Feature Article: From Standard to Specialty: “Boutiquing” Your Business

Whether your patrons are the type to pop in quickly on their lunch break from work, or those who prefer to sit and stay awhile, creating an ambience within your store will send positive vibes to consumers, creating a memorable dining experience.

What does the word boutique mean to you? Do the words unique, trendy and specialty come to mind? Perhaps you’ve perused the clothing racks at a boutique retail store, or had a comforting stay at one of the many boutique hotels popping up across the country. Maybe you’ve enjoyed a taste-worthy meal at a local niche restaurant, topped off with a cappuccino at a specialty coffee shop around the corner. From retail to restaurants, all of these experiences equate to unmatched customer service and an experience that makes patrons feel just as chic and one-of-a-kind as these businesses themselves. Bottom line – “boutiquing” your restaurant is a trend worth considering.

Over the last few years, the Food & Beverage industry has been embracing the world of boutique through modernized restaurants and bars complete with specialized menus and unique atmospheres. The trend began in big cities and spread nationwide, and boutique restaurants and cafés continue to pop up. These boutique eateries include exotic tapas restaurants perfect for the adventurous eater, dimly lit dessert bars perfect for a first date, and fusion restaurants, which offer a fun atmosphere while appealing to a variety of palates. While chain restaurants continue to be a mainstay in the industry, consumers’ tastes and dining preferences are evolving and growing out of the capabilities of chain restaurants.

So the question stands: how do you redesign your business from a standard shop to a cozy hot spot with a boutique feel to stay on-trend? The key is focusing on ambience, comfort and creating an experience for your diners. Whether your patrons are the type to stop in quickly on their lunch break from work, or those who prefer to sit and stay awhile, creating an ambience within your store will send positive vibes to consumers, creating a memorable dining experience. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “ambience” is defined as a feeling or mood associated with a particular place, person or thing. When it comes to planning a unique and trendy yet comfortable feeling for your gelato or yogurt shop, there are several key elements that are essential to creating an ambience for your patrons.

Seating Options
When it comes to dining comfort, the first thing that comes to mind is the types of seats you offer your customers. If you’re going for strictly a trendy and modern feel, look into the solid-colored, edgy plastic chairs that are being offered in many frozen yogurt shops nationwide. If you’re looking to create a more comfortable ambience, go for couches and oversized chairs like you might find in a specialty coffee shop. If taking the couch route, ensure that tables and chairs do still exist in your restaurant for the ease of children and those who prefer to eat their gelato or yogurt on a table. Trending in restaurants is a section dedicated to cozy seating where they serve food – think couches and an ottoman-type coffee table where they place the food – it creates this comfortable, more relaxed dining experience.

Add some swank to your shop by selecting the perfect lighting for your restaurant concept. Lighting is one of the most important elements of creating ambience in your shop, but it all starts with what type of consumer you are trying to attract. Determining what clientele you are targeting is the key aspect of “boutiquing” your shop, as it is the basis of all the decisions you will make in relation to redesigning your restaurant.

When targeting an adult clientele, dim lighting can create a sense of intimacy and leisure, creating an excellent atmosphere for a girl’s night out or a first date. However, if you’re trying to attract more of the child-friendly crowd, stick with bright lighting and fun, colored light fixtures. If your business would like to attract both crowds, invest in a light dimmer that allows you to customize your lighting throughout the day. Cue the bright lights throughout the day when most children will be visiting, and then once dusk arrives, dim the lights to attract the more mature crowd. If you go for the mood lighting, be sure to dim the lights enough to create an inviting feel, but not so dark that it interferes with the ability of patrons to read the menu.

Not only does clientele determine the type of lighting you’re going for, but also time of day. The lunch crowd will typically be more rushed than the evening crowd, so bright lights will keep them alert and signify a place of bustling activity. In contrast, the after-work crowd will enjoy the leisurely feel of the dimly lit atmosphere after staring at a computer screen all day at work. And let’s not forget the lighting that doesn’t cost you a penny! Natural light is an excellent energizer, so ensuring your store has an adequate amount of window space is essential.

Playing a soft and soothing soundtrack throughout the day is beneficial no matter what clientele you are targeting. Setting your tunes at the right sound level is essential, as we have all sat in restaurants where the music is so loud we can barely hear what our fellow diners are saying. In contrast, playing music too soft will eliminate the atmosphere you are putting so much time and energy into creating. Have several staff members sit in different areas of your shop and let you know what the noise level is like throughout in order to find the happy medium specific to your store. A different approach to perking up consumers’ ears is the addition of a fountain or something similar that provides the atmosphere of nature that so many people find comforting.

An important factor that often gets overlooked is the temperature level in your restaurant. If you are serving gelato, frozen yogurt and other cold treats, your air temperature should be set at a higher level than a coffee shop that is serving hot beverages. Additionally, the installation of fireplaces is popping up in boutique restaurants, creating a wonderful ambience for diners. Fireplaces can help with temperature control when you’re serving frozen desserts, but it can also add a cozy feeling to your store even with very low to no heat, welcoming patrons to kick off their shoes and stay awhile. Making your customers feel at home is a top priority, and temperature control is one avenue to get there.

