Kitchen Design is an Art and a Science

Today's kitchen efficiency efforts focus on maximizing workflow from dock to dining.

Efficiency in a foodservice kitchen is even more critical today with many operations forced by economics or labor shortages to do more with less. A well-planned design that maximizes workflow and capitalizes on available space is an absolute necessity. As kitchens get smaller, operators must carefully select equipment to fit in a tighter layout that optimizes workflow.

First Steps Toward Optimal Design

Determining size and layout are the first two steps in kitchen design. They both require collaborative discussion with the operator and/or chef. When trying to find the appropriate size for a full-service kitchen, one rule of thumb calls for allocating 25 percent to 35 percent of the overall space, according to Beth Kuczera, president of Equipment Dynamics Inc. Quick-service and fast-casual concepts might require less space for the kitchen, but Kuczera and her team use that 25 percent to 35 percent range when starting a project. Similarly, Jim Richards of PES Design Group bases kitchen design on about one-third of the overall space.

A formula of key factors contributes to determining the right size of the kitchen, says John Egnor of JME Hospitality. "The design of a kitchen is not an exact science," he says. The formula includes number of seats — both dining and bar/lounge — style of service, complexity of the menu, internal or external production support and warewashing needs. The formula can recommend a size, but other factors, such as a requirement that the kitchen be on two levels, relation to receiving or shape of the space, can have an impact, too.

"Once we have established a recommended area," Egnor explains, "we review it to determine if it is adequate, and we recommend service entry and exit locations to optimize the operational flow of the work." Since each workflow requires specific equipment, it will have an effect on the total layout. For example, a wood-fired grill would require venting, wood storage, and disposal of ash and embers, all issues that would have an impact on space and layout.

Kuczera reviews a multipage checklist with the client. The conversation covers every aspect of the restaurant: hours of operation, seating, and activity in the dining and bar areas. Is there outdoor dining, carry-out or (if a hotel) room service? All of these factors affect design.

Kitchen size may depend on whether the operation will prepare food from scratch, which requires more space in the prep area, adds Richards. Or will this be a heat-and-serve operation with vendor-provided meals? Kitchens in these operations take up less space. In some cases, Richards explains, space has been set by the time his firm is contracted by an architect or a client, so it is necessary to design to existing specs.

Melanie Corey-Ferrini's firm, Dynamik Space, takes a somewhat different approach, but the principles remain the same. Dynamik designs the entire space, front of the house and back of the house, at the same time. "We determine the experience of the whole restaurant," she says. "Is it an open exhibition kitchen? Do we want some of it closed off from a customer experience standpoint? We work back and forth a lot. We lay out the back of the house, the types of equipment needed, the operational flow, health department needs, and see how much is left over for the front of the house. If we don't have enough seats from a business standpoint, we start looking at where we can push or pull."

Just because quick-service and fast-casual restaurants use smaller kitchens does not mean they are easier to design, says Kuczera. "It's the same components, just a different scale. They have tighter service windows, not like full-service restaurants where there might be three or four table turns. When they hit their peak period, they have to perform."

The Menu Is the Rosetta Stone

Equipment, layout and flow all depend solely on the menu. "We say the menu is the bible," says Kuczera. A client must bring her a menu in some form, even if it may change over time. While she sometimes gets pushback, Kuczera insists on seeing the concept's menu. It's a deal breaker. She describes the process as translating the menu into design.

"When we see steak on the menu, we know there will be a broiler of some type," Kuczera says. "When seafood appears on the menu, we know, depending on what they are doing with it, there will be some type of steaming. We go through the whole menu. We talk equipment. We talk prep stations. We go from food processors to equipment bins. We look at the dessert menu. We look at their beverage program. We look at area storage, employee areas and office space needed."

After the initial brainstorming sessions comes the planning stage. With the architect, kitchen designers like Kuczera identify existing windows and doors that will affect the flow. They also take into consideration what people will see when they come in from the street. For example, if the restaurant will have an exhibition kitchen, designers become very conscious of customer sight lines.

Space-Saving Technology

Luckily for space concerns, a variety of technological improvements in equipment allow for greater efficiency. Take, for example, combi ovens. Kuczera says she genuflects in front of the new combi ovens that have improved design and function. "It gives you the ultimate flexibility over the duration of your restaurant," she says. "I don't know how a concept can live without one."

