Keeping the foodservice equipment marketplace up to date with the latest menu and concept trends.


Renovation Challenges and Best Practices

You’ve decided to renovate your operation. It might be for a number of reasons. You want to modernize. The Board of Health has raised some concerns. You want to add seats. You want to add high-tech equipment. You want to open the kitchen so diners can see the action.

No matter the reason, the size of the project, the budget or the timeline, a few fundamental guidelines can help solidify a successful outcome. First on the list: Hire a good designer who will walk with you every step of the way.

Why Renovate Anyway?

What drives a foodservice renovation project? It varies by segment. Restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association, will likely drive more frequent renovations with projects such as adding more seats, putting in bars, rebranding or creating display kitchens. Commercial restaurants may renovate every five to seven years.

Hospital foodservice operators, on the other hand, usually renovate only when it becomes an absolute must. For example, when Department of Health inspectors require the facility to upgrade to new standards or close. Usually that means a huge — and costly — job. Many hospital kitchens function with older equipment and infrastructure and badly need a complete makeover.

Georgie Shockey, principal of Ruck-Shockey Associates  in Truckee, Calif., cites a recent report put out by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on the aging of facilities by industry that says the average age of healthcare facilities, including hospitals, is 20.7 years. Since that number reflects an average, that means many are even older. Aging often means outmoded equipment, outdated and, in some cases dangerous, utilities and an inefficient workflow that hampers production. "Once you get to a certain point in time, these kitchens aren't going to function well," Shockey says. Hospitals tend to "stretch the living daylights out of these kitchens and systems."

Renovation requires both a strategic and a tactical approach. The project team must investigate every aspect of the design process from concept to completion in great detail.

Being a Detective

A renovation project starts with identifying the outcome. "That is the first question: What is your expected outcome?" says John Egnor, owner of Texas-based JME Hospitality. "All succeeding questions are based on the answer to that. If the owner wants to modernize the kitchen, you would ask, 'What do you mean by that? Do you want new equipment? Do you want to redesign the workspace for better flow?' Each answer will affect the design from a physical standpoint and from a cost standpoint."

And the earlier the project teams begin asking these questions, the better. "If you are working with somebody that is going into a new space for their concept, get in there early and look at the site conditions," adds Leif Billings, northeast regional director for Next Step Design in Annapolis, Md.

Shockey consults a trilogy of investigative areas for the starting phase: menu, volume and process. She goes through every menu item to determine how the culinary staff prepares it and plans for the necessary equipment to support the menu. In some cases, she might ask the client to look at a different piece of equipment for some of the menu items to improve the process in terms of time and quality.

Volume closely connects to the construction of the menu and how staff execute. Knowing the volume at peak times, Shockey points out, helps determine what it will take to support that throughput efficiently. Then, she deconstructs the process for each item with an eye toward potential improvements and to understand what design elements will successfully accommodate each process.

Egnor often collaborates with Shockey (MAS), relying on her operational process expertise as a management advisory services consultant. For example, when tackling a healthcare foodservice project, "we do a study first, lay everything out: utilities, retail, delivery to patients. She does an operations review," Egnor says. "A lot of designers fall short because they don't have a MAS consultant to work with. You need someone operationally to support the design. That is critical."

Stan Schwartz of Cleveland, Ohio-based Professional Foodservice Design Inc. walks through spaces about to be renovated with an eye toward food safety, which he believes is the most important thing a designer can bring to the table. Questions he feels help to understand the scope of the project include: How far does the owner want to go? Does the
operator want to redesign flow to improve throughput and avoid cross traffic? Will the operator add on to the kitchen? Is the existing equipment still usable, or does it need to be replaced?

The desired outcome, along with the menu, volume and process analysis, provide the strategic basis for all of the tactical aspects of design. The following questions can help guide a discussion about renovation goals:

  • Is the space the best possible choice for the owner's desired outcome?
  • Will the renovation address only the kitchen, or does it include the front of the house?
  • If it includes the front of the house, how will that design affect the kitchen space?
  • Will the present infrastructure support the desired renovation?
  • Will the menu change? Is there room for menu improvement?
  • Will the space allow for optimal production flow?
  • Will the operation shut down during renovation, or will the work be done in phases, while the facility remains open for business?
  • Will any of the old equipment remain, or will the new kitchen require all new pieces?
  • Will everything the owner wants fit in the budget?

Now, let's dig into these questions and the factors impacting each.

Best Possible Space

Consider these three renovation scenarios, each of which presents red flags: The owners want to renovate their existing operation; open a restaurant in a new space that was another restaurant in its former life; or open in a space that was not previously a restaurant. All three have the potential for problems that a renovation may not solve, making the location an unwise choice. Still, owners in these situations often refuse to move to other sites.

One designer tells of a restaurant that has operated in a landmark building for decades. The owner wants to renovate, but the designer knows, given the age and poor condition of the infrastructure, the work will cost far more than moving into a new space. The owner also wants to stay open while renovating, which adds to the cost and presents additional challenges.

