Travelers pulling off Washington Street and into the parking lot at Wendy's restaurant in Brainerd this summer may have had the feeling they were arriving at a newly constructed eatery.

It might as well be.

A major renovation last fall transformed the established restaurant, both inside and out. After years of little construction activity, particularly on the commercial side during the Great Recession, significant updates to restaurants along the main thoroughfares in Brainerd and Baxter provided visible signs of economic recovery.

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“I feel good about the direction the economy is going.” - Wendy’s owner Bob Sullivan.

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Hardee's was the subject of a major renovation in the spring of 2011. And Taco Bell took on a new look. More recently, Wendy's and Burger King remade themselves with significant remodels late last fall. During the past three decades, Wendy's owner Bob Sullivan said there have been numerous upgrades at Wendy's, but it was time for a good facelift. Increased confidence in a recovering economy was a factor in the timing for the reinvestment.

Every area of the restaurant was upgraded with a focus on creating a modern atmosphere in seating and design esthetics. A Wi-Fi bar, with seating, plug-ins and a countertop for people using laptops and tablets, extends along a front window. In the other corner of the dining room, the seating is more reminiscent of a living room with an ultra modern, narrow and long wall fireplace flush with the wall below a wall-mounted flat-screen TV.

Carpeting and tile was replaced with a faux wooden floor. The new flooring, lending the impression of wide wooden boards, is more forgiving of spills and easier to keep clean. Seating near the entrance and the streamlined front counter is screened from view with short frosted panels accented with blades of green grass. Dynamic wall-mounted signs display menus and specials.

In addition to having the Wi-Fi table to appeal to those bringing in their own technology, Wendy's has a technological attraction inside in the form of a computerized touch screen pop dispenser by Coca-Cola. The pop machine has the ability to create 146 different beverages or combinations of beverages. The machine downloads data to Atlanta at the end of each day, so the company knows what flavors need to be reordered and restocked. Those flavors are then shipped to Brainerd. Customers may use the touchscreen or their own smartphones to make their choices. For each choice, beyond plain water itself, there are additional flavor choices; Vitamin water in a variety of flavors; Coca-Cola with vanilla or lime. Last year, USA Today reported Freestyle ranks as one of the largest equipment investments Coca-Cola has ever made.

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Wendy's

Location: Brainerd.

Employees: 28.

Seating capacity: About 98 not counting the patio.

By the numbers: Sullivan owns five Wendy's including ones in Brainerd and Nisswa and Duluth.

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"You can get raspberry in everything you want," Sullivan said. "You could put five or six different flavors in one cup. It's pretty much endless."

Customers familiar with the choices can make those same flavor orders through the drive-thru window. Sullivan said the more than 100 choices aren't available from the windows of vehicles just to keep the line from being bogged down as people flip through the nearly endless menu of options.

"People want choices," Sullivan said.

The choices aren't limited to the menu. The restaurant has a multitude of seating options from booths to both regular and high tables. Sullivan said it's part of appealing to a broad demographic. It turns out a seating choice may be related to one's age. Pick a booth, once the top seating choices of teenagers, and that may be more of a sign of middle age these days. Sullivan said millennials are attracted to the high tables. Some restaurants focus on that seating. And there are other reasons not to want customers to sink in comfortably into the booth cushions to linger over that soda from the high-tech touch machine. The longer some folks stay, the fewer times the restaurant is able to turn the table over or bring new guests in and gain revenue from their purchases.

Not all the upgrades are readily visible.

Sullivan said gone are the heat lamps to keep food warm. Instead, part of the extensive kitchen remodel meant a curved counter to place a food order. The design creates a better workflow, Sullivan said. He pointed to increased efficiencies in putting items closer together to eliminate steps. The change makes it easier to handle a lunch rush, which Sullivan said a staff member noted right away after the remodel. "It flows so much better," Sullivan said, noting items are right at the fingertips of staff members, making it faster and easier as they are serving customers. "It's just more efficient. I think customers like it and employees like it."

Sullivan said the restaurant is Wendy's new signature look and part of the goal to create a more modern design.

Sullivan said everytime he's done an upgrade on a restaurant there has been an increase in sales, anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent. "We've gotten a major increase since we did the total remodel," he said of Brainerd. He added costs for remodels can range from $150,000 for a small renovation to $500,000 for a major upgrade.

For Wendy's the remodel was done in three phases, which allowed the restaurant to keep the drive-thru open longer reducing the number of days the restaurant wasn't able to serve customers.

Other restaurant upgrades, as well as new businesses are creating an updated look for entire sections of Highway 210, also known Washington Street, such as AutoZone recently bulldozing a long vacant property and building a new store.

"I feel good about the direction the economy is going," Sullivan said.

 

RENEE RICHARDSON, associate editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.