Decoration of Paninis Bar & Grill in Brunswick, Ohio

"Before you can design, you have to be a critic. Before you can be a critic, you have to have taste."

John Rivera-Resto

"The background details"

Panini's Bar and Grill opened its first restaurant in May of 1986 in Cleveland, Ohio. Since then, "Paninis" has grown from a single late-night beer and a sandwich stop location, into a full-menu, casual dining "Sports Bar" theme restaurant with locations throughout Northeast Ohio as well as the Tampa, Florida area.

paninis bar and grill logo

I knew that the Italian word 'panini' was both the plural and singular form for a grilled sandwich made with a small loaf of Italian bread. But I had never heard of the restaurant chain by that name. In my defense, I don't drink beer, I stay away from bread, I'm not a sports fan, nor do I like busy places. So it's no surprise that "Paninis" had been out of my radar of interests, until I got an afternoon call from my friend, artist Hector Vega. Hector needed a favor, and by the singular fact of me being free the following day, this favor turned into a decades association with the franchise.

Spring 2010

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-brunswick-on-the-map,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Brunswick is the largest city in Medina County, Ohio, United States, approximately 26 miles (42 km) SW of Cleveland -a 30 minute drive. The population was 34,255 at the 2010 census.

Hector needed to measure a wall to do a custom painting. I was free that day, so he asked me to hold one end of the measuring tape while he took the measurement at the other end. We were at Brunswick, Ohio, a small burgeoning town about a half hour drive from Cleveland. Not so long ago (early 80's), Brunswick was to viewed by us in Cleveland, as a wilderness of sporadic farms and forestry. Now, it was thriving community of nice homes and small businesses, with new eateries popping all along it's main road. The building we were at was under reconstruction. It had been a franchise restaurant that had gone out of business. Presently, Paninis Bar & Grill was taking over the place.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-front-outdoor-view,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Paninis Bar and Grill in Brunswick, Ohio. Several months from Opening Day.

Hector was friends with the clients and he had been coming up with ideas to decorate the place. As a focal point, he would create a large and colorful sports-theme painting on the back wall stretching the length of the main bar. The finished art would be about 20 feet wide by 20 inches high. Two more of Hector's ideas was to attached sport items, such as bats and balls, to the stone work in the yet-to-be-constructed fireplace. His other proposal was to paint team logos on the wooden blinds hung from five windows along one of the walls. Considering that three of the main walls of the building were cover in ether glass windows or doors, he maximized the little that was left to apply any noteworthy focal point.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-on-site-meeting-with-builders-and-clients-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010.png The clients, the general contractor, and artist Hector Vega discussing work progress for an outdoor bar addition.

So, in addition to me holding the end of the measuring tape, Hector also wanted to know if I could paint the team logos on the wooden blinds. He is a traditional painter who likes to work on canvas panels with acrylic water-base paints. But on blinds is not the same. My skills as a painter also stretch to sign painting to theatrical props. So he figured that I could do the blinds too and make his idea a reality. I said, sure, I could do the job, and that's how I ended up doing my first restaurant related job in Ohio.


A scaled rendering of the restaurant's windows and wooden blinds with painted sport logos.

I took home five of the wooden blinds, cleaned them well to remove any grease residue that permeates restaurants, and hung them up to dry. On Photoshop, I created a scaled version of the restaurant's wall, showing its five windows with sports logos on the window blinds. Then I sent a rendering of the finished art for approval. The next day I received the approval to paint the logos as shown, so I made a colors list and went shopping for the paint at a sign-painter's supply store.

Nancy Lewis -the sweet next door girl that everyone loves This photographs shows the Ohio State logo with the completed first coating of paint. Once the enamel cured, a second coating was done to achieve full saturation of color.

At my shop, I set up the blinds against a wall and projected the logos on them. Using a white grease pencil, I then proceed to trace the art on the wooden blinds. In this manner I drew all the logos on the blinds. To paint the logos I used One-Shot enamel colors, the best oil-base enamel paints in the market to do signs and lettering. One of the advantages of using One-Shot enamels is the fluidity of the paint, which dries to a very hard, glass-like finish. The main disadvantage of using this type of paint, is the strong smell and toxic fumes it releases while curing. It could take 24 hours or more to do so, depending on the color pigment. So you have to work on a well ventilated area.