Richards agrees and adds, "Although not a new concept, combi ovens are a great way to reduce cooking equipment, conserve space and increase efficiency. A dialogue with a client about simple menu adjustments may enable several pieces of cooking equipment to be replaced by a combi oven. The new technology in some of the automated and self-cooking controls on these ovens enables ease of use, reducing the requirement for skilled labor. They also provide consistency of product."

Kuczera also recommends high-speed ovens and conveyor ovens. Conveyor ovens can ensure that a product cooks exactly the way the chef wants it. "The operator doesn't want his signature dish ruined because someone left it in the saute pan a little too long," she says. Conveyors address this issue.

Corey-Ferrini advocates new plug-and-play equipment, especially if the menu changes over time as it might in a school or healthcare facility. "We're making mechanical more plug and play," she says. "Imagine a table with a piece of equipment on it, on casters, and you can just connect them into electrical and plumbing — ready to go. It makes the physical space changeable."

Blast chillers represent another must, according to Kuczera. "They are a product quality extender and a product shelf-life extender," she explains. "You can take market fruit that comes in, put a flash chill on it and stick it in the cooler. It's going to last longer. You can cool a croissant made in a combi oven on a rack in a blast chiller. It's going to be flakier."

Layout and Flow

"First I look at the overall plan," Richards says. "I identify where deliveries will arrive and work the flow forward to the service areas." He describes the flow pattern: receiving, storage, prep, production, service, dishwashing.

Experience helps in the layout phase, and Richards has 25 years of it. "I have a good idea of how much space should be designated to each of the kitchen areas, based on the menu and the operation," he says. He begins to roughly block the equipment in and adjusts until achieving the best layout and flow. This phase takes 30 percent to 40 percent of the project time, according to his estimate.

As soon as they create an equipment list based on the menu, Kuczera and her team go directly to layout. They look at the workflow associated with each menu item, including the number of staff each station requires. "We never do a block-out diagram. We go right to the pieces and start popping them in," she says. They normally present two or three alternative plans.

Corey-Ferrini takes a similar approach. "A lot has to do with the operational flow and the chef. How will they be receiving the food? From where is it received? Where does it need to go? Where do you store it? Does it need refrigeration? Does it need to be invisible to the customer?"

If the concept has an exhibition kitchen, customers will see the prep line and the cooking areas. "You have to make it pretty, so to speak, from a customer standpoint," Corey-Ferrini adds. "If the kitchen is closed off from view, the design focuses on the operational flow only, sometimes making it more efficient. With an exhibition kitchen, the design has to focus on operational flow plus the customer experience."

At this stage, Kuczera often recommends building stations and equipment out of cardboard and putting them in the space so clients can experience the spatial aspects, circulation and efficiency. "We chalk it out on the floor and build some pieces out of cardboard. They get a feeling for scale and how it relates to the space," she says.

Flow Follows Function

Try to avoid crossover in circulation patterns, Kuczera advises. When staff have to go to walk-in coolers and back to prep zones, they make adjustments in the aisles. "We use a zigzag component, or we might add another six inches. If this is going to be a major thoroughfare, I'm going to take a close look."

"We have rules as to aisle width and workstation space that we have developed over the past 35 years," Egnor says. "One example would be that back-to-back work areas should be between 54 inches and 72 inches apart." He adds a caveat, "It is important to note that achieving the best functioning and cost efficiency often requires us to bend our design rules."

When dealing with small, tight prep areas, Richards avoids using standard-sized table and sinks. "When I design a prep area, everything is custom. Maybe I can't fit an eight-foot table in a space, but I can fit a seven-foot, ten-inch table. I'll customize it rather than drop to the next standard size."

Avoiding Bottlenecks

"To avoid cross traffic and bottlenecks, it's very important that the client communicate to us early on how much staff they intend to employ," Richards says. "This way, I can lay out the cookline in zones, giving each cook what they need so there is little cross traffic behind the line." He also makes sure to provide sufficient aisle space where cross traffic is unavoidable.

