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April 11, 2021

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Some Clark County fast-food chains upgrading atmosphere

Some fast-food chains are working to make their dining areas more comfy and inviting

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
6 Photos
Vancouver resident Daniel O’Connell relaxes in a booth on his lunch break at the McDonald’s at 2814 N.E. Andresen Road in Vancouver, which is one of several local restaurants that has been upgraded to provide casual relaxation for diners.
Vancouver resident Daniel O’Connell relaxes in a booth on his lunch break at the McDonald’s at 2814 N.E. Andresen Road in Vancouver, which is one of several local restaurants that has been upgraded to provide casual relaxation for diners. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

As technology speeds up the service industry through things like mobile ordering and self-order kiosks, fast-food chains are making a play for customers to hang out.

Well, at least they want customers to know the option is there.

Fast-food chains have been on a tear nationwide to make over restaurants, clearing out sterile styles and rigid layouts to become welcoming places that draw more millennial generation customers.

In form and function, the new restaurants aim to be sleek and comfortable.

“I would say we’re just evolving like any business would by listening to consumer needs and demands,” said Lindsay Rainey, a McDonald’s spokeswoman for restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.

McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza are two such franchises. The two have about 20,000 combined restaurants across the United States and many in the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area are under remodeling.

Franchise owners say the improved stores are already experiencing increases in sales.

Putting on a show

Domino’s Pizza restaurants in Clark County are trying to transition from delivery to dine-in, according to franchise owner Troy Hamilton.

The Idaho native has been with the pizza chain since 1982, where delivery’s share of sales has shrunk from 95 percent to closer to 60 percent, he said.

Corporate has mandated store remodels, but Hamilton has been an early adopter. Local restaurants are now known as “pizza theaters,” where the once-cloistered kitchens are now wide open, with tables, chairs, chalk walls for kids and flat-screen televisions.

In Salmon Creek, customer Cathleen Ellison of Kelso said she had not stepped foot in a Domino’s Pizza restaurant for awhile and was pleasantly surprised to see the changes.

“I’m used to the hole-in-the-wall with the little chairs,” she said. “It was not comfortable.”

To Hamilton, having varied stores and decor are like menu items to broaden appeal. Delivery, carry-out, dine-in and drive-thru are options just like vegetarian and Philly cheesesteak pizzas.

“What I’m trying to do is focus on what makes the experience for the customer the best,” he said. “If they want to come in, sit down and eat, they can do that. If they don’t want to get out of the car … they can do that, too.”

That vision is amped up at the newest location, at the corner of Northeast 78th Street and Highway 99. Opening soon, the 2,600-square-foot store will have a drive-thru, 34 seats and even a museum of Domino’s memorabilia Hamilton has collected in his two decades with the company.

It doesn’t come without a cost. Pizza theaters are much more expensive to run, Hamilton said, requiring both higher utility bills and more staff.

But he said sales have picked up to make up for it. He said there are more customers like Ellison, who said the seating areas will help her consider dining there more.

“I might be more apt to come here and get lunch, especially since it’s quiet,” she said.

Golden strategy

Quiet and comfort are at a premium at McDonald’s lately, and franchise owners say sales are benefiting.

Last year, the Illinois-based fast-food chain and franchisees invested about $20 million together in the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area to outfit restaurants with new technology and interiors.

One location completely rebuilt last spring was the McDonald’s on Andresen Road. Gone are the hard, fiberglass booths and Ronald McDonald red-and-yellow colors. Everything is steel gray and black, illuminated by large windows and LCD menu boards.

“They moved to change a tired brand,” said Matt Hadwin, a regional franchise owner since 1992. He said the store had struggled before the rebuild, and now it outpaces its peers.

Like a modern coffee shop, the revamped McDonald’s aesthetic takes more deliberate aim at young adults who might settle into a chair with a laptop. The redesigned store muffles kitchen sounds to make that easier. Even employees once told to hide tattooed arms now flaunt them openly.

Hadwin also contends the menu is healthier. Fresh beef patties replaced frozen ones and more meals are paired with milk and juice instead of sodas. Portions are smaller — a shift from practices once blamed in the 2004 documentary “Super Size Me” for rearing an obese generation.

“We knew we needed to improve our food,” he said.

Hadwin, who owns 17 stores in the region with his wife, Val Hadwin, said sales have ticked up at all their stores.

Following a trend

But food prices and convenience are still dominant forces in their success. Many locations boast double-lane drive-thrus and offer delivery via UberEats. Self-order kiosks, too, tend to have higher average sales than orders at the counter.

“It’s a big change,” Val Hadwin said.

With revenues rising, Hamilton and the Hadwins both plan to renovate more stores to attract younger customers. It’s a decision that works at least on face value, according to industry experts.

Robert Harrington, director of the Carson College of Business at Washington State University Tri-Cities, said consumers are clearly demanding more experience in their dining, and restaurants will follow suit.

“The upgrading of fast-food environments is likely to continue,” he said. He added that it just remains to be seen what those changes will look like, “whether these involve different experiences on aesthetics (or) entertainment.”

It’s a shift two decades in the making, Harrington said, where customers have more often eschewed cheap foods for higher quality. He said customers today generally favor higher quality but reasonably priced dining, whether from chains like Panera Bread or local food trucks.

The challenge, he added, will be for restaurants to adapt now but also be flexible in the future. He said they need to ask themselves questions.

“How can we ensure our fast-food concept is relevant now and in the future? What modifications can we make that will allow us to retain current customers and, potentially, gain new ones?” Harrington said.

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