Rene Martinelli – Bolay
Florida is known for many things: Walt Disney World, alligators, oranges. More than anything, though, it’s the crystal blue water and endless beaches that define the Sunshine State.
That fresh, casual vibe isn’t just reserved for resorts on the state’s east and west coasts. For Rene Martinelli, that vibe is perfect for the interior of Bolay, a growing fast-casual restaurant chain headquartered in Florida.
As the company’s director of design and construction, Martinelli leads the vision when it comes to the modern design common in all 15 existing restaurants—in cities from Gainesville to Miami.
And Martinelli’s focus is more than just the design aspects of the interior. He oversees everything from lease negotiations and preliminary design, including the layout; finishes and flow of the restaurant; to bidding and construction.
The company was co-founded in 2016 by Chris Gannon and his father Tim Gannon, founder of Outback Steakhouse. Bolay offers a build-your-own bowl menu that features fresh and bold ingredients like spicy Thai shrimp, lemon chicken and cilantro noodles.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some disruption to the company’s business, and some of the lower-performing locations were closed for several weeks. As a result, Martinelli and the development team had to hit the brakes on the company’s expansion efforts. Bolay planned on opening another eight to 10 locations in Florida this year, while preparing to expand into other Southern states in the coming years.
“We’re weathering the storm, concentrating on making good business decisions so we can come out on the other side as a stronger company and continuing to thrive,” he says. “Once we get to the other side of the pandemic, we expect things to pick back up, which will allow us to continue our expansion.”
Food service during a pandemic
Together with his team, Martinelli oversees everything from building design and vendor relationships (for things like equipment, interior finishes and construction detailing) to coordinating with Bolay’s head chef on kitchen layouts and designing the flow of each space.
For the last few months, his responsibilities have also included making the restaurants suitable, functional and operational during a global pandemic: the company introduced curbside pickup, which has resulted in the potential redesign of future restaurants that can cater more toward that sales channel.
Overall, Bolay locations are designed to give guests a positive dining experience for the short time they’re in the restaurant.
“We’re doing everything we can to make it a perfectly clean and sanitized environment for our team members and our guests,” Martinelli says.
To do that, the company added dedicated curbside pickup parking and launched a website to make it easier for guests to order and get their food.
Despite the pandemic’s impact on the business’ bottom line, Martinelli and Bolay recently started construction on two new locations in the Miami area; one in Pinecrest and the other in Kendall—both slated to open this year.
Setting the table
Martinelli believes that a restaurant’s food is only as good as the people who prepare it. As such, top-notch working conditions are something he’s always strived for, whether in the food or retail industries.
If team members are provided with optimal, clean workspaces and given proper training, it’s more likely they’ll enjoy their work, Martinelli says. That will be passed on to the guests, which increases their likelihood of visiting the restaurant again—or recommending it to family and friends.
“What I can do to further that mission is design a great space for our team members and our guests,” he says. “I strive to apply our ethos, to inspire our team and our guests to be the best version of themselves through our extraordinary culture, before every decision that gets made.”
At Bolay, the kitchen is “the stage,” meaning it’s open and in full view of guests. Stainless steel finishes and white subway tile give the kitchen a clean, refreshing and modern look—one he hopes team members can be proud of and take pride in maintaining.
Each location has natural lighting that encompasses the Florida landscape and shades of blue that create a calm atmosphere. There’s even a Big Ass Fan—yes, that’s the brand name—hanging from the center of the ceiling that serves as a unique focal point for guests when they enter the space.
“The fan not only keeps the air moving, but it’s about eight feet wide, appealing and interesting to look at,” he says with a hint of laughter.
The future of fast-casual dining
Martinelli hopes that 2021 will see Bolay’s expansion to Florida’s west coast, before the company plots its course into the rest of the Southeast. Bolay has a real estate director who is working with Martinelli and the rest of the team to strategize the penetration of future markets.
While he can’t predict where the company will expand, Martinelli foresees a change in the way Bolay looks and serves its guests in the future, particularly after the pandemic. The company doesn’t franchise—it owns all 15 locations—so when deciding where to open next, there are a number of factors to consider.
“The deal has to make sense, we have to like the area and the location for the restaurant, and, of course, the math has to work,” he says. “We are also big proponents of supporting the communities we go into so our guests can feel like they are part of the Bolay culture.”
The financial crisis has undoubtedly left some storefronts around Florida empty, and that could mean an opportunity for Bolay to take over some spaces left vacant by other tenants.
The pandemic-related pivot to online ordering and curbside delivery was necessary, but Martinelli thinks it provided a window into the way a restaurant like Bolay can continue to be successful after COVID-19.
That model of food service also changes the behavior of the guests and how they approach getting their food. In fact, prior to COVID-19, Martinelli, along with the Bolay team, set a plan in motion to use technology to create a smoother experience for guests.
“It made us accelerate a process and a vision almost immediately,” he says. “We are very proud of our team, with how quickly we pivoted and made that happen, and it’s something we can certainly fine tune and continue for a long time.”
Through the chaos of the pandemic, the opportunities to innovate the different channels through which Bolay guests get their food, have shed light on the future of the company. In fact, it’s been successful enough that Martinelli plans on using specific layouts in future locations that best take advantage of that style of ordering and delivery.
Martinelli shares an optimistic view on the future of the fast-casual industry.
“The benchmark has risen for accommodating our guests’ new dining habits and the board,” he says. “We’re ready to exceed the standards.”
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