Design Tips and Tricks
In addition to these sorts of design principles, which allow operators to assemble fundamentally sound kitchens, most foodservice designers have tips and tricks they use to make the most out of prep space.
One of Kuczera's best practices is a bit counterintuitive in this day and age of designing kitchens that are the most efficient possible: leave a little extra space at a couple of points in a prep area. These small bits of space can provide an operation with the flexibility to introduce new menu items and to evolve along with changing customer tastes. "We had clients who finished their kitchen and then decided they wanted to develop a whole fresh juice program. It required that we find a little juicer and supporting trash and things related to that. We were able to find a little nook to support the station. So there are opportunities within the space if you add just a little bit of room for flexibility," she says.
Another of Kuczera's favorite moves is staggering prep stations to avoid having two kitchen staffers work back-to-back. This prevents staffers from bumping into each other and disrupting their work. It also, she says, helps the kitchen feel more open without requiring any extra space. "The way a kitchen feels is what generates labor productivity. If someone can release themselves out to the walk-in cooler without interrupting four other prep stations, that's thoughtful design."
Daniel also supports designing kitchens with an open feel, especially in the front of the house. For that reason, he avoids placing equipment that looks like tall stainless steel boxes where the customer can see them. Instead he prefers equipment that's basically out of the customer's sight. The less the customers see the equipment, he notes, the more they'll see the food.
A Solid Foundation
Whether in the front of the house as part of a show for customers, or in the back, far away from diners' eyes, prep areas play a vital role in professional foodservice operations. Though they may not get as much attention as the dining room or a cookline, well-designed prep spaces and individual prep stations are a must if a kitchen is going to run smoothly and efficiently.
"The footprint of kitchens are for the most part shrinking, while the cost of real estate, the cost of equipment and the cost of utilities are going up. So we're trying to design kitchens that are much more efficient with prep areas that are much smaller," says Daniel. "But you have to remember: the prep area is like the foundation of a building. Everything a kitchen puts out is based on it. So if you don't have a good prep area, you're not going to have a good product."
Favorite Tools for Prep
It's only natural that a design consultant would have favorite pieces of equipment for different situations. When it comes to prep areas, Reggie Daniel of Camacho Associates and Beth Kuczera of Equipment Dynamics Inc. certainly fit that bill.
Daniel is a fan of portable induction cooktops in prep areas. While he stresses that operators must use these units in accordance with health and safety codes — no frying, for example — they provide valuable flexibility. "If you're rendering chocolate or warming something, or if you're a baker and you're making a frosting, you can do it at a worktable rather than having to do it at a dedicated range under the hood." Similarly, he says, operations should take advantage of handheld mixing wands, which offer portability and are right-sized for small-batch prep.
Another tool Daniel likes is the high-end food processor. Units that cut with extreme precision without having the blade "slam" into the produce increase yield, allowing a more expensive tool to pay for itself relatively quickly, he says.
Produce washers represent a somewhat unusual piece that operators should consider as well, says Daniel. If an operation serves vegetables of "any quality at all," he says, produce washers are compelling from both a labor and food-cost standpoint. Some foodservice-grade produce washers available today operate simply by pouring the produce in the top and placing a collection bin at the bottom. "It allows the staffer to leave and do something else while the produce is being washed. They don't have to stand there and scrub radishes to get the dirt off them. It's a huge labor-saving device in a small footprint." What's more, Daniel finds these tools to be more effective than hand cleaning when it comes to washing away microorganisms that cause produce to spoil, resulting in longer storage life and less waste.
Kuczera also has a favorite piece of prep equipment for extending food's shelf life: the blast chiller. Operations that specialize in fresh food, especially, can benefit from these tools. "When there's an opportunity for a particularly lush run of salmon or some great vegetables, the blast chiller allows you to clean it, temperature-control it and extend the shelf life," she says.
Similarly, Kuczera is a fan of salad spinners. Whether electric or hand-powered, it's good to have a single tool that can wash and dry produce to help it maintain freshness.
She's also serious about the prep tables. Kuczera strongly favors tables that are three feet deep rather than two feet. That extra space, she says, allows operators to keep countertop equipment at hand without it getting in the way. In addition, Kuczera likes to specify tables made of a heavier-gauge metal. While they may be slightly more expensive than lighter-gauge tables, they should last an extra five years, she says.
Other good pieces to have on hand: sink-bowl covers that are built to double as cutting boards, allowing operations to quickly expand counter space, as well as lockdown covers on reliever drains, which can prevent food from going down a drain and causing hundreds or thousands of dollars of damage to an operation's plumbing.