The Kitchen "Shrink": The Downsizing of Commercial Kitchens

In today's restaurant environment, the old adage "bigger is better" doesn't necessarily hold true anymore, at least when it comes to the kitchen. Savvy operators find that an intelligent redesign — along with equipment reconsideration — allows them to reduce the size of the kitchen without compromising food quality or production capabilities.

Before considering a kitchen redesign, it's essential to do a hard-nosed analysis of the mix of product, labor and equipment, says Juan Martinez, FCSI, principal of Profitality, a Miami-based restaurant consulting and engineering firm. "Start by examining your product mix, your cooking time and your assembly time," he says.

After looking at the product side of the equation and analyzing the amount of sales, only then can the redesign start. "That is critical to create the foundation for what the new back of house would be," continues Martinez. "Without that, you're guessing wrong and you're guessing 'big.'"

The first step is always menu analysis, agrees Beth Kuczera, president of Equipment Dynamics Inc., a kitchen design firm in Chicago. "We don't do anything without looking at the menu," she says. "You must start with the menu and take a good, studied look at it. Then, determine how you execute it." At that point, she says, the design process can begin.

Thomas Ligocki, owner of Lean System Solutions, a design and consulting firm in Madison, Wis., agrees that menu analysis represents a major part of the equation, but he points out that every change impacts something else in the kitchen. "All sorts of things come into play when you increase the front of house: more napkins, more silverware. Where are the plates going to be? Is the dishwashing area going to increase? Are the wait stations now going to increase in size?"

Space: The Final Frontier

One problem that occurs most frequently with redesign projects is that the equipment becomes the focal point of the kitchen rather than the traffic flow and ergonomic patterns between workers and equipment. "If you have to traverse 30 feet of kitchen to get a plate out, that plate goes down the line at a certain speed. And once you put food on the plate, the clock starts ticking with respect to its quality," Martinez says. "If you only have to traverse 15 feet, you have a better chance of that plate getting to the guest faster, which means better quality."

Allocating the right amount of space and using it correctly represents one of the biggest challenges Martinez encounters in kitchen redesigns. How can foodservice operations avoid this trap? "You can do an analysis on what percentage aisle space consumes in the back of the house and see how the operation uses it," he adds.

Ligocki likes to take what he describes as a cellular approach to design. He compares it to the cubicle setup found in many offices, with the open space in the center of the kitchen and equipment all around it within arm's reach.

The kitchen, though, still needs to remain flexible enough to handle the varying numbers of staff members who might occupy it during different dayparts. Designing a kitchen space that allows it to work in peak periods with two or three extra bodies thrown in can be a challenge, Kuczera adds. She suggests a couple of solutions, such as having a peak-period expediting station do double duty as a prep station during nonpeak hours. Or putting a prep station "a little bit more in front of the guest," she says, noting that it can make guests feel part of a welcoming energy.

Being Well Equipped

Of course, equipment is especially important in a design where every inch of space matters. But it takes more than just considering the equipment's overall footprint. In a tight space, every piece of equipment has an effect on every other piece — and on staff. For example, foodservice designers need to carefully check air exhausts and ventilation to ensure proper placement. And the amount of heat the equipment generates in the kitchen represents another key consideration.

In a smaller kitchen, it's almost imperative that pieces of equipment perform more than just one task. To help address this challenge, some operators turn to such innovative equipment as high-speed ovens that promise a versatile, energy-efficient operation in comparatively small footprints. However, even the traditional pieces of equipment can work well in this environment. "My favorite piece of equipment is a flat grill," says Martinez. "With a flat grill, you can do anything: You can steam, grill and even poach menu items. It has tremendous versatility."

And that old workhorse — the combi oven — is finding new favor in smaller-sized kitchens. "Combi ovens used to be for B&I and healthcare, and it's not been an easy sell for restaurants," says Kuczera, who is a self-proclaimed fan of this type of cooking equipment. "But you can program combis for a degree of consistency throughout the menu. You get better yields from it; you get a product profile that's more moist and that you might not get in a convection oven or straight steamer."

Successful foodservice operators that feature smaller kitchens find the secret sauce includes an interconnection between having equipment that outperforms the norm, design that takes ergonomics into consideration and a menu that's tailored to the functionality of the kitchen. In these kitchens, it's not so much "bigger is better" but "less is more."