Foodservice by Design

Team members from Profitality-Labor Guru discuss how industrial engineering can be applied to the foodservice industry.


The Benefits of an Open Kitchen

Open kitchens are far from new but can represent an innovative way to address labor challenges.

For the concepts that already have open kitchens, this feature is a no-brainer. Those who have not made the leap to an open kitchen, often have an abundance of questions and valid arguments to address. Some of the more common objections as to why operators don’t want to move to an open kitchen design include:

  • Our kitchen line is too messy.
  • We would have to add labor to clean the BOH which would be counterproductive.
  • Our kitchen staff in the back of the house is not as friendly as our front-of-house staff.
  • Our guests would not like to see into the kitchen.

Once a concept implements an open kitchen, though, I don’t recall any that have gone back to closed kitchens for the reasons listed above.

In our experience, closed kitchens tend to be messier because they remain out of the customers’ line of sight. Regardless of whether the kitchen is open or closed, operators need standards to keep the stations clean. In terms of staffing, operators using open kitchens still require both front and back-of-house staff.

The real benefit of an open kitchen is the ability to “slide” labor from the front to the back of the house as necessary. One example of how this might work would be to have an expeditor who works in the front of the house, slide around to the back of the house to drop a batch of fries into the fryer or even package an order of fries for an on-premises order or a delivery order. Similarly, the back-of-house assembler could be cross-trained to consolidate an order in a bag and add napkins, condiments, etc. Being able to share these activities can dramatically impact how a foodservice operator deploys labor.

Many concepts face difficulty when deciding where to station the next body as demand and deployment increase. Do you stack the ability to take orders and potentially draw the kitchen with more than it can handle? Or do you staff the kitchen, creating an underutilization of the back of the house while stress-testing the front of the house and potentially increasing queue times? Or do you invest in labor and bring in two team members so neither side feels a greater impact? Operators can save themselves from having to make such decisions by having open kitchens and labor models that allow staff to “slide” between both sides as demand and work content deem it necessary.

Although most concepts want to maximize their throughput at peak and be able to deliver a competitive service time during the busiest times, the reality is what allows a concept to succeed during these labor-challenging times is how it manages the non-peak periods, which can account for 70% to 80% of a restaurant’s business day. It’s during these slower periods that most good concepts erode all the profits earned during the peak periods. Similarly, off-peak times can have an even greater impact on a concept or location’s financial performance. And let’s not forget that because many operators now have multiple order entry channels (i.e., some combination of dine-in, to-go, drive-thru, online, etc.) the front-of-house staff can get pulled in so many directions that the business will most likely need at least two team members to provide the right service to customers.

What happens if the financial model only allows for three full-time equivalents during those hours with low sales? This leaves the managers with the same decision as mentioned before: “Do I staff the kitchen, so the production time is not compromised?” Doing this will likely create a longer queue time to order or even to be greeted, which can ultimately compromise sales, the guest experience, and, potentially, repeat business. It will also create an imbalance in team-member utilization; two back-of-house team members can produce a lot more than a single front-of-house team member can ring.

And it’s not any better if you choose to staff the front of the house to provide a better up-front guest experience. Yes, the operation will be able to ring in the orders more quickly, but doing so will overwhelm the back-of-house team members. And the two front-of-house team members will anxiously wait at the pass-thru window for their very delayed orders.

Having the open kitchen and the ability to slide and deploy will allow the manager to have one front-of-house and one back-of-house employee and one flex employee who can slide between the two functional areas to help balance the workflow as necessary. Having an open kitchen not only helps the team members have a balanced workload across both areas, but it will also help drive sales and potential repeat business during all hours of operation.