Utilizing Sidewalk Space
An immense selling point for all clientele, no matter what age or gender is outdoor seating capabilities. For families with children, outdoor seating provides them with a place to take their children where noise levels and space is optimal for them, while not ruining fellow diners’ experiences. As seasons change, outdoor seating becomes very attractive to adult clientele as well, specifically for the fresh air they can enjoy after being holed up in an office all day. A trend in the Food & Beverage industry is restaurants that become open air due to the ease of sliding windows. This trend provides the best of both worlds – dining indoors under a rooftop, while still getting that fresh air feel. This is great during seasons that aren’t quite warm enough to sit outside, or during rainy days. Something to keep in mind is that screens can be installed to ensure bugs and flies are not making your shop unsanitary.

Ambience Freebies
We are all human, and what human doesn’t love a perk? Providing your consumers with value-adds will make them feel special, which is exactly the feeling you’re trying to instill in people through the ambience of your boutique ice cream shop. In true boutique fashion, customers want to feel taken care of. Providing free Wi-Fi, as well as newspapers and magazines scattered across tables is an invitation to patrons to take a seat and stay awhile. The more time consumers spend in your store, the more likely they are to order that second cup of coffee, that second scoop of gelato or invite friends to meet them for a cup. Enjoy a cold treat while being warmed up fireside, kick up your feet and read the latest newspaper or browse the Internet on your laptop, all while being arm’s reach from your favorite gelato or frozen yogurt flavors.

Offer patrons samples of a new product you are trying to push in order to generate interest in your new offering, all while enticing guests with the pleasure of a free bite. Another suggestion of a value-add is providing mints or small candies to patrons. Think of how many times you’ve left a restaurant with a mint, fortune cookie or other small token of appreciation from the business. If you can remember leaving a shop with one of the above, then that business succeeded in leaving a lasting impression, which is what you are aiming for with your own customers.

Be Boutique and Budget-Friendly
A misconception of boutique restaurants is the immediate stereotype of upscale, fancy and expensive. Even fast food restaurants are bringing specialty flair through their doors, while maintaining the low prices that they are known for. Take McDonald’s as an example,
where “McCafes” are popping up in locations across the country, offering upscale coffee drinks at a budget-friendly price. Many McDonald’s locations are changing over to a softer interior design for the sake of ambience, and a few stores are even placing grand pianos inside, offering a soothing medley to patrons as they eat their Big Macs. Throughout your redesign, be sure to specialize yourself while keeping a cost-conscious attitude.

Customer Service
What your staff doesn’t realize is they add just as much to the ambience of your shop as the lighting, music and temperature do. Instill in your employees that friendly, positive attitudes are a must when making consumers feel at home. Patrons want to come to a boutique shop where someone will know their name. They want that neighborhood, local feel that they aren’t going to get at a chain restaurant. Make sure the staff you’re hiring is onboard with this attitude, because one bad experience can cost you customers.

Ensuring your staff ’s appearance gives off a clean, put-together vibe is a must in the Food & Beverage industry. Employees with messy hair, untucked shirts and sagging pants will cast a careless, untidy shadow over your business. Your staff must appear clean and well-kept in order for patrons to rest assured that the product they are eating was created by sanitary hands. Additionally, think through the attire you want your staff in, as switching from a tacky tee shirt to nice, business casual clothing can make a world of difference. Keep uniforms tighter in fit and classy in style, and don’t forget to consider colors that will look great on employees of all skin tones.

Local Influences
A common thread we are finding in boutique restaurants nationwide is their specialty menus, whether they are focused on one area of food, or offering locally produced ingredients within their dishes. In your business, create a recipe that is unique to your store, even using local flavors to produce. Consumers love the trend of local foods, as they enjoy contributing to the community and supporting local business. As an example, North Carolina shops may play around with a Cheerwine frozen yogurt recipe, based off the popular cherry flavored soft drink only available in the Carolinas.

In addition to your menu, play up local influences through art and music. Think of local coffee shops where you often see artwork displayed on the walls from artists in the community. Create a partnership with local artists and musicians and have them display their work in your shop, or be your live talent in the evenings. Perhaps instead of playing a soundtrack in your shop, bring in a live musician on Friday evenings to spice up the week.

In order to develop a concept with all of these elements, take a step back and look at your business from an outsiders’ perspective – determine how it appeals to the public. Does your shop scream specialty or standard? To stay on trend in the industry, going towards specialty is what will make your store succeed and become a long-term staple in your town. Check out your competitors and research the trends in your area to discover what type of clientele you want to attract and what kind of atmosphere they would like to see. Gathering data by asking consumers via word of mouth, or even using social media to distribute a short survey to those in your area are excellent ideas to gather some market research and get the ball rolling. Remember that just as important as your menu offerings are the ambience, atmosphere and comfort level found in your restaurant. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and start “boutiquing” your store!