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Architecture + Branding: Old West theme casts long shadow on Ponderosa Steakhouse’s new design direction


A staple menu item at high-end/fine dining establishments and affordable steakhouses alike, steak done right can be a cornerstone, and help lay the foundation for a restaurant empire.

In the late 1960s, combining budget-friendly steak entrées with a buffet, Ponderosa attempted to break into the affordable steakhouse restaurant niche in the United States (source: wikipedia.org). However, the concept initially underwhelmed, and failed in capturing the hearts and minds of dinners en masse (source: wikipedia.org).

Undeterred, the brand expanded its concept into Canada in the late 1970s (source: wikipedia.org). Sensing the economic conditions in the United States had grown friendlier to the brand following the early 1980’s recession, Ponderosa disbanded its Canadian contingent, and renewed its American ambitions by resuming its franchising activities in the US (source: wikipedia.org). Although it would officially shut down its Canadian operations in 1985, the Ponderosa brand, which had spanned to nearly 150 Canadian locations, persisted into 2010 in the Great White North (source: wikipedia.org, thetelegram.com, winnipegfreepress.com).


FORMER Ponderosa, Karnak Shriners A A O N M S (circa 2011), front 3/4 view, 3350 Boulevard des Sources, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Québec, Canada

Whereas Ponderosa struggled to establish a warm initial reception with American dinners, its western themed/saloon aesthetic nonetheless quickly became synonymous with the brand.

2-American Old West

Drawing inspiration from the Bonanza television show, the restaurant brand co-opted its name from the fictional home of the Cartwright family, Ponderosa Ranch (source: wikipedia.org). Fully embracing the rugged, wild west spirit espoused by the television series, the building design was feature rich with frontieresque cues.


Partial panoramic view of “Wyatt Earp’s Old Tombstone”, an abandoned tourist stop that depicted life in the American Old West in the late 1800s, Tombstone, Arizona (source: maps.google.com)


Partial panoramic view of “Wyatt Earp’s Old Tombstone”, an abandoned tourist stop that depicted life in the American Old West in the late 1800s, Tombstone, Arizona (source: maps.google.com)

Typically sited on a narrow yet deep lot, the building would propose a dominant facade, often facing the street or thoroughfare. A rectangular footprint, with limited articulation, the restaurant building emulated the lot geometry.


Ponderosa, aerial view, 1605 Wheeling Avenue, Glen Dale, West Virginia (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa, aerial view, 1261 Front Street, Binghamton, New York (source: maps.google.com)

Conceived as a single storey structure, the building height was relatively low. However, a softly rising gable roof, and vaulted/cathedral ceilings, gave the dining space an airy feel, while adding some height to the relatively shallow building. At the facade, a dominant parapet with chamfered corners rose high above the gable roof, giving the smallish building a more imposing stance.


Ponderosa (circa 2012), left side 3/4 view, 1261 Front Street, Binghamton, New York (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2012), right side 3/4 view, 1261 Front Street, Binghamton, New York (source: maps.google.com)

A canopy stretching across the facade, porch posts scattered along the edge of the canopy and a large welcoming front porch further defined the Ponderosa aesthetic. Rather discreet, the front doors and entrance, accessible from the front porch, drew little attention to itself. In fact, the lack of a punched window opening, along the front facade, alluded to the location of the front entrance, as few design features or signage signaled its location.


Ponderosa (circa 2015), left side 3/4 view, 1605 Wheeling Avenue, Glen Dale, West Virginia (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2012), front 3/4 view, 2020 Milton Avenue, Janesville, Wisconsin (source: maps.google.com)

Generally clad in wood, and featuring a colour palette skewed towards earthy tones, neutrals, beiges and browns, the western influenced Ponderosa built design remained largely faithful to the time period in American history it borrowed heavily from.


Ponderosa (circa 2011), right side 3/4 view, 1605 Wheeling Avenue, Glen Dale, West Virginia (source: maps.google.com)

Seemingly rigid in its application, Ponderosa nonetheless managed to introduce some variations within its western-inspired design without losing much of its brand authenticity. Architectural design modifications such as enclosing the front porch, adding an entrance tower or vestibule, introducing end panels at the porch extremities, adding substantial articulation within the building footprint, or even making alterations to the main parapet, served to expand the design language, and reinforce the Ponderosa aesthetic.


