Say it with a sign!

Roadhouse Pizza in Ripon, Wisconsin (, has been established along its historic Highway 23 location since 1978. Boca Grande Capital purchased the restaurant in 2008 with the intention of renovating the building (built in 1870) fi rst in a series of projects designed to reinvigorate downtown business. But as Roadhouse expanded from a 52-seat local hangout popular with area sports teams and highway travelers, management knew that updating the original neon sign would be key in attracting new customers. But the design team needed to work around the city’s historic-building codes, which stipulated that if the sign was removed off the building, a replacement couldn’t be made—so designers simply transformed the plain black-and-white sign with fl at lettering. “We now have different colored lighting that will change color so it will shine onto the 3-D text, which will create shadows and depth,” says manager Andy Radke. “The whole point is the ‘wow’ factor, so that was part of the consideration between the architect and the design team: to reestablish the old neon sign but to have it be very appealing to anyone driving by Highway 23.” 

Most sign experts would expect that changing the external signage after more than 30 years will immediately bring in customers who might have become complacent about the established business. “When you get a fresh new look out there, it appears as if something new is going on and gets people excited to look at the individual business; what we have been familiar with becomes new,” explains Duane DuMont, sales associate at Sign Source Creative Solutions in Chanhassen, Minnesota. “From that standpoint, making a visual change or incorporating a logo can increase foot traffi c and sales.” Roadhouse now has a sign worthy of the new space, as the designers also increased the interior’s natural lighting and improved the design, incorporating many of the same colors used in the sign. For Radke, investing $1,100 to refurbish the old sign was an easy decision.

Establishing an Identity

Integrating the colors of your business’ sign into its interior elements is an important step that independent owners can take to establish credibility for potential customers. “We try to steer operators into establishing a logo-type look,” says DuMont. “Even though they might have a mom-and-pop operation, they can develop a franchise or corporate look for themselves.” DuMont recommends using the logo from the sign in any way possible: throughout the restaurant and on all printed material, from advertising down to pizza boxes. Red, green and white are the most popular colors used in pizzeria signs, according to DuMont. He explains that the fi rst color the eye processes is red, a color noted for its attention-grabbing characteristics. 

Overall, external signage should have as prominent a place in the start-up costs as the ovens, interior and advertising. “A lot of times, when a small business is putting together a budget for the business, signage is overlooked,” DuMont says. “When you’re putting  together the business plan for your year, there have to be X amount of dollars in there for advertising, and signage comes under the same category.” An operator can expect to spend in the range of $3,000 to $10,000 when creating a new sign from scratch. Depending on location, popular sign choices include illuminated signs with channel letters, or internally illuminated box-type signs with either digital graphics or vinyl lettering on the sign. 

On the affordable end of the scale, you can find a non-illuminated but stylized background with raised lettering on a sandblasted sign, which creates a 3-D appearance. The next level of signage may incorporate an internally illuminated element, traditionally with channel letters powered by LED lights instead of neon. LED allows the sign to grab attention while saving the operator on electric costs. LED has become very popular in recent years, costing one-quarter of what neon does to run, so the savings in energy costs pay off in the long run. If you have more money to work with, spending in the $10,000 range will give the sign more ornate details that help establish a franchise-like look.

Other Ideas

You can also find options beyond fi xed signage. Many manufacturers offer sidewalk and A-frame chalkboard signs to give operators an upscale way of advertising menu specials and promotions. Adapting the wet-erase technology used on the windows of cars in sales lots, a message on the chalkboard won’t fade in the rain or snow, and can easily be cleaned so you never have to deal with chalk dust. “Coffee shops popularized the chalkboard look for menus, and you can take that out to the A-frame sign so that someone can mount the whole message,” says William Hardek, owner of Billyboards, based in Lake Barrington, Illinois. “You don’t want a board that will warp or fall apart in exterior conditions.” 

A more affordable fixed sign solution available to operators is a banner style, which provides a durable display that can be posted outside of your store location and all around town if you use signage as a form of advertising. Banner displays for placement around your town can be purchased for $500 to $1,500, and you can often work with your local municipality to defray costs if the sign promotes the business and the town, according to Roger Lepley, president of Consort Display Group in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

No operator would think about opening a new pizzeria without considering how he’s going to market its name through advertising, but how many put the same thought or budget allowances into external signage? Given a sign’s impact on business credibility and consumer interest, you shouldn’t overlook signage in your budget. By considering a variety of factors and picking the sign that works for you, your location and your clientele, you can ensure that you lend legitimacy to your business and stand out in the eyes of the consumer.

Jacob Threadgill is a PMQ intern.