Composite image of the Panorama World Travel Mural

Painting on blinds is a simple process. But you have to be aware that of the blades overlap when the blind is closed and the art becomes visible. The part of the blade that is hidden by the next overlapping blade also has to be painted as an extension of the art. And doing this takes a lot of time and care to complete. Making things more complex is the fact the you have to apply two coats of paint to achieve full color saturation. This is so because medium and light colors do not cover the dark wood on the first pass. So in reality, you paint the designs twice on each set of blinds. But the extra work is well worth it because the finished art looks like enameled glass.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-fireplace-being-finished,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010.png Artist James Todd painting the franchise logo on the fireplace plaque.

After the paint had fully cured, I installed the blinds at the restaurant. They looked fabulous, especially when direct sun hit the back of the blinds, making the sport logos appear radiant. I left an invoice for the job, and once home, I called Hector (at the time, I did not own a mobile phone), thanking him for the job, and that was that. As far as I was concerned, my involvement with this enterprise was over. And so it was -until the following Thursday morning. I got a call from Hector asking for another favor. Since he had a regular day-job at the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, as a graphics artist, he could not be at the restaurant site to carry out the client's calls.

The masons were going to be adding the stone veneers to the fireplace that afternoon, and the designer needed to be there to tell them were to place the sports items. Hector could not leave his day job and be there. What's more, he didn't have the items. And so I ended up doing the job for him. That morning, I went straight to a second-hand store to purchase some sport items, and the rest I just bought new on the way to my shop. Once there, I cut some of the items into pieces since only certain sections would be sticking out of the wall. I also cut a wooden plaque in the shape of the Paninis logo so it could be set in the masonry and painted later.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-floor-design-1,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 After grinding the concrete floor to create a better tooth, the surface was primed gray. Then I marked the stone pattern with chalk, and then my assistant went over the markings with tape.

At the site, I just sat on top of a short ladder as the mason covered in stone the plywood and wire fireplace frame that surrounded the firebox. As they progressed, I would tell them were to stick this or that item, and so on. The wooden plaque for the company logo was left blank for a latter day. By early afternoon, the fireplace was done. At this point, I got word that the restaurant's opening day was only weeks away. While the fireplace was being worked on, the clients asked me to look at the concrete floor on the outside bar and give them my take on a problem.

They had anticipated doing an acid staining job on the bar's surrounding floor, but soon discovered that the contractors had applied an oil-base sealer to the concrete. The sealer had penetrated deep into the surface pores so the acid staining treatment would not work at all. The floor was left looking like raw concrete so they asked for suggestions on what to do with it. The options were twofold: do a tile floor or a polished terrazzo floor, or apply concrete paint and then top it with a clear finish.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-floor-design-2,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 The concrete floor paint is mixed with epoxy and then rolled out over the floor. After four hours, the first coating was dry and we proceeded to apply a second coating.

Of the two options, tiling or terrazzo are the permanent solutions. Beer spills can turn any floor into a dark sticky mess that requires constant cleaning, and a smooth tiled floor would offer both durability and ease of cleanup. A painted floor was a temporary solution at best, since it required a yearly re-coating and more maintenance. I explained the pros and cons of both options, and went back to see the completion of the fireplace. In the meantime, the clients started getting estimates for doing the tile floor, they opted with the painted option since the cost was considerably lower in the short term. It could also be done in the least amount of time.

And so, I was asked to do the job, and that same weekend, I had my friend Branko -a tough Serbian-American house painter and an occasional collaborator in my projects, roughing the floor surface with a large rotary concrete grinder. The objective was to remove some of the concrete sealer and create better surface "tooth" for a paint primer to adhere. Then we proceeded to do a stone pattern paint job using "epoxy garage floor paint." This type of paint is addressed as an epoxy coating. In fact, it is not epoxy at all but a latex acrylic product mixed with a small amount of epoxy (then refer as 1-Part epoxy paint). This allows for better adhesion and durability than standard acrylic paint, but it is not an epoxy product.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-floor-design-3,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 After the floor paint had dried, we removed the masking tape. The result was a floor with very attractive stone pattern. Next, we finish the job with the application of two coats of heavy clear finish.

