The Kitchen of the Future

Some of the newer innovations, though, have had a pretty significant impact not only on design but on service and sustainability as well. Take, for example, on-demand kitchen ventilation. "We were always hamstrung by hoods, and technology has come along so much that we have put together highly evolved concepts that don't need hoods," Barker says.

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Labor remains, if not the biggest, then one of the top two or three expenses for foodservice operations. As such, kitchens of the future will look to better leverage this all-important resource. This also applies to remodeling existing foodservice operations. Barker recalls a project where anytime the culinary staff needed food, they had to walk 14 steps to get it, which severely limited productivity. "That was crazy," he adds.

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So, Barker and his team found ways to add refrigeration along the line. "Smaller, more compact refrigeration is key," he says. "Now we can build things to where it used to take three people to run a station, you can get more accomplished by having one person properly equipped. Some of that's a byproduct of technology, and it is also a by-product of needing to better manage labor costs."

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The need to better manage labor costs is one design trend that will not go away anytime soon. This impacts design on a number of different levels. "Everyone is looking to see what they can do to make the kitchen smaller. And they want to be able to better address the fluctuations in traffic," says Foster Frable, principal at the design firm Clevenger Frable LaVallee in White Plains, N.Y. "You just can't have 10 people manning a facility when you only have 50 people in the dining room. So those people that have cyclical volume have really had to look at what they are doing."

This development allows for the introduction of some different technologies in a variety of settings. "It goes back to creating efficiency in smaller footprints by using such items as rapid-cook ovens or smaller combi ovens," Coca says. "This gives the chefs a lot of flexibility in smaller footprints."

The prevalence of compact footprints not only applies to the overall size of the kitchen but to the individual workstations that now feature all of the equipment and supplies that individual culinary staff members need to maximize their efficiency while minimizing the number of steps required to complete their jobs, all the while maintaining food quality. "Cooks are not moving more than two or three feet," Barker adds. "And the equipment we use does not compromise food quality. There was always an aspect of food quality that we had to sacrifice. That's no longer the case."

Barker recalls a recent instance of enhancing efficiency without compromising food quality. "We had a concept with hot dogs on the menu, but the operator did not sell many of them," Barker says. His firm was charged with finding a way to keep hot dogs on the menu but reduce the space consumed by the related equipment in the back of the house. In doing so, Barker sought out an item that restaurants might not normally consider: a small, quick steamer that was more commonly used in concession stands. This shrunk the footprint allocated to the menu item while maintaining the food quality. This kind of out-of-the-box thinking will drive kitchen design in the future. "We've had to seek out those products, not only for function but for form too," he adds.

The industry-wide acceptance of exhibition cooking has led to smaller back-of-the-house setups as well. This has had the most profound impact on institutional operations. Thirty years ago, cooklines in institutional kitchens consisted mainly of standard ranges and fryers, and the service style was the typical cafeteria line. "Now people want to bring that back-of-the-house fire to the front of the house," Schroeder says. "As a result, the back of the house has shrunk, but the front of the house has grown."

Frable agrees and adds, "When I look at the profiles of the different operators and projects, it is amazing to see how tight some of the chains have gotten their prototypes down to, and then some of the colleges have very large operations. I think college and university foodservice is in a world that's completely different from other segments. But all the other operators are fighting the battle for a shrinking amount of space. Everybody is just pushing at the kitchen. So it takes a lot of fight back from the operator and the kitchen designer to maintain their space."

As kitchens become smaller, municipalities are starting to take notice and mandate specific amounts of space for dry storage, sanitation and the like. "Because of people not making the proper space allocations, the local health and building departments are starting to play savior to the kitchen space. Our experience is that these regulations are nonnegotiable," Frable says. "The fact that we have less space requires us to be more conscious of what we are doing."

While the kitchen space shrinks, the demands on the back of the house continue to grow. For example, as foodservice operators look to embrace sustainable practices like recycling and composting, they must add more receptacles to their shrinking kitchens to accommodate these initiatives. "Some of these things are contradicting themselves, so it is up to the designer to find a balance and be creative in doing it," Coca says.

Indeed, the need to balance the use of the back-of-the-house space has become even more important than was previously the case. "Chefs have been given carte blanche to get the equipment they want, and have little interest in such areas as warewashing or dry storage. You end up having kitchens that are 80 percent cooking, and there's little space for the dishroom, the servers and more," Frable says. "But an unbalanced kitchen that has more production and insufficient storage or other areas is an inefficient beast. If you don't have the place to store or wash things, productivity drops. And the cost of labor is still the big nut for a foodservice operation."

As menus become more focused, it is likely that more foodservice operators will build their concepts around one main piece of equipment. "Before, you would pick a combination of equipment that was moderately priced. Now, let's say the concept centers on a wood-fired oven. You focus a lot of your resources on the wood-fired oven and build around that," Barker says. "It makes it easier to design, and it makes your labor easier. And then the rest of the kitchen does not even cost that much."

Because it can be difficult to project what the future will hold for foodservice, many designers build flexibility into their initial plans to help expedite any necessary updates and remodels. "We try to build the bones of the structure, and each time it is ready for a lipstick remodel, we can take stuff out and plug in new items," Barker says. "We have a series of remodels planned, and none of them is longer than six weeks."

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