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Architecture + Branding: Wendy’s bucks traditions and adopts International Style influences preferred by new fast-casual market entrants

1-Alone again

Wendy’s, perennial number three hamburger fast-food chain, recently unveiled an ambitious reimaging plan that would see the company undergo the most significant transformation in several decades.

Founded in 1969 by Dave Thomas, the burger chain expanded to over 6,650 stores worldwide, trailing only McDonalds and Burger King in total locations (source: wikipedia, wendys.com). The founding location in Columbus, Ohio, survived several transformations over the decades, however, due to declining sales, closed in 2007 (source: wikipedia).

Wendys Columbus Ohio First restaurant

Wendy’s, Original restaurant, Columbus, Ohio (source: wendys.com)

The company, much like the original store, was witness to major changes over those same decades. Starting around the mid-1990s, Wendy’s would literally, be joined at the hip with Canadian cultural icon Tim Horton’s, opening “combo stores”, featuring both restaurants sharing space under one roof. The 10 year marriage would end with a parting of ways, as each company’s menu offering started to creep into one another, and shareholder pressure prompted Wendy’s to spin off the Tim Horton’s brand.

DSC06712 Wendys Wendys-Tim Hortons Combo store CA-ON-Ottawa Merivale Road

Wendy’s Combo store with Tim Horton’s, Merivale Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Temporarily independent, Wendy’s would again find strength in numbers. After rejecting several advances, Wendy’s succumbed to Triarc in 2008. Triarc would merge Wendy’s with it’s Arby’s chain operations, renaming itself Wendy’s/Arby’s Group to reflect its core operations (source: wikipedia). Within a matter of years, the union was deemed unsuccessful. By the summer of 2011, the Arby’s portfolio, save for a minority holding, had been sold off.

DSC07132 Wendys Arbys US-NY-Mattydale Route 11
Arby’s restaurant, Route 11, Mattydale, New York
Recently severing a less than beneficial association with Arby’s, the timing could not be better for Wendy’s to showcase it’s freshly minted independent status.

2-Traditionally traditional

However, a major hurdle in the way is the wholesome, quirky, almost awkwardly shy image that Wendy’s had built up, a reputation for being traditionally traditional. The staid exterior design betrayed the underlying revolutionary nature of the Wendy’s brand.

DSC09410 Wendys Wendys Mansard roof street view US-NY-Syracuse Route 11 near i81

Wendy’s restaurant with overhanging copper mansard roof, street view, Route 11 near Interstate 81, Mattydale, New York

Tracing back to the 1990s, the copper mansard roof became a staple of Wendy’s design language, conservative, traditional, wholesome. The restaurants, typically clad in a narrow range of materials including clay brick, stone, and EIFS, evoking a stoic balance, were topped by some variant of the emblematic roof.   Browns, beiges, copper, the palette of colours remained squarely in the earth tones, few colours that could come across as garish or obtrusive.

DSC07620 Wendys Wendys Front view at street US-NC-Dunn

Wendy’s restaurant with overhanging copper mansard roof, street view, East Cumberland Drive, Dunn, North Carolina

The basic geometry provided minimal opportunity for articulation, with the basic ingress/egress and drive-thru functions being accommodated. However, the combination of rectilinear shape and low height helped the squat restaurants portray a grounded, almost immovable, stance. This stance was accentuated even more where column elements framed the ends, projecting balance and edge definition.

DSC07359 Wendys Wendys Side view US-FL-Lauderdale by the Sea US-1

Wendy’s with framed corners, Front 3/4 view, US-1, Lauderdale-by-the-sea, Florida

Another element pioneered by Wendy’s, uncommon among the more kid-centric burger competitors, was the use of sunrooms in the restaurant dining area, at times constructed with a sunken floor, steps and ramps. Although not an essential design item, many stores were built with the appendage, characteristically protruding towards the street side elevation, and providing an area in the dining room where customers to enjoy natural lighting, and views as part of their dining experience.

DSC06520 Wendys Wendys Side view CA-QC-DDO Boul des Sources

Wendy’s, Front 3/4 view with sunroom, Boulevard des Sources, Dollards des Ormeaux, Quebec, Canada

An innovator, first among the major burger chains to conceive drive-thru window, to offer a salad bar, to expand side choices beyond fries, to jumpstart the bacon craze, to adopt newer technology, Wendy’s mostly came across as a safe, conservative choice. Striving to provide a fast-food experience qualifying as more upscale and less kitsch than competitors McDonalds and Burger King, success brought about inverse conclusions, painting the company as more conservative, traditional and risk-averse.