True epoxy is actually a resin mixed with polyamine hardener. This mix goes on clear, but it can also be tinted. Unfortunately, back in 2010, the product was not being marketed to consumers as it is today (2019) through many home centers and paint stores. But even now, it is still an incredibly expensive product. At any rate, the garage paint was our most convenient and cost-effective solution at the time. We completed the floor with the application of several thick coatings of clear acrylic finish. This protective coating would a least make the job last a couple of years -at least, under normal wear-and-tear conditions. In fact, I had done a similar job on the floor of Laser Extreme in Avon, and it still looked like new after four years and counting.

I left the site with the satisfaction of completing another job in a matter of days. Now I could concentrate on getting back to my own projects. This interlude lasted two days. This time around, I got a call from one of the clients. Opening day was approaching and they needed to fill some empty spaces on the walls. Since Paninis was a sports-theme bar, they asked me to meet them at the home of a Cleveland sports memorabilia collector to purchase some items to decorate the restaurant. So I came along to give them my take on decor-worthy items. I thought this would be an interesting experience, so next evening we were looking at a garage full of items.

matted and reframed sport prints We matted and reframed sport prints to better fit the available spaces.

Now, the thing you have to keep in mind is that most sport objects and items, are repetitious. One picture is another version of the same and a lot of it is in black and white. Also, the framing is pretty bad for the most part. And, nothing seems to be in the size that fits that particular space where you want to hang it. Worse, today's hot sports figures, are tomorrow's "no-one-gives-a-hoot" forgotten. Bottom line, found items is a hit and miss proposition, with "plop items" usually placed in a miss-match fashion. So, in spite of the incredible amount of items, pickings were slim. We ended up selecting a few posters and prints, some pennant flags, and a few other objects.

Cleveland sport pennants find their way to panels above the doors Cleveland sport pennants find their way to panels above the doors.

As soon as I got home with the prints and photographs selected, I looked at the diagrams I had made of the walls and began selecting the best space to place the items. This "decorator style" of limiting myself to what's available, has never been my style. I work as a "designer", creating pieces that fit specific spaces or breaking thing apart to re-assemble them in new ways. In future jobs this would be working approach for everything, but at the then and now, I had come into the job as a "pinch hitter" with very little time to do anything else but to play the cards I was dealt.

But that didn't mean I would just go along without trying at least to create something meaningful and attractive. I had Nancy go out to thrift shops and sport stores to see what useful items could be found, and I set out to buy picture frames for a prepared list. In the following days I had matted and re-framed every image and prints, added a few new acquisitions, and had marked on my wall diagrams where each items was to be placed. In short, I had of plan of action, and that, gives you lots of confidence when working against the clock.

Artist Hector Vega's sports-theme design for the bar's back wall painting Artist Hector Vega's sports-theme design for the bar's back wall painting

Opening day was a week away. There had been delays in the remodeling but the date had not been pushed back. In time this became the constant pattern in every job I have done -without a single exception to-date. This meant that the last people to go in, the decorating team, had even less time to do their work after the contractors finish theirs. The restaurant was remodeled from a previous one, but very little had been done to the wall coverings. It was all dark-wood panelled millwork, including the wood on the booths, tables, chairs, and the floors.

Partially painted canvas-panels waiting their turn in the rotation. Partially painted canvas-panels waiting their turn in the rotation. Everything with the same color, we "killed" first, to rapidly cover large sections before going over the detailing.

The main bar had been centrally constructed as the restaurant's focal point, and outlining walls had been torn down and replaced with NaNa folding wood-framed glass doors. So more light poured from the outside into the dark interior. But in the final assessment, we have very limited decorative options except for the placement of small frame pictures inside the millwork pattern. The only concession to decor, was a space that had been created on the wall behind the bar to place a sports-theme painting by artist Hector Vega. Except for one big problem: Hector was not even close to finishing the painting in time for the opening date.

Artist Hector Vega working at his Kirtland studio Artist Hector Vega working at his Kirtland studio.