Ponderosa (circa 2016), right side 3/4 view, 11560 Princeton Pike, Cincinnati, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2011), front 3/4 view, 4600 Greenfield Road, Dearborn, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2012), right side 3/4 view, 130 South Bluemound Drive, Appleton, Wisconsin (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2013), 499 South Indiana Street, Mooresville, Indiana (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2012), front 3/4 view, 3713 Brewerton Road, Syracuse, New York


Ponderosa (circa 2012), front 3/4 view, 3000 East Michigan Avenue, Lansing, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa, City Buffet (circa 2015),  front 3/4 view, 3000 East Michigan Avenue, Lansing, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2014), left side 3/4 view, 97 Madison Square Drive, Madisonville, Kentucky (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2015), right side 3/4 view, 97 Madison Square Drive, Madisonville, Kentucky (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), left side 3/4 view, 3875 South High Street, Columbus, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), left side 3/4 view, 128 Clearview Circle, Butler, Pennsylvania (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), front view, 128 Clearview Circle, Butler, Pennsylvania (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2012), front 3/4 view, 8612 Niagara Falls Boulevard, Niagara Falls, New York (source: maps.google.com)

Successfully capitalizing on the wild west/rugged cattle-rancher iconography and ideals, Ponderosa’s built design offered an instantly recognizable design, that could evidently evolve and expand as the brand grew. Nonetheless, over the ensuing years, Ponderosa would popularize several other styles and formats.


Within a few years of its renewed America-centric focus, Ponderosa was experiencing accelerated growth. In 1986, Ponderosa was operating roughly 630 restaurants (source: nytimes.com). By 1989, the number had grown to 736 restaurants, and Ponderosa ranked as the number one steakhouse brand in the world (source: southbendtribune.com, daytondailynews.com, mydaytondailynews.com). In the same year, Ponderosa would join with the number two steakhouse brand, Bonanza, and would proceed to combine restaurant operations (source: southbendtribune.com, daytondailynews.com, mydaytondailynews.com). Faced with a confluence of synergistic factors, combined with rapid growth across several geographic centers, the global behemoth in steakhouse restaurants subsequently deviated away from the well-defined western-influenced script, and experimented.


Ponderosa (circa 2015), front 3/4 view, 327 Clifty Drive, Madison, Indiana (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2013), front 3/4 view, 3734 State Route 13, Pulaski, New York (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), right side 3/4 view, 1001 West Morton Avenue, Jacksonville, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), front 3/4 view, 2020 West Broadway Street, Princeton, Indiana (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2009), front 3/4 view, 26680 Dequindre Road, Warren, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2011), front 3/4 view, 1490 East Apple Avenue, Muskegon, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), front 3/4 view, 559 US-7, Rutland, Vermont (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2016), front 3/4 view, 602 Taywood Road, Englewood, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2013), front 3/4 view, 2727 Veterans Avenue, Vandalia, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), front 3/4 view, 507 North Commercial Street, Harrisburg, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), front 3/4 view, 2625 Hart Street, Vincennes, Indiana (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), front 3/4 view, 10306 Clare Avenue, Clare, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2013), front 3/4 view, 1211 West McClain Avenue, Scottsburg, Indiana (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), front 3/4 view, 809 England Street, Ashland, Virginia (source: maps.google.com)

Developing a multiplicity of divergent identities, from high-ranch to modern, the brand even toyed with several largely residential styles and aesthetics.


Ponderosa (circa 2014), front 3/4 view, 603 Martin Luther King Highway, Maysville, Kentucky (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2012), front 3/4 view, 545 South High Street, Hillsboro, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2015), front 3/4 view, 1301 East Pickard Road, Mount Pleasant, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2012), 2861 Wilder Road, Bay City, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)

Exploring a plethora of styles, from barn-inspired to urban-centric, Ponderosa almost seemed in reaction mode to emerging trends, fashions, styles, and locale.


