Flexibility in menu construction and equipment use has become the name of the game for today’s kitchens, and that will undoubtedly ring true for many years to come. But when designing kitchens that can withstand the tests of time, allowing for lean foot prints, sustainable foodservice practices and the needs of a changing consumer demographic will be equally important.
Commercial kitchens have long been among the most highly engineered portions of any building. While changes to this space over the past 30 years have seemingly been gradual, it now appears that a number of converging factors will profoundly impact the design of commercial kitchens moving forward. Changes in eating habits, generational shifts, a shrinking back of the house, an increased focus on sustainable foodservice practices and an ever-growing list of other factors are facing designers and operators as they specify foodservice equipment and design kitchens that can withstand the tests of time.
The net result is that flexibility in menu construction and equipment selection and placement will go hand in hand. "We can expect constant change in menu, and finding ways to allow for that with design and equipment selection will be critical," says Costel Coca, design principal, Webb Foodservice Design, Tustin, Calif.
"People want to be able to move equipment around and change items. So menu flexibility will have a direct correlation with the equipment selected. Having that ability to change menus really connects with where the millennials are headed. You don't have to offer them everything, but what you do offer them has to be great. This will lead to smaller plates and, eventually, smaller kitchens, restaurants and foodservice environments."
"We eat differently than we used to," says A.J. Barker, vice president of concept development for Think Tank Hospitality Group, a foodservice and hospitality brand consulting firm. "People want to see food that is recognizable. Broccoli should look like broccoli. If you look at the top restaurants of the '70s there was not one that did not have their vegetables pureed, and that was because of the quality of the food. Now the quality is so much better that we have to make sure not to screw it up."
And this desire to eat better-for-you and higher-quality foods continues to impact foodservice design and equipment selection. "Prep areas are changing because of sustainability and the farm-to-fork movement," Coca says. "The fresh ingredients you need for these developments are driving that."
As a result, many foodservice operators now allocate more space for vegetable washing and prep but less square footage for cooking. This also translates into the need for more refrigerators and fewer freezers. "We are striking more of a balance and trading one aspect for another," Coca says. "And using things like combi ovens allow you to get more flexibility and capacity out of the same footprint."
In addition to healthy eating, consumers now embrace diversity when it comes to dining. "We are an interconnected world. People have more sophisticated tastes, and we're seeing that reflected on the menu," says Tarah Schroeder, LEED AP, project director and director of sustainability for Ricca Newmark Design in Greenwood Village, Colo. "I have seen kitchens change dramatically to follow these evolved menus on the institutional level."
Some consumers are becoming self-proclaimed "flexitarians," meaning they occasionally choose to eat a vegetarian meal or diet. "People are much more open to different foods now than before. At the end of the day, the menu has been changing dramatically in the past few years. They are more globally or ethnically inspired," Coca says. "Operators now take standard items and add an ethnic twist to it."
These developments continue to influence equipment selection and placement. "Tandoori ovens and planchas," Coca says. "We are starting to see more of a need for those items." And, he adds, "The same applies to charcoal grills and wood-fired ovens. So, in some respects we are going back to the future."
The interest in culinary exploration continues to impact consumers' dining patterns. "People no longer come to the same restaurant every Thursday and eat the same thing. Now it's more of a cultural thing," Barker says. "People now chase the sparkly, new restaurant. And that's why you have to plan for the lean footprint."
The lean-footprint concept is far from new to the foodservice industry, but its definition tends to vary widely. Some foodservice professionals focus on equipment size and natural resources consumed, while others focus on employee headcounts. Still others incorporate food waste and building size into the lean-footprint equation.
For his part, though, Barker takes a more holistic approach to defining a lean footprint for foodservice. "It is the all-around practice. It is a lean employee footprint. It's a lean carbon emission footprint. But it is more than that," Barker says.
For Barker, a lean footprint is the minimal scheduling of staff to provide the brand experience. "Corporate America tried this in the late 1990s and struggled from a staffing perspective because they did not have the equipment they needed to do this," he adds. "The equipment was very rigid in its manpower requirements. In the past, the approach was very 'build as you go,' adding the manpower as you need it. If you can strategically put a couple of pieces here and there to tie the rest of your operation together, that's a lean footprint."
The key to successfully implementing a lean footprint is balancing the experience with operational efficiency, and not compromising either. "Now you know what you are going after and what you want to provide. So you have to make sure what you are giving your clientele is what you promised," Barker says. "The old philosophy was food is cheap, and people are cheap, and everything else is an expense. Nowadays, everything is an expense."