Business in general requires imagination. For restaurant businesses to make it through COVID-19, it took imagination on steroids.
Fortunately for Dine Brands Global—the parent company of IHOP, Applebee’s, and Fuzzy’s Taco Shop restaurants—that imagination was in the mind of Don Roberts and his support team of in-house designers, consultants, architects, and engineers.
As the company’s vice president of global architecture and design, Roberts has a pretty cool job—and he revels in it. He has an impressive education and job history for this responsibility, which is to create places where good food is made and served. But, just as importantly, he doesn’t forget why those restaurants are there: to serve guests, communities, and the franchisees, who bring these profitable businesses to life.
Roberts credits his fun childhood and his parents for fostering his love for design from an early age. “I grew up in Southern California and the aha moment for me was walking down Main Street in Disneyland,” Roberts says. “I realized things like this don’t just happen on their own. How did that castle get there? How did they decide on those colors? I recognized everything was intentional. And I said to myself, ‘One day I’ll figure out how this works.’”
Another childhood experience with Hot Wheels, the scale model cars, helped him understand placemaking. “Here was this set of wheels, and I had to figure out where it was going,” Roberts says. “I created neighborhoods to drive in with dirt and tree leaves. It was a 3D world of sights, sounds, smells, and temperatures.”
With this love of design, Roberts would later land a job with Walt Disney Imagineering, where he collaborated for 16 years with the design-intensive team that builds the company’s theme parks.
He next moved to Taco Bell helping to unlock development with value-focused remodels and new builds, then onto creating immersive experiences through his own consultancy, serving clients in the recreation, automotive, amusement, and restaurant industries. In 2016, he found his current home at Dine Brands Global.
His childhood dreams were prescient career predictors, but few could anticipate what happens in a global pandemic.
“Suddenly, the to-go restaurant business became critical,” he says, referencing the very quick rise of third-party delivery services such as Uber Eats. “We’ve always had car-side pickup, but the pandemic forced a shift in our full-service dine-in experience to an off-premises, to-go experience. This would prompt refinements to the restaurant such as to-go shelving and the need for technologies to support it.”
This led to the table stakes of online ordering. Thanks to technology, which knows how far away the customer is, in-store staff can prepare and sequence pickup orders for specific transaction times. Coordinating with the IT and operations team at Dine, Roberts’s design team is now testing special pickup car lanes to further expedite this process.
Furthermore, the company often converts buildings that previously housed other restaurant brands with their own iconic designs. “We transform both the interior and the exterior,” he says. Updating all existing IHOPs, which has about 1,840 stores, began in 2015 and will be completed in 2023.
With these new renovation projects, Roberts is clear that the end goals of all restaurant design are simple: create an amazing place for guests to dine together where the food is the star and support the restaurants to operate profitably.
The company is global, so one of Roberts’s newest challenges is combining IHOP and Applebee’s into a dual-brand store with a single kitchen. Working with the food and beverage design firm LIVIT, the concept restaurant is in Dubai and scheduled to open later in 2023.
That’s a long way from a backyard Hot Wheels village and Disneyland. But with a generous helping of imagination, Don Roberts figures out how it works.
Restaurant Services Inc. (RSI) joins in celebrating Don Roberts and Dine Brands Global on this well-deserved recognition. With four decades of commercial kitchen and bar fabrication experience, RSI brings both tenure and innovation to the table. We believe your ideal custom fabrication and kitchen equipment partner must be prepared to exceed expectations in both value and creative thinking. RSI is proud to be a long-standing commercial kitchen and custom fabrication supplier for Dine Brands Global.