Many designers face the same conundrum: how to design an efficient kitchen in a pre-existing, often confined space. But what happens when that space is no ordinary space in just any old building?

Foodservice consultant Eric Norman, vice president for Iowa-based design firm MVP Services Group, is working on two very unique projects involving smaller spaces. One is a greenhouse-turned-event space, banquet/processing kitchen and teaching/demo kitchen for an urban garden. The other is a uniquely positioned college cafeteria — set smack within the middle of the building — with its own spatial challenges and little flexibility in form.

“Often the architect will give us a certain amount of space, or a budget dictates how big — or small — the kitchen will be, and it’s up to us to maximize the efficiency of that confined space,” Norman says.

Here Norman discusses some of the key challenges with these types of projects and tips on how to overcome them.

Tip 1: Start with the Work Stations

When designing confined kitchens, Norman starts by thinking about what the different workstations will entail. The idea is to load up each station with whatever the staff will need so they “don’t need to run to the other side of the kitchen just to get a spoon or have to travel far to use certain appliances,” he says.

The greenhouse project presented a unique challenge. The 1940s-era greenhouse structure in Dubuque, Iowa had sat vacant for 15 years or more. The new owners wanted the structure to feature a working greenhouse with hydroponics in the front and an events space and supporting “banquet-type” kitchen for the back half. They also wanted the main kitchen to have equipment that could process fruits and vegetables grown into the greenhouse or elsewhere in the community. And, they wanted to convert the old florist’s shop off the main greenhouse into a smaller demonstration kitchen for smaller private events, classes on cooking, canning and preserving.

Norman started the design by setting up a two-compartment sink for washing fruits and vegetables toward the back of the kitchen as they come in straight from the greenhouse. “The idea is to pre-wash everything to get the dirt off before the product goes into the main kitchen,” he says. That same station can be equipped with ozone washing technology for chemical-free cleaning.

The main kitchen stations feature plenty of workspace beside the equipment. This approach allows the space to meet its dual purpose of serving as a banquet and prep and produce processing kitchen. The cookline includes one combi oven, two six-burner ranges with ovens beneath and a large tilt kettle for soups, stocks and sauces cooked in bulk.

The kitchen also includes a sink and another workspace near the blast-chilling area, set close to the walk-in cooler and freezer. Another small table near the three-compartment sink accommodates dishwashing and provides adequate room to store dishes and wares.

Tip 2: Think Inside the Box

Thinking outside — yet within — the confines of the kitchen “box” can help designers get creative with the available space.

For example, the equipment package for the greenhouse’s teaching kitchen features some specialty items. Since the space was too small for a traditional hood, Norman installed two self-contained induction stations, each with two burners and their own downdraft exhaust capabilities and built-in fire suppression to make up for the loss of the hood.

For the school kitchen, Norman was tasked to increase the serving line space in a confined, rectangular area, while maintaining a flow of students from the southwest entry to a northwest exit. In response to these challenges, the design includes custom-built curved serving lines, rather than the traditional straight serving lines to keep students moving in and out in a half circle with stations on either side to pick up food.

Tip 3: Select Multi-Use Equipment

At the school, Norman specified serving wells that can serve hot or cold food interchangeably with the flip of the button. Dual-purpose equipment like this helps maintain efficiencies in smaller spaces.

That said, many designers know the power of combi ovens in small spaces due to their dual-cooking technology. At the school project, Norman swapped out two double-stacked convection ovens and two kettles for just two combis and one kettle and found the staff could put out more food with less equipment than was previously the case.

Beyond steaming and roasting, Norman and the project team found while working on the greenhouse that foodservice operators can also use combi ovens to can sauces. “We did a test run on pizza sauce using tomatoes grown in the green house, putting them in canning jars and drilling a hole into one of the jars so we could insert a temperature probe,” he says. “Instead of traditionally boiling the cans in water, we found the combi could achieve the same results and keep the sauce at a pasteurized 180 degrees F simply by placing the jars on the racks in the oven.”

With this equipment in the greenhouse, guests can follow the complete lifecycle of a tomato, going from seed to harvest to cooking and preservation – all under one roof.

Tip 4: Step Up Shelving

Vertical shelving can help maximize wall space in confined spaces. “Anytime you can hang utensils or pots and pans overhead, that frees up linear space,” Norman says.

The school project’s dry storage area features high-density shelving units on tracks. Similar to how files are stored in law offices, this system allows staff to roll shelves in and out to find what they need without compromising storage capacity.

Tip 5: Leverage Technology

Just like in the case of the combis and blast chilling, leveraging technology and modern equipment can help produce larger amounts of food in smaller spaces.

Rapid-cook ovens and other smaller-scale conveyor ovens can help achieve these goals, Norman adds.

Even in smaller spaces, blast chillers can help preserve foods without compromising the efficiency of an operation. “If you take a strawberry and simply put in a regular freezer, it will freeze slowly, with large crystals that break down the cells,” Norman says. “When you go to thaw it out, it will bleed out. The blast freezer shock-freezes the strawberry, creating smaller ice crystals that won’t break down the integrity of the fruit and release all its liquid once you transfer it to the freezer.”

Working in challenging, pre-existing spaces and buildings requires foodservice designers to stretch the confines of their imagination — and their arsenal of equipment choices.