Think Tank Hospitality Group tends to sell most of the used equipment from its projects at auction, due to the extensive labor needed to clean it and cost to switch out parts.

"We used to build concepts around equipment, but now we take a concept and design the kitchen and equipment around it," Barker says. This has been made easier with today's technology, which has made equipment more flexible to produce multiple items and authentic ethnic dishes. "For example, today's wood-burning ovens can be used to cook pizza or as a tandoori oven for Indian dishes," he adds.

Equipment flexibility is also critical in today's remodels. Versatile units that staff can easily disconnect and move for various tasks have become more sought after due to expanding menus and dayparts. This also helps with cleaning and sanitation. "We try to apply the same concepts used in fast-food restaurants, which can quickly change from breakfast to lunch production," Norton says. "In addition to energy efficiency and size, portability is a big consideration with today's equipment."

Because project teams generally focus on the here and now, it can be tough to think ahead in terms of building in flexibility for the future. "Still, it's important to build in open electrical circuits and oversize gas and water lines for future needs," Belletto says. "More newer restaurants also have replaced conventional water heaters with on-demand systems, which take up less space and are more energy efficient."

During renovation projects, Think Tank Hospitality Group employs its Steps program to help ensure all the necessary bases are covered. "Every task includes two to three steps, although with certain architectural aspects it's usually between three and five," Barker says.

The company focuses on setting up a modern flow pattern in new kitchens to reduce necessary labor. This results in smart kitchens that include modern equipment, such as combi ovens.

Yet, not all concepts are ready for smart kitchens. For smaller operations, like corner delis and mom-and-pop restaurants, traditional equipment packages — meaning six-burner ranges, convection ovens and the like — are a better choice. To help determine the right plan of action, Think Tank Hospitality Group conducts a smart kitchen assessment, which includes reviewing the menu and breaking point, to see when it makes sense for a brand to change its labor model and equipment package.

"As an analogy, it's comparable to the sophisticated computerized cars of today versus a 1955 Chevy," Barker says. "Operators that choose a better equipment package pay more money up front, but in the first six months of operation, they will save on labor and other costs. Incorporating a combi oven can save between 1.5 and 2 employees per operation."

In an effort to save labor, many kitchen conversions today focus on adding equipment that offers a completely different level of cooking than years ago; this includes sous vide technology. Along with cost savings, these units provide operators with more flexibility for future menu changes.

Today's remodels also place an increased focus on branding, which provides designers with more opportunities to streamline the menu and equipment package. "We use the if-then formula, where if this goes well, then we add these things in," Barker says. "When different items and achievements are able to be checked off, then other options open up in the plan."

This was the case for a recent Thai restaurant remodel, where the demographics in the 12-year-old eatery's neighborhood had shifted from young college kids to professionals and foodies. Think Tank Hospitality Group added a bar in the dining room and filled out the patio to accommodate more patrons, without depleting the family friendly atmosphere in the front of house. "Repurposing the space is what we were after and what we were able to achieve," Barker says.

Takeover Conversions

Not only are restaurants relocating into pre-existing spaces, which allows previous locations to be sold for assets that let operators go with their brands, but more of these businesses are expanding by adding locations.

Yet, when it comes to the back of house, bigger is no longer better. "Operators used to want enormous kitchens. The thinking was, if it isn't big, it isn't good," Norton says. "Now the current thinking is that smaller kitchens are better."

Communication is imperative with all parties in any remodel. Prior to moving forward with a site conversion, Norton will sit down with clients to determine their vision for the operation, find out what type of menu items the facility will offer and do a complete analysis of the concept.

"Once we get a feel for the operation, we write up a description that details what the operation will look like and the kind of service the client is looking for," Norton says. "We then have them sign off on this before the design process begins. This ensures that they understand what the results will be."

If there is a disconnect between the operator and the designer, and expectations are not made clear prior to the start of the project, it is likely that the client will not be satisfied with the results. Fortunately, with computer-generated designs, unlike with conventional blueprints, operators can get a better idea of layouts and spatial relationships.

Another factor when taking over a pre-existing location is the condition of the building. The structure's age as well as the wear and tear on the building can sometimes present economic hurdles that can be tough and expensive to clear.

On a recent Vision 360 Design project to convert a 10-year-old Chinese restaurant into a fast-casual chain, tearing down a wall revealed corroded metal studs and extensive mold. This resulted in unexpected costs to rebuild the wall and create a new substructure. "Everything had to come out of this restaurant, with the exception of the hood," Belletto says. "None of the equipment could be reused."

Along with unmaintained equipment, older mechanicals may warrant additional work and garner a greater expense. "For instance, grease traps that were installed 10 or more years ago will most likely have to be replaced due to changes in sizing and requirements for city municipalities," Belletto says. "This involves extensive outside work, including digging holes, and can cost $20,000 to $30,000 to upgrade and resize the grease trap."