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When California passed its anti-smoking law, Cameron Palmer admits he “had to get creative really quickly.” Since weather on the central California coast can be foggy and damp, Cameron’s “outdoor” smoking lounge needed shelter, so he parked a 1966 English double-decker bus on the grounds, creating a smoker’s haven and a more pub-like air at once for $7,000. He’s not the only restaurant operator who’s had to get creative in order to expand. Here are six of them who persisted without spending a fortune.

Cameron’s Inn and Pub
Half Moon Bay, California
Scope: Added a 35-seat “smoking lounge” in the form of a British double-decker bus, plus a 36-seat barrel garden
Cost: $13,000
Saved: $35,000 to $45,000

When California passed its anti-smoking law, Cameron Palmer admits he “had to get creative really quickly.” Since weather on the central California coast can be foggy and damp, Cameron’s “outdoor” smoking lounge needed shelter, so he parked a 1966 English double-decker bus on the grounds, creating a smoker’s haven and a more pub-like air at once for $7,000.

Then, and to oblige customers coming from the dog run down the road, Palmer built a 36-seat barrel garden with a Doggie Watering Station for $8,000.

The extra space is coming in handy. “Customers come all at once and you have to gear up for those times,” he says. “So now, instead of people crowding the door, I have them seated quickly with a pint in their hands.”

Palmer cut costs by shopping around. He saw busses for $10,000 to $15,000 but searched until he found one for $5,000. Some barrels were $100 each; Cameron located them for $25. He got green-thumbed staff to help with landscaping. And he even convinced some patrons to pitch in reconfiguring the bus. “That cost me a few pints, however!”

Po’ Boys Creole Café
Tallahassee, Florida
Scope: Added a 70-seat, 1,000-square-foot outdoor deck to the original 1,500-square-foot, 80-seat restaurant
Cost: $115,000 for the deck plus a unisex handicap access bathroom and bar equipment
Saved: $100,000

Po’ Boys wanted a liquor license. “We’d always had beer and wine,” explains co owner Charlie Youngs, “but we knew liquor would add to our bottom line.”

But obtaining a liquor license in Tallahassee’s Leon County required expanding to 150 seats and 2,500 square feet, and Po’ Boys couldn’t afford the $200,000 it would take to add an outdoor deck, the ideal solution as it could also accommodate smokers.

To bring the cost down by nearly half, Youngs and his partners successfully lobbied the city council to allow a wood deck instead of the required concrete or steel, and took on the construction themselves.

“On a shoestring budget you’ve got to do things you’d usually pay others to do,” Youngs advises. So they did everything except tasks that required a license, like electrical work or plumbing. The addition was a big success, immediately increasing sales by 30 percent. Based on that experience, Po’ Boys has now incorporated decks into the franchise prototype for its seven-unit chain.

Rouge Wine Bar at Paris Commune
New York City
Scope: Added a 600-square-foot wine bar with 30 dining and six bar seats, to the original 1,800-square-foot, 85-seat restaurant
Cost: $75,000 (plus food barter)
Saved: $75,000

Business was booming at Lower Manhattan’s chic Paris Commune, and as a result customers were being jostled waiting for tables at the too-crowded bar. “That aggravated them, so it aggravated me,” says managing business partner Hugo Uys. At first an expansion into the basement private dining and storage room seemed too expensive, especially given Uys’s sumptuous vision of a Belle Époque Paris-style wine bar.

But this South African expat wasn’t shy about asking for trade outs. He persuaded contractors to cut prices by 25 percent on the promise of future business—he has two more restaurants in the works—a vendor installed a $10,000 wine refrigerator, and artist Bill Rancitelli, a great fan of Paris Commune, painted a two-wall mural: $20,000 worth of artwork for $5,000 cash and $5,000 in meals.

Uys also controlled both construction and ongoing operating costs by being very hands on. “I don’t let things just happen,” he attests. “I want to see what everything is going to look like. The most important aspect is logistics, having the staff operate in optimum mode, and if you make a mistake it has a huge effect on how the place runs.”

Rouge Wine Bar became so popular it paid for itself in six months. The only drawback: it’s now so booked Paris Commune can rarely use it for overflow.