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2015), left side 3/4 view, 6636 Telegraph Road, Dearborn Heights, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2013), front 3/4 view, 261 County Road 406, South Point, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2016), front 3/4 view, 1817 North Locust Drive, Lawrenceburg, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2016), front 3/4 view, 15640 West 11 Mile Road, Southfield, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2013), front 3/4 view, 115 Henslee Drive, Dickson, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2011), front 3/4 view, 1290 Arsenal Street, Watertown, New York


Ponderosa (circa 2016), front view, 8510 International Drive, Orlando, Florida (source: maps.google.com)


Ponderosa (circa 2009), front 3/4  view, 6362 International Drive, Orlando, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Compounded by corporate restructuring and a subsequent bankruptcy proceeding for the parent company in 2008, disparate designs would do little to strengthen the brand image (source: southbendtribune.com, daytondailynews.com, mydaytondailynews.com, thesunchronicle.com, hoovers.com, bloomberg.com, wikipedia.org). Between 2001 and 2011, the number of Ponderosa restaurants would fall by 2/3  (source: southbendtribune.com).


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2009), right side 3/4 view, 2730 North Doctor M L K Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (source: maps.google.com)

For all intents and purposes, the former global number one steakhouse brand was losing focus, closing locations at a torrid pace, and witnessing decreasing sales and revenues. Clearly, something needed to be done.

4-Clean break

Attempting to become relevant to a generation that didn’t grow up watching TV westerns or “Bonanza”, and with an eye towards stabilizing the brand for the future, Ponderosa set out to dramatically cut ties with its past.

As part of a sweeping interior design exercise in 2014,  western-themed artwork was removed, warm and bright earth tones replaced dark and dated wood trim, wood panelling was painted a muted red, and corrugated tin wainscots were introduced (source: rddmag.com). Additionally, signage was reworked to feature bold colours and crave-worthy food imagery (source: rddmag.com, restaurantnews.com).


Ponderosa interior décor changes (source: rddmag.com)

Involving no changes to layout or building footprint, the interior changes were designed to remain fairly cost-effective to execute for the restaurant operators (source: rddmag.com). By close of 2015, approximately half of the restaurants had incorporated the interior enhancements (source: rddmag.com, restaurantnews.com).

Following up on the interior décor changes, Ponderosa also introduced a refreshed restaurant design in 2015 in the hopes of appealing to a younger demographic without alienating the brand loyalists, thereby re-introducing and re-positioning the brand in the US market (source: restaurantnews.com).


Ponderosa, 2006 Scatterfield Road, Anderson, Indiana (source: restaurantnews.com)

Exemplifying an upscale ski lodge/chic chalet vibe, the new design seems to attempt to find a happy medium between the past and present, bridging the distance between the rugged frontier aesthetic of old, and the more contemporary designs of late.

5-Out from the shadow

In 2016, Ponderosa operated roughly 100 US locations, located mainly across the Northeast, the Midwest and Florida (source: southbendtribune.com, franchise.org, ponderosasteakhouses.com). A slightly similar number of restaurants operate in several countries and territories, such as Taiwan, Egypt, Qatar, U.A.E., Bahrain, and Puerto Rico (source: thesunchronicle.com, ponderosasteakhouses.com, restaurantnews.com). Far from its zenith, Ponderosa currently hovers in the neighbourhood of 225 locations worldwide (source: ponderosasteakhouses.com). On a positive note, the redesign has seen positive results (source: restaurantnews.com). However, regaining market share will take time. And, cultivating a new Ponderosa ethos for a new generation will be a long and drawn out endeavour.

For better or worse, over its 50plus year history, Ponderosa became intimately tied with the simplistic stylized western saloon aesthetic that the brand exploited in its early years.


FORMER Ponderosa (circa 2012), 218 Reynolds Road, Johnson City, New York (source: maps.google.com)

Empirical evidence abounds on the relative staying power of other building formats and styles that the brand toiled with over the years. None  seemed capable to recapture the embodied essence, or elicit recall, recognition, or brand association like the American Old West inspired exterior trade dress. As such, a wholesale rejection of the western-themed design would be ill-advised as even with the passage of time, Ponderosa’s unique and highly recognizable architectural identity still shines brightly.


Disclaimer: 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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