Finding Flexibility in the Kitchen

While we might not be slammed at the moment, let’s prepare to be. How can we work today to maximize our capacity for tomorrow?

nancy joe seaton headshot Nancy Jo Seaton | President and owner Seaton Food Consultants, Stamford, Conn. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Additional funds to update or upgrade equipment are scarce these days, so we need to make what we’ve got work to keep our heads above water until customers can flood back into restaurants. Now is the time to take inventory of what you’ve got hidden in corners and basements and closets and behind doors. Pull it all out. Plug it in and see if it works. If it does, is it useful?

How many times have you thought, “If only I had a (put your dream piece of equipment here) I could make X?” You can make almost anything with almost anything, if you know how to use it and think creatively. Do you have underutilized equipment? Is it gathering dust? Do you know how to use it? Does your team?

Here’s one way to offer pizza without pizza-specific equipment: Take an untopped pizza crust, put it on the hot spot on the flattop and let it get crispy, flip it, top it and transfer it to a pan that was preheated in a convection oven. Put the pizza on the pan in the convection oven at 400 degrees F for about 10 minutes or until the toppings melt. Pizza with a crispy crust!

The ideas below will help improve back-of-the-house flexibility to smooth operations and maximize volume. If all you have is a flattop and a convection oven, for example, you can still serve pizza — understand that with the equipment you have around you right now, you can creatively expand your offerings to increase volume.

Step 1: Take inventory of your equipment

Really take the time to uncover potential hidden gems in the back of the pantry or under prep tables. An old food processor can create an array of products you were likely not making 20 years ago when you bought it. Pesto, anyone? From kale or roasted red peppers? How about some healthy juice drinks? This kitchen workhorse can make on-trend menu items such as vegetable-based soups or big batches of hollandaise. Missing parts? Check if it’s an inexpensive fix.

List every piece of equipment — handheld, wall-mounted or taking up floor space — with serial numbers and any pertinent data. Also include how long you’ve had each piece of equipment. This is a great way to fill downtime for someone who works on the line.

Step 2: Does it all work?

Now that we’ve uncovered some buried treasure, ensure that every item is in good working order: a fantastic job for a line cook or steward.

Using the original list, make notes on what functions, what does not and what might be wrong with nonfunctional items, like missing parts or broken switches.

Another excellent job for in-house staff would be cleaning equipment so that it looks new. You never know if you’re going to want to sell (or donate) something if you no longer have use for it. Take the time to find out what things cost to repair before tossing them out; the repair guy might just surprise you because he has customers for your used equipment.

A good rule to follow when deciding whether to keep something is to determine how often you will use it. If you don’t make something with it at least once a week, it’s probably not worth keeping around. That said, if you make a special seasonal item with a single piece of equipment that you’ve had for years, keep that! If it pays for itself, keep it around. If it’s taking up space, time to let it go.

Step 3: Do you know how to use it?

How would you use a steam-jacketed kettle today? If you are making smaller portions, can you convert it to a sous vide?

To turn this into a team-building exercise, gather your crew together and have a roundtable discussion about what the equipment is and how best to make it work in your environment. Focus on one item a week. Additionally, gather recipe and new-use ideas.

Ask your local equipment supplier to show you how to fully utilize the items in your inventory.

It’s about expanding equipment knowledge. For instance, every heat-generating piece has a temperature setting; the equipment doesn’t only work at 350 degrees F or 400 degrees F. So that hot well may be able to get down to 110 degrees F. If so, with a tiny investment in a circulation pump and a sealing machine, you can start to create your own sous vide process.

Any local foodservice equipment dealer or even a rep should be pleased to pay you a visit — even if it’s virtual — to build some goodwill for when your kitchen starts really buzzing again. Explain that you’ve got a few pieces you’d like a refresher course on. The more you know about how your equipment works, the better you will be able to use it.

BOH Extenders

Whether you are an independent restaurant or a kitchen serving college students, as an operator, you have literally hundreds of opportunities to increase volume through your kitchen by becoming a ghost kitchen. Can you imagine a college or university dining operation becoming a ghost kitchen for a chicken wing concept? The first thing you need to engage with this additional opportunity is a list of all the equipment you’ve got and knowledge of how it works.

Maximizing every square inch of the back of the house is essential these days.

Yes, the pandemic has been a challenge for operators from all segments. But this industry has never been short on innovation. Take this chance to focus on ways to better use what you have at your disposal instead of focusing on what you don’t have available.