Design of the kitchen, as well as the front of the house, results from execution of the concept. The more attention paid to both in the design process, the greater the chance of success.

But which drives the design: menu or concept? Here, a restaurateur, a consultant and a designer all weigh in on the topic.

The restaurateur: Marc Jacobs, executive partner and divisional president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), says, “The menu should always come first. It all starts with the food. For me, it’s always first.”

The consultant: “Concept development is the first step,” says Karen Malody, owner and principal of Culinary Options. “No sensible menu can be developed without the concept first having been defined.”

Two differing views about what is the critical first step that drives design decisions about space and equipment. But, wait — there is a third opinion.

The designer: John Egnor, principal of JME Hospitality, says neither the menu nor the concept is the first step in design. He first acts to determine what the owner is trying to achieve. What is the ultimate goal?

Menu First

Marc JacobsMarc Jacobs, Restaurateur“If the menu is not first when designing a kitchen, you see the sacrifice,” Jacobs says. “There is so much detail that goes into designing a kitchen, designing the line, making sure you have the right pieces to produce the menu you want. If you don’t have the menu, you get a generic floor plan, a generic footprint, and it’s not as good.”

If you don’t design to the menu, Jacobs says, you run the risk of having to go back to make changes. “You would have not just the cost of equipment but the cost of associated fees with designers, engineers and so on.”

Jacobs points to LEYE’s four-unit concept Beatrix Market as an example of a menu-driven design. Beatrix Market offers a quick grab-and-go experience. The menu features a large food bar with self-serve salad, soup and hot items, plus rotating chef-prepared salads, sandwiches and snacks.

“We analyze and plan down to every pan size. We count how many pans will go into each bar. This dictates storage in the coolers, cooking equipment and production. We look at which ones come off the grill, which ones come off the fry and griddle, which ones come off saute. They work to balance it out so they don’t have too many coming from one station.”

Another factor is whether the grill unit will include breakfast. If yes, a breakfast menu requires more griddle space and more burner space for cooking eggs.

Menu also drove design for LEYE’s Mediterranean concepts, Aba (the word means father in Hebrew) and Ema (which means mother in Hebrew). Both concepts make bread from scratch on-site, driving the need for the design to allow space for bread production even beyond prep and cooking.

Related questions that helped LEYE drive design included:

  • Where does the bread go after it comes out of the bread oven?
  • Is there a bread station where staff add za’atar spice and brush it with oil?
  • Where should the bread baskets sit when not in use?

BML InteriorWide BeatrixAt Beatrix Market, key decisions were made about the menu first. Photo courtesy of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

Concept First

Karen Malody Culinary OptionsKaren Malody, consultantMalody starts with a process she calls “visioning.” She spends time with the stakeholders in an intense ideation session that results in establishing the concept. “Visioning is a critical process that sets the guideposts for everything that follows,” she says.

“Concept development and documentation set the direction for the entire process,” Malody explains. “This includes everything from the style of service — fast casual, table service, quick-serve, etc. — to the selection of glassware, plateware, furniture and lighting that will support the concept.”

The concept document becomes the final voice in decisions and alternatives during the actual design process. It determines the food, the service, the decor, the pricing and the marketing in a way that makes the restaurant’s goals and objectives clear.

Accelerated project timelines can cause concept articulation to fall through the cracks, Malody notes. “Designers are being asked to hurry up and design kitchens before concepts have been designed — let alone a menu.”

A corporate dining project with a Seattle-based company reminds Malody of the importance of establishing concept. The project was to design employee dining facilities in four new buildings. She submitted 40 concepts; 25 were selected.

The following questions guided the evaluation process to create the concepts:

  • Would any of the new concepts be completely cashless?
  • If ordering through kiosks, how many should there be? Where should they be placed to prevent lines during peak hours? Would digital menu boards above the kiosks help employees make decisions more quickly before entering their orders?
  • What is the optimal menu size? What equipment would be needed to ensure that orders could be completed within a prescribed time period?
  • Would customers have to stand around waiting for their orders to be completed, or would staff deliver the food to the guests’ tables, thus preventing lines of hungry, impatient people crowding spaces where others were seated?
  • If food is to be delivered to tables, what technology or methodology would be utilized to readily locate the
    correct customer as quickly as possible?

It took many meetings to sort out the details. The ordering and service decisions affect not only spatial planning but the menu itself, Malody says. If the concept has takeout, delivery and/or customer-facing technology, it will affect back-of-the-house design and, often, menu design.

“One of the greatest pitfalls in using technology can be overburdening the kitchen with orders during peak periods,” Malody points out. Ordering online or ordering on premise from tablets or kiosks can add pressure. In this case, the process influences the menu.

“If the menu has not been engineered for peak hour production efficiency, the operation can fail. Customers waiting for their food become impatient; bodies pile up in a space that was probably not designed for waiting people. It can be chaotic and disastrous.”

Often menus are too large to accommodate required levels of efficient throughput and/or specified equipment may not include partially automated equipment or ovens that can accelerate cook times.

Neither First

John Egnor Photo John Egnor, designerAdding another layer to the question of which comes first, Egnor says asking owners to articulate their visions comes first — before menu or concept. His first goal is to understand what the owner/chef wishes to achieve with the operation. “ ‘Concept’ is a very focused term, while ‘vision’ is a broad term. It provides a lot of adjectives that lead to understanding the concept and, ultimately, the menu and the style of the kitchen.”

Questions that identify the vision might include:

  • Do you want an open kitchen or one that’s closed?
  • Will this feature a fine-dining room?
  • Will there be takeout?
  • Is there a door to the kitchen, or is there a wall you would walk around?
  • What is the ambience of the dining room?

When you get answers that identify the vision, you can define the concept, Egnor says. “This also defines how you create your menu. These both need to happen at the appropriate time. That is, after you have articulated the vision.”

Egnor gives an example: The vision is an upscale steakhouse restaurant with ample seating in the dining room and an open kitchen where the chefs are actually on stage.

The resulting concept would then be a steakhouse with seating oriented toward an open kitchen, Egnor explains, which will in turn dictate the placement of the equipment in the dining room and the kitchen.

The menu, however, will distinguish the steakhouse from others, Egnor adds. “Anyone can cook a steak,” he says. “It’s the sides that will give you an edge.” If the owner/chef wants to feature a one-and-a-half pound baked potato, that will dictate cooking equipment and storage space — as well as choice of tableware.

Additionally, unique desserts may call for a garde manger behind the scenes where staff can prepare and store items at the proper temperature.

Who's Right

In Egnor’s view, Malody and Jacobs are actually both right. For a restaurateur, the menu is always the driver. An operations person must start with the concept, and the menu develops from the concept.

The owner’s or chef’s vision will provide a couple of different options for the concept. Then you get into the menu, Egnor points out.

The important message that comes through clearly in the views of all three — the restaurateur, the consultant and the designer — is not to skimp on ideation up front, including the vision, the concept and the menu. If those three are unclear, the best-case scenario would be a dysfunctional kitchen that puts pressure on staff. The worst would mean going back to make what can be expensive changes.