Un-‘squaring’ the fast food world at new Wendy’s concept

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AURORA | The Wendy’s at East Hampden Avenue and South Tower Road feels less like a typical burger joint and more like a coffee shop where diners might want to stay for a while.

And that’s just what the 43-year-old hamburger chain is going for.

“It’s just a comfortable feeling for customers,” said Jim Bistany, director of area operations for Wendy’s in Colorado. “It’s not that old plastic feel of a quick-service restaurant, it’s an inviting environment that we want people to come by and see.”

The restaurant at Tower and Hampden is the first of the chain’s Colorado locations to undergo a massive redesign aimed at drawing in more customers in an increasingly competitive fast-food market.

Gone are the “cattle call” style bars that helped form a serpentine line to the registers. In their place are two registers next to a display case full of fresh-baked food where cashiers take a customer’s order before sending them down to a counter to pick up their meal.

Bistany said the whole ordering process, which includes taking the customer’s name instead of assigning them a number, is aimed at making the restaurant more inviting.

The redesign also includes free wireless internet, a fireplace and lounge-style seats in the dining area.

Bistany also said the redesign includes a new focus on fresh-baked goods, a move that has replaced the smell of sizzling burgers with an odor of home-baked cookies.

The whole idea, he said, is for customers to think of Wendy’s not just as a drive-through burger restaurant, but a place where they can hang out for a while after they grab a bite to eat.

“We don’t want just the drive through, we want them to come in and enjoy, we want them to come with their families,” he said.

Experts say restaurant chains have to always update their business model to keep up with the changing needs of consumers.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association, said research shows consumers are looking for more than just food when they go out — they are also paying more attention to atmosphere and service.

“If that last restaurant experience for a consumer doesn’t meet their expectations, they can be quite quick to vote with their feet,” he said.

Restaurants are also realizing that as a huge swath of the population ages, they need to attract a younger base of loyal customers.

“In the restaurant industry, demographics truly is destiny,” he said. “Different age demographics have different wants and needs in terms of restaurant experiences.”

Younger consumers especially expect to have Wi-Fi access in a restaurant and might not return if that isn’t an option, he said.

“Savvy restaurant operators know that it’s important to attract a new generation of restaurant patrons,” he said.

The redesign at the Tower and Hampden restaurant took about eight weeks and included tearing down the entire ordering area and dining room and rebuilding it, Bistany said. The restaurant reopened Oct. 1.

Company officials worked on the redesign for the better part of three years, Bistany said, and hope to have half of the 1,500 company-owned restaurants around the country redesigned by 2015. In all, Ohio-based Wendy’s has 6,500 restaurants around the country.

By next year, Bistany said he hopes to have five or six more Colorado locations redesigned.