3-Creating the perfect combo

Although Wendy’s had built up a portfolio of similarly styled restaurants that typified the “old fashioned hamburger” ideal, the company was busily at work attempting to evolve the basic design concepts, and move the brand forward. Although individual franchisees/owners have control over hours of operations, interior decor, pricing, staff uniforms, and wages, Wendy’s has dominion over establishing standards for menu, food quality, and exterior store appearance (source: wikipedia).

Already exposed to managing more than one brand, Wendy’s would be aware of the importance of maintaining, nurturing, enhancing and especially, protecting the brand identity though the built environment.

DSC03928 Wendys Wendys CA-ON-Ottawa Montreal Road at Ogilvie

Wendy’s, Front 3/4 view, Montreal Road at Ogilvie Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Like any operator with a myriad location, Wendy’s experimented, tweaked and adapted to site conditions, zoning limitations, adjacent build environment constraints and the like.

DSC03934 Wendys Wendys CA-ON-Ottawa 2440 Bank Street

Wendy’s, modified mansard roof with brick columns, Bank Street near Hunt Club Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

DSC07596 Wendys Wendys EIFS US-SC-Santee

Wendy’s, modified mansard roof with EIFS columns and parapets, Old Number Six Highway, Santee, South Carolina

Nonetheless, Wendy’s also experimented with evolutionary changes, those that would take the brand aesthetic into less unfamiliar parts, without abandoned all of the established elements.

DSC04276 Wendys Wendys Awnings US-NY-Syracuse Hiawatha Blvd near Carousel Mall

Wendy’s, brick design with awnings, Hiawatha Boulevard near Carousel Mall, Syracuse, New York

Architectural designs that would gain the designation of “curve” and “tower” attempted to broaden the vocabulary, without changing the language.


These looks proposed higher parapets in lieu of the iconic copper mansard roof, altered the horizontal banding with stronger vertical compartmentalization, and increased volumetry by stripping the capping effect of the roof overhangs. Defining the edges with column/framing elements and adding height, intermixing newer exterior finish materials, and adding a touch of casual chic and playfulness with the prominent use of awnings were elements displayed in these more evolutionary design explorations.

In a move that would be more revolutionary, in late 2011 Wendy’s set out to completely recast the restaurant design, transforming five different cities across North America into test labs for no less than four different prototypes stores under consideration (source: Huffingtonpost.com).

Wendy broad

Wendy’s Concept Restaurant, Broad Street, Columbus, Ohio (source: The Columbus Dispatch)

Wendys Wendys Concept Store Bethel OH

Wendy’s Concept Restaurant, Bethel, Ohio (source: aboutwendys.com)

The company would eventually collect and itemize elements that were uniquely Wendy’s. Tested out for customer feedback, these would become the building blocks to reimage the brand to compete against an expanding array of newer nimbler competitors, and emboldened existing ones.

4-New process, new design

Wendy’s has set its sight on newer competitors, Five Guys, Panera Bread, Chipotle, Smashburger, as benchmarks for ambience and design, while keeping an eye on current competitors, McDonalds and Burger King, as it tries to reboots its image and gain market share. In a move that is referred to as “image activation”, the future is staked on a revised ordering process and bold restaurant redesign.

DSC09668 Wendys Panera Bread US-NY-Plattsburg Cornelia Street near i87

Panera Bread, Cornelia street near Interstate 87, Plattsburgh, New York

DSC09309 Wendys Five Guys Chipotle US-NY-Watertown Arsenal Street near i81

Five Guys and Chipotle, Arsenal Street near Interstate 81, Watertown, New York

Attempting to redefine the order process to resemble a relaxed casual dining experience rather that a hurried fast-food ordeal, the traditional order here/pick up here process is broken into subcomponents to be executed by several team members, reducing the primacy of speed over all else into a more holistic customer service equation. Expediency and efficiency are less overt and less intrusive. This subtle change is repeated in the overall design theme.

