From rethinking kitchen design components to equipping for off-premises dining, designers look to accommodate demands.
Many questions remain as restaurateurs and noncommercial operators alike adjust to consumers’ inclination to dine in or seek off-premises options. In turn, designers must adjust their thinking as well. Many veteran foodservice industry designers report that the pace of trends is increasing rapidly due to the pandemic. That has caused an exponential increase in the speed of innovation in the kitchen, among other restaurant areas.
“The main trends pre-pandemic that the pandemic accelerated were technology and flexibility,” says Min An, principal, Ricca Design Studios. An works from the firm’s Los Angeles design studio. “Even though more people are still working and cooking at home now, there will still be a strong need for foodservice in the future, but people will want more convenience.”
Pre-pandemic, most operators were looking for more flexibility in the kitchen; now they demand it. In the past few years, many had also begun to investigate various technologies, from smart kitchen equipment in the back of the house to software programs for ordering, contactless payment and more at the front.
Back-of-the-House Prep Areas
Consumers want their food both fresh and fast. That has translated into a greater push for high-volume cooking that can be done in batches or at least flash-frozen and rethermed later.
Cini•Little International Inc., based in Germantown, Md. “For example, maybe you use your combi oven more as a sous vide cooker to slowly cook chicken and be able to hold it well.” In that case, she notes, holding equipment will be more important in the future in order to maintain quality and handle higher volumes with a smaller batch-cooking approach.“Blast chillers are growing in popularity and I think more clients are changing how they use some of their equipment,” says Katja Beck, senior associate,
“Historically, healthcare has always done more batch cooking and maybe the operator was prepping for that lunch rush; but now that people are eating at different times of the day, you have to think about prepping food differently so that you can prepare batches, but then flash-finish items and execute orders very quickly, almost like a restaurant,” Beck says.
With the increase in takeout, many operators now use two makelines, one for in-person dining and one for order-ahead, pickup orders. Of course, that second line requires building in the proper shelving and space to hold all of the required packaging. “The question now is where is everything that’s to-go bundled?” says Connie Dickson, FCSI, principal of Minneapolis-based Rippe Associates. “In most cases, it’s a separate to-go station that’s moved to the back of the house.”
Labor optimization is still huge when it comes to equipment, Dickson adds. “Anytime you can add smart or programmable controls like on combi ovens or accelerated ovens, that helps the operator and will continue to be important in the future,” she says.
Once a novelty, smart equipment — pieces that users can monitor from afar via a smart device or computer, or connect to other appliances in the kitchen — might also become a more permanent fixture in future kitchen design. “The ability to ensure food safety because your refrigeration is tracking temperatures — things like that are going to be so important for the future,” Dickson says.
Consumers were and still are eating lunch at all hours, not just in the middle of the day. During the pandemic, as many healthcare operators began offering additional food items like meal kits and family dinners to-go to make up for lost revenue, guests who might have only come into a cafeteria in the morning or midday began stopping by in the afternoon to pick up dinner and grocery items on their way home.
Mobile ordering and a one-way flow, with designated points for entry and exit, prevent bottlenecks and excess queuing, but there are other benefits. “I think healthcare was tiptoeing into mobile ordering before COVID with the need to prevent congestion in serving areas, and now it’s a necessity to keep customers safe with social distancing,” says Dickson. “The other driver is speed of service and convenience. Nurses only have a half-hour break and don’t have as much time to go and wait in line to order food. They want to be able to maximize their time to recharge batteries, especially during a pandemic.”
Self-ordering kiosks were popular prior to the pandemic. And while the popularity of smartphone-based ordering and payment has skyrocketed during the past year, kiosks remain a part of the customer-facing technology equation for some concepts. The difference is, some operators now position their kiosks just outside of the entrance to a servery, again as a way to prevent bottlenecks.
Cafeteria and servery entrances of tomorrow will likely feature additional signage, in the form of QR codes that guests can use to scan and pull up menus and ordering tools using their phones. “The biggest thing right now is really contactless,” says Eric McConnell, vice president, Next Step Design, based in Annapolis, Md. “Paper menus are going to be dead soon. We’re going to see all barcodes and the ability to scan things with your phone rather than hold a menu that 60 other people have touched.” That’s less of an issue in a noncommercial operation, where most menus are either online or visible via overhead signage, but McConnell’s comment drives home the point that we’re all going to be touching less in the future.
With heightened safety in mind, front cafeteria entrances might also feature sanitizing or even handwashing stations in the future, if they don’t already.
Building in Flexibility Everywhere
The ability to quickly pivot and cater to constantly changing menus was necessary pre-pandemic, now it will be an integral part of future kitchen design. “Operators in every market want flexibility and convertibility, and I think that will continue to evolve,” An says. “They don’t want fixed equipment — they want more flexible spaces that they can convert to assembly areas or prep space during the daytime. I have been putting fixed equipment near and around the walls and then using middle areas to install things like portable worktables and drop cords that they can use to reconfigure the space as needed.” This goes for both back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house cooking areas.