Hector called me early that week. He had all the five canvas panels that made up the painting already outlined with the design, but he needed another painter to get them done in three days. Let me break this down so you can understand the seriousness of the situation: it would take one painter to do the job... two weeks! I've known Hector since his days as a student at Virginia Marty School of Design, in Lakewood, Ohio. I consider myself one of his mentors. He is perhaps the most commercially successful commissioned artist in Cleveland, and with good reason. His geometric-representational-colorful paintings have great public appeal, and, his compositions are top-notch. Luckily his painting style is fairly easy to do for a muralist like me. So at times, not only have I commissioned him to do work for some of my interior design projects, but I have also collaborated on some of his projects and I was very familiar with his painting method.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-finished-panel-6,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 The painting sections are done by covering a plywood panel with two-inch sides, with rough canvas. The canvas is then primed a couple of times to make it non-absorbent, then the design is drawn and painted flat on a table with artist's acrylic paints.

I joined Hector at his Kirtland studio and for the next three days we painted deep into the night. Hector uses acrylic paints which can dry very fast with the aid of a hair-blower. But he makes use of masking tape to define edges and borders as he paints along. This is a smart way of doing things, but it takes more time to do. I'm a trained sign painter, so I free-hand without any need for masking edges. And I am fast. So Hector would paint on a panel and I would paint on another, then we would switch and I would free-hand anything that needed outlining. We averaged about six hours of sleep per day. He took days off from his regular job and that's how we managed to have the painting done in three days flat. It was exhausting.

Painting Progression

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-finished-panel-5,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Panel 1

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-finished-panel-1,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Panel 2

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-finished-panel-2,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Panel 3

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-finished-panel-3,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Panel 4

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-finished-panel-4,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Panel 5

Back at the restaurant site, the clients were getting nervous -no decorations and no painting. But on the very last day, I showed up with the paintings, the wall decorations, and a my crew of experienced workers. And by night's end, everything was done. Hector's painting looked great, especially when we directed overhead spotlights to make it stand out. Along the top of the painting, on the wood panelling, I had a series of bats signed by all-star legends, like Babe Ruth, and a corresponding baseball card (just between you and me, I did most of the signing -but no-one needs to know!).

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-indoor-bar-view-1,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 View of the main bar, with overheard TVs and Hector Vega's painting in the background, and the all-star bat display above it.

I also created a small homage to the local high school football team, the Blue Devils, displaying the logo, a helmet and team jersey. The fact that the place was plastered with television sets everywhere you looked, also contributed to the decor. Adding striplights of LEDs under the bar, gave it a welcoming look, and the football-helmet-columns between the bartop and overhead canopy was really a nice touch. So, considering the fact that I was basically drafted in the last minute and many things were done on the fly, we managed to make the place look good. On opening day, the place was packed and everyone was having a great time. To this day, Paninis Bar & Grill in Brunswick has remained a very popular place with locals.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-indoor-bar-view-2,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 A lot of light filters in through the dark interior through the NaNa doors.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-indoor-view-1-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 The NaNa doors open up for a clear view of the outdoor patio, making the place look larger and festive. Television monitors are visible from every angle.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-indoor-view-2-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 View of the main dinning area and the patio.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-indoor-view-from-patio-bar,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 View from the outdoor bar into the restaurant.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-view-2-from-patio-bar,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 View toward the back of the outdoor bar.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-view-from-patio-bar,--decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 View toward the front of the outdoor bar.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-ready-for-opening-day-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Early morning view of the restaurant just before opening day.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-outdoor-patio-view-1-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Patrons love the patio, outdoor and casual atmosphere, which have become a Paninis' common feature.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-my-family-at-the-grand-opening-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 My wife Nancy, my daughter Selina, and my brother Ricky on opening day.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-with-my-wife-nancy-at-the-grand-opening-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Me with Nancy on opening day. It was great day. The clients were happy, Hector and friends was happy, and I was happy too -glad that this type of decor-work was over, so I could get back to doing my own thing. As far as I was concerned, I had enough of restaurants.

Fast forward...