Hard seating surfaces give way to a variety of seating choices, including bar seating, cushy chairs and nooks, complete with fireplaces. Ambient lighting is replaced by sleek accent lighting. New technologies such as digital menu board, flat screen televisions, available wifi promote a less hurried, more casual pace. Where the old décor was disparaging towards lingering, the new décor in conducive, casually communicating, come in, get comfortable, and stay for a while.

Wendys Wendys Interior layout Bethel

Wendy’s Concept Restaurant, Interior layout, Bethel,Ohio (source: aboutwendys.com)

Picking up the same theme, the exterior showcases a new transposable International Style inspired design that can be contentedly situated in a myriad of locales. The new design adheres strongly to the International Style’s concepts of volume rather than mass, balance rather than preconceived symmetry, and a void of ornamentation.

Following the precepts of the Style, the design proposes multiple changes in plane, a new geometry with significant articulation, along with crisper lines and rectilinear arrangements. A juxtaposition of squares, intermixed and slammed together with minimal order, creates a panoply of shapes, producing a visually different combination on every side. In many cases, surface changes are accentuated by both changes in direction as well as material, giving rise to more defined edges, corners, and planes.

Wendys New restaurant design

Wendy’s, selected restaurant design for reimage, Bethel, Ohio (source: wendys.com)

The large windows provide an inside-outside connection, akin to dinner al fresco, while the glass box effect harks back symbolically to the previous sunrooms. The glass box, along with the clerestory windows allow the restaurant to be flooded with natural light, adding a sense of time and place to the interior with sun/shadow changes over the course of the day. Additionally, the sense of transparency and openness is reflective of the changes inside, including visually opening up the kitchen and prep area to customers.

A penchant for basic materials, such as glass, wood, steel, aluminium, stone and concrete furthers the faithfulness to the International Styles’ creed towards transparency of buildings and structure, and embrace of mechanized processes.

Wendys Wendys New Concept Store

New Wendy’s Concept Restaurant and New Corporate Logo (source: aboutwendys.com)

Sporting natural earth colours, stripped down and industrial aesthetic, and a nod towards the past with a towering red element impaled into the glass enclosure.

Redefining upscale, moving closer to premium rather than pedestrian, convincing consumers that Wendy’s truly is “ a cut above” other fast-food chains, would be a monumental task under any circumstances. The task is further compounded in light of a major overhaul of the chain’s established restaurant design, as well as launching a new logo and branding identity. If nothing else, this is by definition an all-in kind of bet.

5-More than reactionary?

It is true that brands need to keep an eye on the competition, and at times, emulate and improve on what others are doing simply to keep up with current trends and rising customer expectations. Staying on a refresh cycle with the competition has simply been rolled into the price of admission; it is no longer sufficient to simply rest on established expectations.

As such, Wendy’s has totally shaken things up, jettisoning the traditional motifs in every form. The “Old Fashioned Hamburgers” chain known for square patties, copper mansard roof topped squat restaurants, and boxy logo, has gambled everything onto a new image.


Wendy’s Logo evolution, 1969 to 2012 (source: aboutwendys.com)

The new logo and restaurant design illustrate Wendy’s roadmap to modernize the brand. However, the inherently interchangeable International Style design adopted is a difficult look to defend, protect, or claim as its own. While it is one things for new competitors, Chipotle, Five Guys, Panera Bread, to move into a space that was previously unoccupied, it is infinitely more difficult for established brands to adopt and duplicate smaller, faster, nimbler, and less entrenched brands, without abandoning some of what made their own look unique.

Having been stewards of other brands, in combination with Tim Horton’s and Arby’s, it seems surprising Wendy’s would have an outwardly reactionary response and abandon so much of its own rich brand story, heritage and tradition.

DSC09326 Wendys Wendys Mansard roof side view US-NY-Binghamton Main Street 17C

Wendy’s, side view, brick with overhanging copper mansard roof design, Main Street (17c), Binghamton, New York

Initial customer reactions have been positive, however, brand building is a long, delicate and arduous process. As it seeks to broaden the brand’s appeal and market share, in North America and abroad, Wendy’s added another item to the to-do list; how to significantly differentiate itself from competitors it so clearly imitates without the benefit of first mover advantage in the midst of adopting a design language favoured by many others.

DSC00077 Wendys Mazda Dealership CA-QC-Longueuil

Mazda Dealership, Boulevard Roland Therrien, Longueuil, Quebec, Canada


All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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