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John Schiltz, owner and head chef of the Lake Elmo Inn, left, stood in the opened glass wall of a Cabreeze structure last week with Kent Forsland, the founder of the convertible patio structure maker. Both the roof and sides of the glass-enclosed, steel-framed structure are retractable.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Raising the roof on restaurant expansion

  • Article by: TODD NELSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 4, 2011 - 8:59 PM

Growth is on the menu for fledgling manufacturer Cabreeze as its convertible patio structures help restaurants tame the elements and expand their business.

Cabreeze founder and serial entrepreneur Kent Forsland has found an early appetite for his patent-pending structures among busy restaurants eager to add capacity and extend the use of increasingly popular patios beyond the North Country's fleeting outdoor dining season.

The Cabreeze, the prototype of which Forsland sketched on a restaurant napkin, is a permanent structure with sliding walls and a convertible roof that open and close independently. The retractable roof and walls allow the Cabreeze to adapt to changing conditions, shutting out wind, rain and even street noise or opening up on mild days, and to different uses, from restaurant seating to weddings, corporate meetings and reunions.  

The structure consists of a steel frame, aluminum and two-ply polycarbonate roof segments and sliding walls of anodized aluminum and glass.

It's built on a solid foundation, typically including underground concrete piers and a concrete slab, and goes up in just a week or two after assembly is done in the Cabreeze factory in River Falls, Wis., about 40 miles east of Minneapolis.

Forsland launched the company in 2009, a challenging time for any new business and a particularly difficult time to persuade restaurant owners to spend $150,000 to $200,000 or more on capital improvements. 

The key has been to find busy locations that needed extra room despite the recession -- and to explain what Forsland said is the one-year payback time on the investment, thanks to incremental profits from added capacity and additional guests, attracted in part by the buzz he said the structure generates.

"When we focus on restaurants that have more demand than capacity, it is pretty awesome," Forsland said. "If a structure would cost them $150,000, we can show them that by having this extra capacity, it will pay for itself in a year. That means the next year they're putting that $150,000 in their pocket. It is pretty compelling when we find those kinds of restaurant owners."

Forsland projects that this year's revenue will surpass $1 million, more than tripling last year's $300,000. The Cabreeze includes steel that's fabricated and powder-coated in Minnesota and aluminum that's extruded, anodized and fabricated in Wisconsin.

Faster growth could come if Forsland can connect with a couple of innovative owners of franchise restaurants, which can lead to business with national chains. Restaurant sales for now have gone to independents such as the Lake Elmo Inn, which installed a Cabreeze on its patio last November, and to Patrick McGovern's Pub in St. Paul and al Vento in Minneapolis, which both hope to complete installations this year.

Lake Elmo Inn chef-owner John Schiltz said his Cabreeze enabled him to seat 1,000 extra diners during the holidays and 500 extra during Valentine's weekend in his 35-seat patio, which he previously covered with a temporary tent. His family celebrated Christmas in the Cabreeze, which he heats to operate year-round.

Patrick McGovern's co-owner Pat Boemer said the pub's planned Cabreeze would extend its patio season from three-plus months to eight or nine months a year while providing space for crowds from the nearby Xcel Energy Center.

At al Vento, chef-owner Jon Hunt said he decided on a Cabreeze to expand business at his already successful location instead of opening another restaurant.

"This is something that every restaurant that has a patio should have," Hunt said. "You're affording yourself to be available more often, filling more seats on a more consistent basis."

In addition to commercial customers, Forsland also intends to pursue residential sales, which likely would involve building a dealer network in addition to the direct sales model he now employs. 

He envisions the Cabreeze as a pool cover, sunroom, room addition or garage to showcase vintage vehicles. His backyard Cabreeze serves as a hangar for a Glastar Sportsman, an experimental-class aircraft he built, taxiing into and out of the structure on trips to or from a nearby small airport.

Forsland started Cabreeze a year after his 2008 retirement from Designer Doors, a River Falls-based maker of vintage-style wooden garage doors.

Designer Doors had reached  $20 million in sales, Forsland said, when he sold it to employees in 2006. Designer Doors had spun off from Forsland's previous venture, Twin Cities-based Great Garage Door, in the early '90s.

The expert says: Mark Spriggs, associate professor and chairman of the entrepreneurship department at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said the Cabreeze looks like a great idea, particularly for Northern states where winter limits patio and outdoor time.

Forsland's plan to target franchise restaurants, however, likely is going to present a long, challenging sales process because of the rigid format most have for their appearance, Spriggs said.

An alternative would be to gain exposure and possibly additional sales with stand-alone or small chain restaurants that Forsland would probably meet through industry trade shows. "That's probably a better two- to five-year plan," Spriggs said. "Then while that's going, you can start working on the new chains, get them to think about incorporating this into their new designs."

The residential market also presents challenges for the Cabreeze, Spriggs said, from the difficulty of building an effective dealer-distributor network to the price, which is several times what a three-season patio enclosure would typically cost.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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