During the checklist conversations, Kuczera and her team ask how many people will work at each area in the line. Successful staffing is a result of the pro forma that estimates check averages and seats and what it will take to support a resulting profit. She believes in designing for slow nights and figuring how to add staff for the bread-and-butter nights: Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"We have a formula that says, 'Depending on the station, how much can one person work successfully?' " Kuczera explains. She asks clients to name each station: veg prep, saucier, bakery, juicing and so on. "There is no sense in having more prep tables than prep people needed," she explains. "This is where a lot of people go down a wrong path. They start throwing tables in there."

Also, Kuczera advises not to put stations with staff back to back. "No one goes butt to butt in their primary work station. There could be a cooling rack, a sink or a mixer behind them, but we don't want them all crammed into a space where they can't function well," she says.

Corey-Ferrini also follows the formulaic approach to maximizing productivity. "It depends on the throughput. How many table turns? Are they open for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Do you need separate kitchen processes for menu items, like gluten free or
nut free?"

Design each prep area for its purpose. Like the other designers, Corey-Ferrini goes through the scenario of identifying each process associated with the production of menu items. Questions to ask, she says, include: Where will the items be stored? Where do you wash your hands? Where do you pick up ingredients? Where is the refrigerator? Is the walk-in closer to the receiving area, which requires another, smaller refrigerator closer to where you store your prep items?

Delivery and Storage

With the present trend toward local and fresh ingredients, the ratio of cooler to freezer space has definitely changed, Corey-Ferrini says. Freezer space continues to give way to coolers. Balancing the necessary cooler space with dry storage presents another challenge. The design needs to allow space to check invoices and write checks. It may just be a shelf near receiving rather than an office, but this aspect requires clear thought.

Kuczera wants kitchens to be tight, so she goes vertical with storage. "When they go small, we go tall," she says. "Going tall in a small kitchen is one of the best things you can do to make that kitchen feel better. The smaller the kitchen, the higher we look to get the ceilings." She uses taller coolers, higher shelves in storage areas — anything to add additional usable space.

Food Safety and Design

"Food safety is of utmost importance when considering design," says Richards. "One must make sure proper cold storage has been considered. Keeping chemicals separate from food storage; keeping meats, dairy and vegetables separated either by storage areas or at least separately in the same cold space are all important considerations."

It is also important, Richards says, to ensure that the workflow from cold storage to prep and then to production reduces the amount of time that staff handle product in a temperature that could promote bacteria growth. And, of course, prepared foods
must be kept apart from raw products to avoid potential cross-contamination issues.

"Your reputation is at risk when you prepare food," Kuczera says. The way staff handles food is critical. In addition to the usual food-safety practices, she advocates keeping delivery personnel in the receiving area and not in the kitchen so they do not compromise prep in any way.

Keys to Successful Design

The four design consultants agree on two things: client collaboration to determine every aspect of workflow and productivity and the use of the menu as the Rosetta Stone for translating every menu item into the optimal choice of layout, equipment and flow.

"We are relentless in asking the client questions," Kuczera says. She also insists on presenting a number of alternate solutions. "Our job as design professionals is to say, 'What about this? What about that? Have you thought about this?' "

Of course, optimal design has a dual goal: customer satisfaction and the operation's profitability. Richards points out that many restaurateurs are more concerned with seats that make money than the kitchen space. "The delicate balance," he says, "is to maximize seating and customer experience, while not sacrificing any essential kitchen areas."

A successful kitchen design is the result of a complex process of solution-based decisions. With the collaboration of client and design team, workflow can be maximized, and productivity can be optimized, ensuring a smooth-running operation that will have an edge over the competition.

 FE&S’ Panel of Design Experts

Four expert design consultants share their insights and experience in maximizing kitchen workflow:

  • Melanie Corey-Ferrini, CEO and food experience architect at Dynamik Space in Seattle. Dynamik is a full-service design firm serving corporations and campuses, including addressing their foodservice needs.
  • John Egnor, president of JME Hospitality, based in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. He has been a foodservice design consultant for more than 35 years.
  • Beth Kuczera, president of Equipment Dynamics Inc. in Chicago. The firm consults on designs for the front of the house as well as the back of the house.
  • Jim Richards Jr. of PES Design Group, who heads up the company’s southeast office in Sarasota, Fla. The design consultancy has been serving the c-store and foodservice industries for more than 40 years.
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