Spire Bar & Lounge at The Hotel
South Beach, Florida
Scope: Added a 1,200-square-foot, 60-seat rooftop bar to the existing hotel and restaurant
Cost: $100,000
Saved: $50,000 to $100,000

After restoring this 1939 gem, owner Goldman Properties rechristened “The Tiffany” as “The Hotel” to avoid a costly legal battle with Tiffany jewelers, and the brilliant tower displaying the property’s original name became a radiant landmark on the Miami Beach skyline—and cried out for a rooftop bar to stand in its glow.

“We already had a staff, a chef, a bartender and liquor,” recalls COO Jessica Goldman-Srebnick, “and we wanted to give them more space to produce revenue.”

But even a hotel designed by trendsetter Todd Oldham that attracts a crowd of boldface names has to watch its budget, so Goldman-Srebnick cut costs by using Oldham on high-profile items like the bar, and doing much of the detail work herself. “Oldham provided the overall vision and we expedited it,” she says. “I personally sourced the furniture and fabrics, and placed our own orders as opposed to having the design house do it.”

She even designed staff uniforms and lighting in house, using the Tiffany Spire as supplemental illumination—for free. Beyond being hands on, Goldman-Srebnick also advises thorough preparation to control costs. “Without a plan you make mistakes,” she notes, “and that’s what costs money.”

Her effort paid more than a financial dividend. “There’s something terrific about creating a place on your own.”

Bert and Ernie’s
Helena, Montana
Scope: Added an 80-seat wine bar and 110-seat outdoor patio totaling 5,200 square feet
Cost: $164,000 (wine bar $110,000, patio $54,000)
Saved: $200,000

Toby DeWolf dreamed of creating outdoor cafés in Helena, Montana, even though this cold-weather town had no ordinances for open-air eateries. So the city council made him an offer: in exchange for researching how other cities regulated this amenity, Helena would contribute two thirds of the patio’s cost, $75,000, move the street utilities, do the initial architectural design and donate space which was once public parking for the project.

That savings helped buy a high-tech radiant heating system that keeps customers at outdoor tables nine months out of the year. The café’s prime location cut another 50 percent in building costs from local contractors keen to show off their work.

Next De Wolf created Helena’s first wine bar, adding atmosphere—and cutting costs—with reclaimed relics from the town’s Victorian heyday, such as a fireplace rescued from a crumbling mansion and an old hotel bar, along with salvaged marble countertops and onyx walls. Now DeWolf offers patrons a full service restaurant, a sports bar, the wine bar and sidewalk café.

It’s a mix that attracts new customers and repeat business.

“We can get somebody for lunch at the restaurant, after work at the wine bar and before theater for another glass of wine. Then after the theater they’re back again,” marvels De Wolf, “sometimes three or four times a day.”

Riverdale Garden
Riverdale, New York
Scope: Added 80 seats and enlarged the kitchen
Cost: $30,000
Saved: $20,000

Chef/owner Michael Sherman knew his original 35 seats were not going to pay the rent on this mid-priced restaurant in a leafy New York suburb. “We had a tiny kitchen, a small dining room, and there were nights when we lost people who just wouldn’t wait to be seated,” he recalls. 

Adding 80 seats and expanding the kitchen with a new hood, stove, salamander, speed rack and plating rack (Sherman hung a metro rack upside down above the reach-in to save several square feet) on a budget of $30,000, took time and imagination.

Over two years he saved $20,000 in large part by doing the work himself: ripping out and rebuilding walls, redoing tiling and plumbing, refinishing the kitchen ceiling, even building banquette bases—overnight—sending them out only for upholstery.

But Sherman has even more cost cutting tricks: always on the lookout for inexpensive sources he rescued two table frames from the curbside trash. “Just what I was looking for,” he smiles. After gentrifying them with marble tops, he found “they were high enough for folks to hang out and have a drink outside.”

Sherman knows something will always need doing, like that drop ceiling in the private dining room, and even though it was a hard slog with “many overnight efforts,” the entrepreneur is undeterred: “We’re probably going to continue renovating.”

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