enough that a second location should open mid-July on the South Side and a third sometime early next year Downtown.
Management also has continued to adapt the core Eat'n Park operations to reflect the changing realities of the restaurant business, including adding pick-up windows that help people who want quick food that's not fast food. The first pickup window was added in 2008 and the new one at the Shaler restaurant is the company's 39th.
Starting with the Squirrel Hill location, the company has begun adding takeout stations in restaurants that don't have a place for a pickup window. The Wexford restaurant just got one, too.
The restaurant industry has been struggling to recover from the recession, as households continue to try to stretch their dollars. Market research firm NPD Group reported in April that adult-only restaurants visits rose in 2012 for the first time in four years, but visits with children were flat for the second year in a row.
Anything that makes restaurants more convenient for consumers is good, according to Harry Balzer, an NPD vice president. He said data shows that people have been using restaurants less since the recession but they still like to pick up food prepared outside the home. "This country doesn't want to cook," he said.
Eat'n Park's salad bars, the number one selling product for the restaurants, are also due for some updates and improvements soon, as are the bakeries that produce Smiley cookies by the dozen.
Mr. Balzer endorsed the policy of remodeling regularly. "There is no question of keeping the retail environment fresh," he said. "The question is how often do you do that?"
Eat'n Park has stepped up its pace and is now overhauling three to five of its namesake restaurants annually, said Andy Dunmire, vice president of design and construction.
The company didn't share how much it is investing in the projects, which are each different in their own ways, but Mr. O'Connell said the goal is for the investment to pay off within a year.
With a company that began as a drive-in with car hops, there have been plenty of refreshes and remodels over the decades. "One of the challenges of being around 64 years is you end up with really old buildings," said Mr. O'Connell.
One waitress at the Shaler restaurant told him last week that she'd been through 10 remodels.
Some have probably been more extensive than others. Bakeries, for example, weren't included in the first restaurants so they were added later.
Some changes aren't always obvious from the outside and, while the regulars appreciate them, it can mute the impact on total sales. Apparently putting up a sign saying, "Come in to see our remodeled dining room," doesn't turn a lot of steering wheels.
Now, with so much evidence that passersby respond to things they can see, it's not hard to justify the expense. "The exterior remodels are certainly reaching a group of guests that don't currently frequent us," said Mr. Dunmire.
Tinkering inside the restaurants over the years also had the effect sometimes of creating inefficiencies. In the Shaler restaurant, a cooler that had to be tucked into the basement meant the staff was running up and down stairs regularly. A bakery shoehorned into a space near the old lobby wasn't connected to the kitchen, so employees couldn't bake and cook at the same time.
It might have been easier to put up an entirely new building, but that would have meant losing grandfathered status on new setback and parking requirements put in place since the restaurant opened. And it's a tight site. Cars and trucks roar by the building set close to the four-lane road, but the back of the parking lot is up against a hill.
The process of completely revamping a restaurant does require some "re-training" of the regulars.
T.J. Gentile, director of construction for Eat'n Park, said he recently helped a man who was trying to get into the Shaler restaurant but couldn't find the right door. Mr. Gentile reported the customer finally asked, "Where'd you put the new entrance?"
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or at 412-263-2018.