Opening A Restaurant? Upcycle An Existing Space Into A Unique, Carbon Footprint-Friendly Concept

By: Liz Schroeter-Courtney

14 Minute Read

May 13, 2019

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Odds are you got into the restaurant business because you love food. But most first-time restaurateurs learn quickly that most of opening and running a restaurant has little to do with the food and much more to do with the space in which you operate. 

Some days may leave you feeling like more of a building manager than a restaurateur because the bulk of your time was spent dealing with utilities, maintenance, furnishings and fixtures. This is never more true than at the launch of a new restaurant: Selecting the right piece of real estate can make or break your business's success, not to mention your start-up budget.

While some business owners may prefer starting with a raw space that can serve as a blank canvas for their restaurant vision, others are embracing the benefits of upcycling. Recycling’s more glamorous cousin, upcycling is the act of repurposing an existing object or structure in a way that makes it even more appealing than its original state. 

Upcycling has proven to be a a win-win trend for environmentalists who want to keep useful materials out of the waste stream, business owners looking for a cost-effective way to grow and scale, and finally, for consumers who love a new product or business with a quirky backstory.

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Upcycling: A Philosophy and a Movement  

After being out of use for more than fifty years, a former public toilet in London was renovated into a chic artisanal coffee shop. Rather than gutting the space, the sustainability-minded owners kept the original green and white tile-work and lovingly restored a bank of porcelain urinals into a charming seating area. Called The Attendant, even its name is a subtle nod to its restroom roots. 

Upcycled restaurants exist in all types of repurposed real estate. Train cars reimagined as diners are a classic example that can be found all across the globe. Gas station garages, with their high ceilings and retractable doors, are easily reinvented into airy cafes with names like The Fillin Station, offering guests semi-al fresco dining on a pleasant day. 

A landmark firehouse in Egg Harbor City, NJ was reborn as The Leatherhead Pub, a restaurant that retains much of the building’s original brickwork and ceilings which meant a lot to locals who felt attached to the old structure. 

Some new restaurant owners simply repurpose an old restaurant, taking the best elements of a dated establishment – like a row of cherry red, mid century bar stools or a glorious art deco back bar – and breathe new life into the business through a radical new menu or marketing approach.

The upcycling movement has made its way into the pop-up and mobile food service markets as well. Shipping containers, for example, are being used like human-scale LEGOs to build both temporary and permanent dining venues that require a minimal amount of construction; their durable design and modularity allow for endless possibilities. Slumbrew, a Somerville, MA based brewery, recently unveiled a beer garden made of repurposed shipping containers that took only two months to construct. 

Meanwhile, the food truck craze has largely been supplied by former delivery step vans – the kind favored by the postal service and FedEx – outfitted with power generators, water tanks, and full kitchens. The relatively low cost of re-engineering an old truck has made them a popular choice for food entrepreneurs just starting out.

If you're opening a new restaurant or considering expanding into new locations, upcycling an existing space offers a sustainable way to stand out from the fold and drive repeat customers with a unique concept. 

Read More: 11 Things You Should Know About Leasing Restaurant Space

The Benefits of Upcycling An Existing Space for Your Next Restaurant Endeavor

1. Less Waste

Working with existing materials and fixtures is not only a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and show your business’ commitment to sustainability, but it’s also a great way to reduce building expenses. 

Find an odd venue that’s being sold at a discount because of its quirks and turn that lemon into lemonade. Secondhand furniture and fixtures can also save your business money while adding to the charm and appeal of your restaurant. A well-curated collection of mismatched dishes sourced from a thrift store can look positively shabby chic, and salvaged church pews can make for excellent bench seating for large group tables or in place of banquettes. 

Each vintage item, and the walls that house them, have a story to tell: do a little sleuthing and share the history behind the space and the pieces you've incorporated to make your vision come to life.  The team at Ledger Restaurant & Bar in Salem, MA does this exceptionally well. Housed in a former bank built circa 1818, Ledger seamlessly weaves the history of their space through every element of their dining experience, including the menu: "Traditional 19th-century dishes, cocktails, and techniques will be elevated with 21st-century resources", their website reads. 

2. Instant Marketing Hook

Of course you’ll soon have people talking about your food, but you need to get them in the door first. What better way to attract new customers than with a unique space that has an interesting history? 

An upcycled restaurant instantly sparks curiosity. The local press will enjoy documenting the evolution of the building while guests will be drawn to the conversation piece that your restaurant’s heritage offers. For example, the upscale cocktail bar, Alibi, housed in the old “drunk tank” of what was Boston’s historic Charles Street Jail, playfully embraces the history of their space by hanging the mugshots of prominent figures and celebrities, from Jay-Z, to Justin Bieber, to Frank Sinatra, to Lindsay Lohan. 

Read More: 9 Restaurant Floor Plan Examples & Ideas For Your Restaurant Layout

Things to Remember When Upcycling A Space

As any bargain hunter or antique shopper knows: buyer beware. 

Old buildings and secondhand materials have stood the test of time, but they also may be rough around the edges and have a few hidden surprises. It’s smart to work with an experienced commercial building inspector before signing a lease or mortgage and with a contractor who can help navigate any curveballs your new space might throw your way. 

Be especially careful taking on a new venture in a registered historic landmark building. While great for attracting tourists and history buffs, you will have to abide by strict regulations around how you alter original elements of the building or impact the facade. This can be tricky when also trying to abide by department of health standards for installing a commercial kitchen.

Shipping container construction is also a bit of a wild west in many communities. There may not be existing guidelines for how to bring a shipping container building up to code which could leave your project in permitting limbo with the local authorities. 

Read More: How to Calculate Restaurant Overhead Rate

Upcycle is the New Recycle

Repurposing an old building or building materials for your new restaurant is not without its challenges, but for creative restaurateurs looking to open a space that’s truly unique and honors a less wasteful lifestyle, the rewards are many.   

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