Alternative Thinking Cuts Costs

Toned and stained cypress was used in place of more costly antique heart pine, enabling Raku to trim $50,000 from the proposed design budget.
Toned and stained cypress was used in place of more costly antique heart pine, enabling Raku to trim $50,000 from the proposed design budget. Max Zhang with IRIS22 PRODUCTIONS

Raku in the Cathedral Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., relied on imagination to stay under its design budget.

Sometimes decisions born in compromises end up as great ideas.

Restaurant owners don’t like to make concessions, especially when it comes to the quality of food or the overall comfort of guests.

But give-and-take is part of doing business, especially when the cost for opening a new restaurant is running well above budget. That’s when imagination comes into play.

For the owners of Raku in Washington, D.C., it took ingenuity and some value engineering on the part of the contractor and designer to deal with mounting costs, which continued to grow while planning was underway for the Japanese eatery’s third unit in the city’s Cathedral Heights neighborhood.

“There are times we have to fool the eye and maintain the wallet,” says Rob Mescolotto, president/owner of Hospitality Construction Services. “In changing the materials to be cost-effective, the perceived differences here are negligible.”

In all, costs were shaved about 30 percent to come in at $1.2 million.

“We were dealing with another contractor, and the budget was prohibitive,” says Tom Mulhearn, co-owner of design firm 2SCALE Interiors. “We were looking at getting rid of major components of the space that were key to the design.”

The solution was to “tackle the costs from a number of angles,” Mulhearn explains.

For instance, the original design called for using antique heart pine throughout the restaurant. While heart pine was a critical, unchangeable part of the sushi bar, using toned and stained cypress elsewhere in the restaurant saved some $50,000.

“The millworker we hired was able to stain and tone the wood to look the same as heart pine,” Mescolotto notes. Another adjustment was made in the flooring, which is new heart pine, oiled to look antique.

About $70,000 was saved by changing many lighting fixtures, not just in the ceiling but also throughout the restaurant. Alternative, more cost-effective lighting fixtures were selected at the bar rail, for back lighting, and in the floating accessory boxes that hold bottles, photographs, and other items.

Thousands of dollars also were saved on the restaurant’s onyx bar. The use of onyx in the bar setting was not up for discussion, but the contractor was able to source a piece of 3-centimeter-thick cracked onyx that was too small for most projects. A materials artist cut the onyx into three pieces and carefully put them together to make it look like one piece.

The result: “I am very pleased,” says Marcel The, co-owner of Raku, who recently has also been renovating the company’s 18-year-old original restaurant. “There are still some issues to address and in hindsight some things I might do differently, but I’m still happy.”

He acknowledges value engineering was key to keeping the budget reasonable. “The alternative was to cut much of the design,” he notes. “I’m glad we did not do that.”

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