Value Engineering, Deadlines, and the Art of Making a Minimalist Design Come to Life

At Arlington, Virginia, restaurant Yona, Rob Mescolotto's team met a 10-week timeline.
At Arlington, Virginia, restaurant Yona, Rob Mescolotto's team met a 10-week timeline.

Start, start, finish. Start, finish, finish.

“I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s honest,” says Rob Mescolotto, the founder of Hospitality Construction Services, of a recent project. “Money in equals money out. So deadlines are crucial.”

In the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, Mescolotto and his company had the unique task of helping famed restaurateur Mike Isabella bring a trifecta of concepts to market in a limited window. The final, Japanese and Korean noodle bar Yona, had a turnaround of just 10 weeks. Meanwhile, Kapnos Taverna and Pepita, the two previous spaces, were staggered: “Before we finished the first one, the second one started. Before the second one finished, the third one was started,” he explains.

Not including concessions and airport locations, Mike Isabella Concepts has eight brands. When it came to designing three spaces so close together, both time-wise and physically (Pepita is behind Kapnos), the company’s established infrastructure was the driving force behind the accelerated timeline. “They had a very set structure for how they wanted to build it because they were able to train their first set of employees and they were able to get to full ramping speed, and then they wanted to go right back into that training regiment,” Mescolotto says.

Yona is the first restaurant from Jonah Kim, who earned local renown when he was cooking in the now-closed Pabu—a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. The 1,300-square-foot, 50-seat space opened in late November 2015, and was an intriguing project on its own, Mescolotto says. One of his calling cards is value engineering and, in this case, he managed to cut figures around a third despite the fact Yona is a traditional, minimalist design inspired by “new Tokyo.”

In other projects, like the Washington, D.C., restaurant Raku, the fixtures and details were so extravagant that simply changing the wood species saved some $80,000.

But at Yona, it was more about small drops adding up to a larger puddle. “It’s really kind of across the board. There wasn’t one specific thing on this job that saved $100,000,” he says. “But I can say that we looked at every category and found that $1,000 in a hundred locations.”

That included everything from sink fixtures to alternate wood selections. In general, Mescolotto warns that many restaurateurs often get lost in ideals instead of actual materials. Helping solve that disconnect is the rising prevalence of renderings, which can easily be presented to owners thanks to computer design software. Architects can now create images of the restaurant concept in photograph-like clarity, which allows for a certain reality check.

“I’m able to take this information, and not only show this to the clients and talk to them about it, but I’m also able to take it and use it to value engineer the products, which is really, really important,” he says. “If you look at the renderings of Yona versus what it actually ended up looking like, there is basically no difference. And we’re able to go in with the owners and go, ‘OK, your budget is top heavy; you want to save some money. This is the picture you saw, yes, it will look like that.”

“Getting a list, making the owner and the architect tell you, ‘No you can’t touch these, but all of this other stuff is fair game.’ It saves me a lot of time and effort,” Mescolotto continues. “This way, we don’t find out later, hey we’re going to change out this walnut flooring or walnut paneling and change it to character grade oak only realize after we’ve spent all the time and effort to value engineer it that that was something on the no-touch list.”

Yona, despite its straightforward nature, is packed with details. The dining space has natural cedar millwork and furniture paying homage to Japanese and Korean wood joinery, which contrasts well against the white-tiled open kitchen. There is also a custom neon light fixture and pixelated mosaic wall tiles in the shape of whales, a recurring theme and one of those “no-touch” items Mescolotto alluded to earlier.

In fact, this kind of clean design puts more pressure on the work itself. “Key elements become more crucial, like the exact color of the wood and the grain, because there’s not as many features,” he notes. One example: the team was set back five days after putting up about half a dozen of the wrong ceiling beams. The project had a cost around $400,000 in all.

Mescolotto is no stranger to the restaurant scene. He’s stamped many of the Capital’s top projects, including the highly regarded The Dabney. At Kapnos, Mescolotto and his team literally lit high-grade lumber on fire with a blowtorch for effect. “I tell everybody this. I was involved with really large companies, from roadwork to bridges to stadiums, and you know, the stuff I see in restaurants, I get to play with some of the coolest and newest materials out there,” he says. “That’s really where you get to showcase all this cool stuff. Architects are very much interested in this market sector and it’s a hard one to be in. But it’s one of the only places where they get to actually play. You can’t walk into most offices except Google and say, ‘Damn, this is awesome. There’s a slide in the main lobby.’ But in a restaurant you could put a slide at the bar and people will just go with it and be fine. It’s really a playground of materials.”

Danny Klein

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