It's July of 2012, two years since the Paninis' Brunswick opening. The floor finish on the outdoor patio lasted as predicted. The client wanted to try out a new product and asked me to do another paint job. Same as before, we went through the pros and cons of doing another paint job. I recommended doing a tile floor but he was still resistant to the expense and time involved. So, taking advantage of the different shades available with the new product, I did an artistic pattern of colorful tiles. Once finished, several coatings of clear polymer followed, and the result was beautiful. Well, this lasted about two more years. It was not only a matter of foot traffic and scrubbing beer off the floor, but greatly a matter of employees stacking metal stools into heavy stacks, and dragging the metal legs all over the floor before cleaning. And well, there is no insurance against stupidity. As for the floor treatment that followed, you guessed it, another paint job.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-floor-design-5,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 New floor design. The rendering was done in Photoshop using as reference color chips supplied by the manufacturer.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-floor-design-6,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Marking pattern and colors on the floor. The "grout lines" were painted first, allowed to dry, and then covered with masking tape. Next the tile colors were applied with a roller and the shadow edge was brushed in when the tiles dried. Lastly, the making tape was remove to reveal straight and even grout lines.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-floor-design-4,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Finished floor after several coatings of clear finish epoxy had been applied.

It's the fall of 2016, six years since the Paninis' Brunswick opening. The clients want to improve the look of the place, so they asked for ideas to make the place look... warmer and merrier. The problem as always been that the original millwork was dark and now dull. What could be done with having to close down the restaurant -even for a day, or do any major remodeling? Well, you can do miracles with paint. So my solution was do lighten the dark panels in the millwork with faux paint, and cover the top ones with a warm and textured-like wallpaper. In addition, the addition of more lights would make the place brighter. And so, that's exactly what we did.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-finished-panel-6,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Dark panels were faux painted to resemble a warm, light maple.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-applying-wallpaper,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Top panels were sanded and coated with red tinted primer. Then a textured red wallpaper was applied. Finally, a coating of gloss clear varnish was applied on the dark divider boards.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-wallpaper-detail,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 The new decor look fresh, warm, and much lighter. New warehouse style lamps were also added to brighten the place.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Some whimsical sports 3D cutouts that the client had adquired at an Amish shop, were added in certain spots. The kids like it.

paninis-bar-and-grill,-brunswick-ohio,-decor-by-john-rivera-resto-2010 Rows of warehouse-style light fixtures were added to improve lighting. They were fitted with amber tinted lamps. We purchased an inexpensive version of these lamps at local home centers, took them to my shop, and painted them metallic copper to fit the decor. This is how you turn $30 dollars lamps into $200 catalog models.

I put together a small crew, and after the dinner hour, closed a section of the restaurant to be worked on. We sanded the panels and applied tinted primer to the top and bottom panels. The top panels were tinted red, and the bottom panels were tinted yellow. Then we faux a light wood grain on the bottom panels, and applied wallpaper at the top. Then we applied a coating of gloss varnish to all the divider boards. Once finished, the combined decor look really good. To finish the job, we put back all the framed work that had been removed, and in some places added some whimsical 3D sports cutouts that the client had purchased from an Amish shop. A lot of families come to Paninis and the kids are attracted to this type of pieces.


Conceptual design comparing the existing wall and the same wall with a new fireplace design. As a conceptual designer, I help clients explore ideas in advance, and see a rendering of the finish project before starting any work. This is also a great tool to help budget a project, since it shows exactly what is needed to completed.


My conceptual design combining a digital fireplace, stone veneers (that match the bars), a view of Browns Stadium, and a ticket booth. It's more exciting for customers to feel they are in the middle of the action instead of just watching it on tv.

The following year I was invited to a meeting were the clients were discussing doing something about the fireplace. Over time, the heat had darkened the stone with soot and many of the sports items inserted into the stone work had deflated or come off due to customers that needed to see with their hands. So I created a couple of conceptual renderings show the entire wall -the same wall where Hector's painting had been placed, but with another type of digital fireplace and "openings" overlooking Browns Stadium. I even added a ticket booth and a false door. The idea being that you could watch the game from inside the restaurant, or buy a ticket into the stadium. It's the kind of decor that places customers in the middle of a new environment. It is attractive and goes completely with the sports theme of the place. Well, they are still thinking about it.

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