Open kitchens and out-front cooking, where people can watch culinary staff make their food remain relevant too. “People still want that transparency,” Dickson says. However, “it’s now more about finding the right balance between the back-of-the-house space and the customer-facing space. If there’s a higher proportion of people who are just going to order and pick up their food from [a designated takeout area], more of that front-of-the-house space can become back of the house. Or, perhaps there could be more service points where we don’t need exhaust hoods.”
That’s where ventless and electrical equipment pieces like induction burners, rapid-cook ovens, hot-holding units and some combi ovens may come into play.
“Ventless allows for more flexibility because that equipment does not require hoods and can easily be moved around,” An says. “More manufacturers are developing new technologies so operators can produce more in smaller footprints.”
Chef’s tables are one element becoming somewhat less popular, per some designers. This is a space where a chef would prepare daily specials in individual portions. “We haven’t been seeing as many chef’s table stations even before COVID, largely because they weren’t as profitable and only catered to a small customer base,”
A must at every station, now, are convertible hot and cold holding pans, Beck adds. “I see them being used for cold fruit and yogurt in the morning and then for hot items during lunch.” She notes that even though these pieces can be pricey, they are a huge space saver for operators.
As we emerge from the pandemic, meetings and gatherings are still on the small side. This could have a direct impact on how noncommercial operators in particular feed people scattered throughout a space, whether in a campus, office space or in a healthcare setting.
“I think, in every market segment, people are probably going to be considering the layout of their building or campus. Maybe instead of one large feeding or dining venue with lots of options, you may break [the concept] up into smaller, more focused venues that you can position closer to where people are working and gathering,” Dickson says. This could take shape as more satellite kitchens positioned closer to conference spaces for the ability to do smaller-scale, a la carte catering.
“There has been a downturn in patience and in the willingness to wait a long time for food,” Dickson says. “This will have an impact on catering as well.”
Most agree that delivery and takeout will remain key parts of the post-pandemic foodservice landscape. Consumers quickly increased their comfort level with using their phones to scroll through menus, place orders and select delivery or choose to walk or drive up to receive their food with minimal interaction.
“I am seeing more clients researching cubbies and lockers, where you preorder your meal and then enter a code to open the door and pick up your food,” says Beck. “This greatly reduces the need for physical contact, especially in hospital settings, but this process also speeds up service for corporate settings when people just want to pick up their food when it’s ready and be back at their desk in less time.”
The question is the price — and the placement — of these lockers. “They can be pricey because of the software and physical components, and they take up some space. But quite honestly, I think the ROI on something like that is pretty good because it reduces labor costs significantly,” McConnell says. “There are even contactless lockers now where you can scan a code with your phone and open them up to get your food, and they have hot or cold temperature control. I think these are going to be really big for the takeout market in the future.”
Even in the healthcare segment, Dickson says she’s already had clients ask or begin researching these products. “They’re popular because the food is secure, and unlike open cubbies, you know no one has touched your food other than the person who made it for you,” she says. The question for operators becomes where to build in space for these components. In healthcare, there have been considerations about placing them outside of the main servery and closer to the nurses’ stations and individual floors, not unlike Amazon package lockers at a condo building.
Another issue with increased takeout is the impact on sustainability and the challenge it was — and still is — for operators to source packaging that is safe for consumers and will keep food fresh but also reduce the impact on the environment. “Operators seem to be torn between using all disposables versus china, but those are budget items and will be something they have to decide during the design period,” says Beck. “If they use more disposables, there’s less of a need for large warewashing machines.” But, she notes, switching to 100% permanent ware after that decision would become challenging because if the required dishwashing space wasn’t accounted for up front, it’s hard to build back in.
Dining Space Modifications
According to Datassential’s April 2021 “Reconnecting” report, 20% of consumers said they are not eating with their coworkers, while 33% said sometimes; 24% said yes, most of the time; and 22% said yes, every time. If these numbers continue, dining spaces will likely shrink or at least change in scope and concept.
“With one of my more recent projects, instead of a typical servery, they have more of a food hall setup where there are different food stations and seating scattered throughout, not just in one corner,” says Beck. “This makes the space feel less institutional and more like an outdoor market. Plus, it works well after a pandemic because not everyone jams in the same area and it spreads out the crowd a bit.”
Says An, “I don’t see the square footage shrinking anywhere in particular, just more use of underutilized space in a dining area for to-go or delivery stations or even sanitation.” At the hotel level, she’s seeing traditional lobby and dining seating being used for workspaces. “Even corporate clients don’t want to limit dining just for that. They want a multifunctional space for collaboration and smaller meetings.”
Beck has even had clients asking to equip dining rooms with a microwave station, so more people have the opportunity to heat up their own lunch and eat away from their desk without having to enter the main servery.
Says Dickson, “I think foodservice still functions as a place to bring people together on-site, in their workplace. To be able to foster those connections will still be really important in the future. Pre-COVID, it was all about making sure the operator could adapt to different food trends. Now it’s about flexibility in terms of both types of service and dining options.”
Trends Impacting Kitchen Design
- Permanent takeout-driven kitchen components, such as second makelines
- Multiuse cooking equipment
- Ventless equipment
- Flexible cooking/action stations
- Contactless everything, from mobile ordering to self-checkout and sink faucets
- Sanitation stations and handwashing sinks both in the front and back of the house
- Less self-service, more full-service