Good food is a priority for fast-food restaurants, but good-looking buildings are important, too.

Improving the curb appeal of their buildings on the outside, and adding features on the inside, are crucial as fast-food restaurants battle to attract customers - many of whom expect fresh, modern surroundings, franchisees and restaurant industry experts say.

"People maybe feel more comfortable going into a building that's more contemporary," said Charlie Golding, a McDonald's franchisee in Colorado Springs. "I'd rather drive a new car than an older car."

John Peters, a longtime Wendy's corporate executive and now partner and chief operating officer for Wendy's of Colorado Springs, said competition doesn't stop with fast-food chains; Panera Bread, Chipotle and other fast-casual restaurants all try to offer stylish settings for their customers. And as baby boomers give way to millennials, Peters said, fast-food chains are asking themselves, "What attracts them to restaurants?"

That's why some fast-food franchisees in the Springs are investing big money to spruce up the look and feel of their locations.

"It's important for our guests, but it's also important to continue to keep the fresher feel," said Jay Hafemeister, a partner in JH Foods Ltd., a family-run franchisee with 11 Carl's Jr. locations in the Springs area.

"We have an ultracompetitive restaurant environment right now," Hafemeister said. "You've got the better-burger segments, you've got a lot of competitors out there. So, you need to make sure that your facility meets the expectations of today's guests. And the expectations of today's guests are not the same as they were 10, 15 years ago."

The trend toward remodeled buildings began in the 2000s, with McDonald's leading the way and other brands following, said Carolyn Livingston, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Restaurant Association.

"It is expensive, but it does improve the sales because it strengthens the customer experience to the (restaurant's) branding, and refreshes everything," Livingston said. "It's definitely a trend that's happening in Colorado."

JH Foods is spending about $500,000 to gut and make over its Carl's Jr. location at 306 N. Nevada Ave. in downtown Colorado Springs, which is targeted to reopen Sept. 19, Hafemeister said.

It will be the building's first extensive remodeling since it was converted from a Hardee's to Carl's Jr. in 1999, he said.

The downtown location's new exterior will mirror a Carl's Jr. east of Interstate 25 and Woodmen Road, whose remodeling was completed by JH Foods in March.

At that north-side location, a dated, shingled facade on the upper one-third of the building was replaced with smooth, stucco panels. The "Carl's Jr." name that was spelled out in red, block letters was removed in favor of a sleek, marquee-style LED sign that carries a new version of the logo.

Those changes, Hafemeister said, give the building a cleaner and more modern look.

The interior of the downtown Carl's Jr., meanwhile, will have a pair of so-called community tables - similar to those found in coffee houses - that are raised higher and have 12 to 20 seats; they give customers an opportunity to share a conversation with someone they don't know, Hafemeister said. The Nevada location also will have digital menu boards that are brighter and easier for customers to see.

The north side and downtown remodelings kick off a plan by JH Foods to upgrade its Carl's Jr. restaurants, although changes will be limited at buildings in architecturally controlled shopping centers, Hafemeister said.

"For us, I believe we're investing in the future," he said. "That's how we're continuing to look at it."

Restaurant chains typically come up with new designs for buildings that franchisees implement; in the case of Wendy's, the corporation has a program that has different levels of remodelings that franchisees can put in place, Peters said.

Wendy's of Colorado Springs operates 112 locations in Colorado and seven other states, and has remodeled eight of its 28 restaurants from Pueblo to Castle Rock, Peters said. It plans to remodel two to three Springs-area locations annually, he said; Wendy's locations at Wahsatch and Platte avenues and Platte and Circle Drive are targeted for remodeling by year's end, he said. Peters declined to disclose the cost of the remodelings.

The Springs-area remodelings include moving from the familiar copper facades and red brick exteriors in favor of smooth exterior surfaces that feature a combination of brick, glass, tile and stucco, Peters said. Inside its remodeled restaurants, Wendy's of Colorado Springs is adding Wi-Fi bars, TVs, designer fireplaces and a mix of seating styles that even include a few soft lounge chairs near the fireplaces, Peters said.

Many customers expect such amenities, especially younger people who want to be online with their mobile devices, he said. For restaurants, the upgrades help drive sales by giving customers a reason to come in more often and spend more time at the restaurants.

"We want to be relevant to the consumer of today," Peters said. "No, we don't want to lose the people that have been Wendy's loyal customers for years. But as you look around, everybody's changing and everybody's updating and what attracts people more often to your restaurants?

"It's not only for the customers, it's for employees," Peters added. "It's a nicer place to work. They feel good about it. But what we're really trying to do is make it a more relevant place for the consumer to come to."

The state-of-the-art changes eventually could include self-ordering kiosks inside restaurants, as well as mobile ordering that allows customers to order food and make payments from their phones and tablets before they enter the restaurants, Peters said. Those options are being tested at Phoenix restaurants owned by Wendy's of Colorado Springs.

Golding, who owns six Springs-area McDonald's, went one step better than a remodeling in 2011 when he razed and rebuilt his restaurant at Academy Boulevard and Flintridge Drive. Gone was the familiar McDonald's roof, which sloped and angled outward and included lighted beams on top; in its place was a flat-roofed structure with a smooth white and taupe exterior, a decorative stone facade along the bottom of the building and a subtle arch at the top.

The new look - along with a repositioning of the building on the property that allowed for a more efficient drive-thru lane - has helped attract more customers, Golding said. But the improvements also contributed to a nicer look for the Flintridge and Academy corner; across the street, a shuttered Denny's was torn down a few years later to make way for a bank building, while the owners of the Flintridge Plaza added signs and building facades to their shopping center.

Golding said he next plans to remodel his McDonald's at Woodmen Road and Lexington Drive in the Woodmen Plaza shopping center, which will have a similar look to the one at Flintridge and Academy. It also will have new lighting, seats and booths on the inside, among other upgrades.

"Most businesses want to keep things fresher," Golding said. "It if has that newer appearance, it does attract more people."

All the remodelings and upgrades aside, however, fast-food restaurants can't forget what attracts customers in the first place, Peters said.

"Food's the main stage," he said. "If we don't have the food, people won't come back. If you don't have great service, people won't come back ... The facade, the building, the facility is just something that the consumers' expectations have grown higher on over the years, and we have to update our buildings. But the rubber really meets the road with the food and the people in the restaurants."


Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228

Twitter: @richladen

Facebook: Rich Laden

Business writer, Colorado Springs Gazette

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