An appetite for building: Restaurant, pub projects embrace unique visions
Somewhere between the proposal to embed 10,000 plastic bunnies in an epoxy countertop and the quest for the perfect glitter tile, Partner Contracting President Dave Jaques realized he would never have a dull day working on Bunny’s – a new restaurant on the site of the former Wharf Rat pub in Fells Point.
The owners had gleefully pulled Partner Contracting into their search for quirky, exuberant and sometimes eye-popping design elements. There was the Glitter Bathroom with glitter tile and gold, glittered bunny wallpaper; a Playboy Bathroom with black, speckled marble tile on the floor and images from vintage Italian Playboy magazines collaged onto the walls; and a cozy dining room featuring a huge fireplace, bubble lights and wallpaper showing images of a naked man riding a rooster. After considering the construction logistics and design impact of the imagined 10,000-bunny countertop, the owners discarded that plan in favor of an alternative proposed by Partner Contracting. Working with a sign company, Partner created a replica of a classic, colorful laminate pattern popular in 1950s diners, covered it with epoxy and surrounded it with chrome trim.
Building out the visions of chefs, restauranteurs, bar owners, craft brewers and other foodies has always been a unique endeavor. In the current market, however, food and beverage companies are facing heightened challenges to create unique and attractive environments that will entice people out of their homes. Consequently, their builders must deliver extraordinary results within limited budgets and often on challenging sites.
Constructing the Oregon Grille for the Atlas Restaurant Group required Harvey Construction to complete a massive and meticulous renovation of a building dating back to the 1800s. After exposing the building’s original stone walls, the millwork crew scribed every inch of trim to meet the uneven surface. Painters sanded and re-stained existing mahogany to match the new oak features included in the design and carefully copied the design from the wall coverings onto the HVAC vents in order to camouflage them. The project team also installed the grille’s unique onyx bar.
“Everyone who walks in there is wowed by this cool, orange bar that lights up from inside,” said Logan Harvey, Assistant Project Manager. “When people take photos for their Instagram feed from the Oregon Grille, they always include the onyx bar.”
Other recent restaurant projects have included different challenges, Harvey said. Plans for the Ruxton Steakhouse which is currently under construction in the old Flemings Building on Aliceanna Street, involved making major changes to the masonry storefront. Since the property is visible from the water and from the entrance to Harbor East, the Atlas Group wanted an eye-catching exterior. Consequently, the design called for the installation of 20-foot metal beams to hold large glass inlays and glass storefront along two sides of the building.
Eye-catching features inside the new restaurant include “barrel vault ceilings,” Harvey said. “They are challenging to build, especially with all the HVAC ductwork. There are supports going in all different directions to hold the vaulted ceilings.”
To position themselves in prime locations, restaurant and bar owners – and their builders – often contend with daunting site conditions.
The former Wharf Rat building was in terrible shape when the Bunny’s renovation began. Partner Contracting gutted everything except for the building’s skin, upgraded gas and electric service to the building, installed entirely new HVAC systems and “we had to add a quarter million dollars of steel reinforcement to the building so they could move the kitchen to the second floor,” said Kayla Nash, Senior Project Manager.
Created from two historic rowhomes, the building “actually had two different floor heights on the second floor and the divide would have gone right through the middle of Bunny’s main dining room,” Jaques said. “So, we had to replace joists and re-support an entire floor to level it out.”
At the Babycat Brewery in Kensington, Partner Contracting faced a different challenge.
“The building was an old, automobile shop and the floors were covered in oil and grease. It was disgusting,” Nash said.
Extreme cleaning and renovation, however, made a “stunning difference,” she said. The completed brewery features gleaming epoxy and polished concrete floors, glass overhead doors and a custom, wood and metal bar.
Commitment to an ideal location presented Petrie Construction with an uncommon challenge on a project for Marriott International. The high-end, three-story Sawgrass Cabana Club in Jacksonville, Florida would boast two full-service kitchens, two indoor bars, a rooftop bar and stunning views from the edge of Ponte Vedra Beach. The construction site, however, was within a high-velocity hurricane zone and was the site of a building that had been deemed a total loss in a previous storm.
“We razed the previous building, put in deep foundation elements, then poured a very stout concrete superstructure,” said Adam Petrie, CEO. “The first floor is constructed about 10 feet above grade and we put frangible walls down to the ground… The building is all cast-in-place with load-bearing blocks. It has hurricane rated windows. Even the operable glass is hurricane rated… The rest of the building is high-end finishes and state of the art facilities, and it is beautiful.”
All of those challenges, however, make restaurant and bar projects especially appealing to some builders. Petrie has done multiple projects for Marriott. Harvey Construction has completed 23 projects for the Atlas Restaurant Group in Maryland, Texas and Florida. And Jaques, a former chef, holds a special passion for restaurants and helping other people create successful restaurants.
Partner Contracting, he said, has built expertise in restaurant construction by developing a roster of subcontractors and suppliers with knowledge of the market. Partner keeps a running list of lessons learned from previous projects and it combines the knowledge of a chef and a builder to optimize “usability of space.”
“In a restaurant, it is important to put everything in exactly the right place,” Jaques said. “You have to understand that every chef and cook is trying to do as much as possible with the least amount of movement as possible because they are constantly moving. If someone has to run 15 feet to a fridge, that’s a problem. You have to understand the flow of operations and the interactions between the chefs, cooks, bartenders and staff.”