Prep Equipment

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Creating Successful Cooklines

Although defined as a chain of hot food prep equipment, cooklines come in a variety of formats and are supported by equipment of all types. The type and size of the operation as well as its menu will dictate the makeup of the cookline.

“When I think of a cookline, my first reaction is to question the point of the line,” says Chris Wair, design principal at Reitano Design Group in Indianapolis. “I see cooklines as specifically prep oriented, finish cooking focused or, commonly, some combination of both.”

Cooklines can consist of different stations, such as an a la carte area for appetizers; a saute line for pasta, meat and vegetables; a broil station for steaks, burgers and other grilled items; and a fry station for chicken nuggets, fried fish and fries. 

Larger operations typically separate prep cooklines and finish cooklines. “In these instances, a prep cookline would be designated for bulk cooking items that will be used in recipes or divided into smaller portions for individual menu item orders,” Wair explains. “This could include large volumes of sauces, stocks, soups, grains and proteins that will be used further in the production process. It would also involve the final product in cases like lasagnas, casseroles, side dishes, etc.”

By contrast, the finishing cookline prepares individual menu items. Wair describes this line as set up for fast production of either raw ingredients or finished assembly/plating of items that have been partially prepared on the prep cookline. “Where the prep line is geared toward a slower cooking process, performing functions that could take literally hours of production time, the finishing cookline would be meant for fast bursts of cooking, usually in the 5- to 15-minute range,” Wair says.

Kitchens with smaller footprints typically have a single line that functions as both the prep line and the finishing line. “In these cases, prep is often accomplished outside of the regular meal serving times, or while the customer counts are the lowest, so there is little to no workflow interruption of the different line functions,” Wair says.

Because cooklines serve as the heart of the back of house, placement is typically centralized in the kitchen. However, prep cooklines are more condensed, generally positioned off to one side and not in operation during operating hours. 

“The cookline also can be in the front of house where it is integral to the ambiance of the interior design and intent of what the operator is trying to achieve,” says Rick Sevieri, president of RJS & Associates, headquartered in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “[Regardless of its location], the menu, budget, seat count and building’s square footage all dictate what the line requires.”

The Lineup

The cookline’s equipment makeup is dependent on a number of factors. Also, prep cooklines will look much different than finishing cooklines.

“On the prep side, we would look at higher-volume cooking vessels that will produce large, single batches of an item that cook over longer periods of time,” Wair says.

While prep cooklines could include steam jacketed kettles, tilting skillets, multi-pan steamers, larger-capacity combi ovens, smokers, ranges, cook-and-hold ovens and convection ovens, finishing line equipment is geared for speed of service with equipment such as charbroilers, griddles, fryers, combi ovens and saute ranges.

Hot holding cabinets and refrigeration also are commonplace on finishing cooklines. “It comes down to how much [and what type of cooking and] refrigeration is needed,” Sevieri says. “For example, if there is a combi or convection oven on the line, the saute range may not need an oven underneath, so refrigerated drawers can be substituted for added cold storage.”

Looking at equipment variety, Jay Bandy, president of Goliath Consulting Group, based in Norcross, Ga., notes that stoves, ovens, fryers, refrigeration, freezers, grills, salamanders, worktables, shelving and a dump station/landing area are standard on cooklines.

Technology has had an impact on cookline efficiency, enhancing speed of service and food safety. “Led by combi oven manufacturers, smart controls that can be accessed via cell phones, computer connections or thumb drives can record data to either upload recipe information to the cooking unit or download information of the cooking process for HACCP to ensure food safety,” Wair says. “These advances have greatly increased the amount of information available to the operator.”

Ventless equipment has enabled operators to not only be more versatile with cookline designs but also to make the most of kitchens with limited space. “Large, multideck combi ovens with ventless hood systems can turn any kitchen space into a high-volume prep line,” Wair says. “This has enabled more specific item prepping, such as baking, steaming or banquet prep, to have its own area without the added expense of another hood system.”

Finishing cookline innovations have focused on speed and control. “Griddles with pull-down hoods enable cooking on both sides of a product simultaneously, while high-efficiency fryers that cook with lower oil volumes provide better recovery speeds,” Wair says. “Also, speed oven technology cuts cooking time in half.”

The advent of ventless and induction technology also has made it easier to bring back-of-house equipment to the front of house. “In addition, there has been an acceleration in the development of equipment that can utilize multiple cooking temperatures or styles in one common cavity or footprint, [like combi ovens]. This allows for increased menu variety without the need for more space or the expense of additional equipment,” Wair says. “This equipment has given chefs the ability to expand their offerings easier than ever before.”

Sevieri touts the benefits of multicook ovens, which have a smaller footprint and produce either individual or bulk orders. “We’re starting to see more small combi ovens taking the place of convection ovens, which reduces the cost as well as the hood size and footprint that are necessary,” he says. “This also allows us to put more refrigeration on the cookline, which helps expedite the prep phase.”

“Cooklines are now available with customization of storage, refrigeration, electric cooking versus gas, induction burners, speed ovens, combi ovens, high-efficiency fryers and the introduction of robotics,” Bandy says. 

Keys to Success

Proper planning is the key to creating a successful cookline. Best results depend on creating a space that is labor efficient without crossover traffic.

“The different line elements need to be thought out in relation to how traffic will flow from the storage and raw prep areas to the point of cooking,” Wair explains. “Easy access to raw materials is crucial to an efficient kitchen. Staff should never, or very rarely, need to leave their designated station and move into another worker’s area for ingredients during a meal period. This is not only inefficient but is dangerous on a fully functioning, busy finishing line.”

Also, correctly sizing line equipment is integral as it should keep pace with the peak volume. “Equipment that is too small for the operation’s volume will cause meal delivery times to suffer, likely causing higher labor and/or reduced sales ability,” Wair says. “Equipment that is greatly oversized will cause inefficiencies in the space needed for the overall kitchen. This not only increases the necessary square footage in the kitchen but requires a larger exhaust system, causing higher energy usage by the establishment.”

Employee comfort, which can be easily overlooked on a cookline, needs to be considered as well. “These lines are always hot, humid and very often smoky places to work,” Wair says. “Operators should take the time to partner with a qualified mechanical engineer and exhaust hood manufacturer to properly size both the exhaust and the makeup air sides of the system. In cold climates, heating the supply air to a comfortable point for workers is important. Conversely, cooling the air is just as important during hot, humid summer months.”

By the same token, the number of steps employees take should also be factored in with a cookline layout. “We try to give chefs a triangle or turn radius with one step in the station,” Sevieri says. “Depending on how the line grows, there can be as many as three people back there at one time, and we want to keep them within their stations.”

 According to Bandy, a successful cookline is designed with a focus on the menu and type of cuisine being served first. “Second is understanding the peak and low sales volumes the cookline will need to put out,” he says. “Cooklines must be set up as mini stations consisting of fry, saute, grill, bake, expo and other functions where the staff can perform all aspects of their job within one physical step.”