Schwartz tells of a hospital in Kentucky that waited too long to renovate. Cast iron pipes had degraded, and sewage was running under the kitchen. For various reasons, it was not possible to renovate the space, so they built a new building to house the kitchen.

Operators should make the decision to renovate, like the decision to open a restaurant, rationally, not emotionally. This means ensuring the desired space is optimal for — or at least amenable to — renovation.

Front of the House versus Back of the House

Once the desired outcome becomes clear, the scope of the project will become clear as well. The renovation could involve the back of the house, the front of the house or both. The next layer of detective work: If both, will the ratio of space change? If the owner wants to add seats, will the kitchen square footage shrink?

Pinch-7179Chefs make dumplings to order in the dumpling kitchen at Pinch Chinese. A small pass-through window connects the dumpling kitchen with the main kitchen.

The opposite held true for Billings when a new display kitchen meant sacrificing seating. The project was a whole-house renovation for Pinch Chinese in New York City's Soho neighborhood. Pinch offers upscale Chinese comfort food and features a display kitchen where staff make dumplings to order. The former operation was also a Chinese restaurant but not as high end.

Post-renovation, when customers walk into the seating area, they immediately see the dumpling kitchen through a large glass window. Behind that resides the renovated main kitchen. A smaller window between the dumpling kitchen and the main kitchen allows diners a glimpse of that area.

Pinch-7216The renovated Pinch Chinese restaurant includes a viewing portal where guests can peek into the dumpling kitchen from one end of the restaurant. Photos courtesy of Next Step Design

The desired outcome of the display kitchen was the driver behind decisions concerning the front and back of the house.

The Dreaded Infrastructure Investigation

Having the proper infrastructure to support any new kitchen is critical. This means all utilities, the exhaust system and the building structure itself. "Maybe we're going to expand the kitchen and add more cooking equipment. Maybe the gas load will be twice what it was," Egnor says. "You can't just put in a new piece of equipment without seeing if the new design will require a change in the physical services."

The infrastructure may need to change to support new equipment. Egnor says, "You might end up renovating a space that was renovated 20 years ago, but the infrastructure is 50 years old. It's not a lot of money to change a dishwasher, but you have to change all the feeds — the sanitary underground, the electrical services, maybe the pipes. Once you touch it, you just go further and further. It's like rubbing a rust spot. You keep rubbing and it goes deeper and deeper, and before you know it, you've taken four inches away. If you don't do due diligence up front, a renovation project can grow in scope."

Egnor recommends tapping into the expertise of those who regularly maintain and repair equipment and utilities. "You need to spend time with the engineering department, the electrician, systems mechanic, all those people who have been taking care of the equipment or the infrastructure for the past ten to fifteen years. It's not right to put in a new dishmachine if you don't fix what's under the floor." Sacrifices may be necessary if the utilities won't support changes in design.

Renovating the Menu

"The menu can have an impact on your renovation," says Billings. "If you are offering a high-end Indian cuisine and the space you are going into was a burger joint, that will play a role on how the space will work."

Imagine you have 100 things on the menu, Shockey says. You need to look at every item and track the process from storage through prep through cooking. What type of equipment do you need? Will the hood space suffice?

Production Flow

Here, the desired result comes into play again, Egnor says. Will the layout be the same with new equipment? Can workflow improve to the point that fewer employees can deliver the same volume? Can the flow and function of the space change again easily at some point?

Undertake an in-depth study to determine the precise flow necessary to produce every item on the menu. Include everything, starting with product delivery, prep time, serving dishes and even cleaning the tableware. That will lay the groundwork for an efficient workflow of the space and the concept.

The Shut-Down Decision

Most designers recommend the operation shut down, if possible, during a renovation project. In a standalone restaurant, however, several factors keep operations open, such as lost income when not operating, the risk of losing good team members or having to pay staff during the closure. The amount of cleanup, including food safety concerns, presents a problem with doing a renovation in phases while remaining open. In some instances, this may require completely sealing off the work area to keep dust or other contaminants from escaping into the cooking or storage areas.

In the case of a hospital, the kitchen needs to remain in operation. The project team can consider two options: move the operation to mobile units outside the building or work in phases.

Shockey and Egnor worked on a large renovation for the Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C. While the retail operation remained open throughout the renovation, all production in the 50,000-square-foot kitchen relocated to temporary trailers attached to the building. That setup lasted 14 months. Egnor explains that while renting the trailers presented a significant cost, having the ability to close the main kitchen saved time and money on construction.

carolinasbefore.Current-main-cooking-lineThe renovation plan at Carolinas HealthCare System included relocating production of the 50,000-square-foot kitchen to temporary trailers. Seen here are the main cookline and storage area pre-renovation. Photos courtesy of Ruck-Shockey Associates Inc.

Temporary kitchens must still pass health department inspections before they become operational, Shockey adds. "You have to have your processes in place," she says. "If the health department asks how you are going to do something, you can show them on paper. They come back and inspect after you're up and running. They either say okay you told me you were going to do it this way and I can see that you are — or now you're doing it in a way that doesn't fly."

Temporary kitchens come with an advantage, explains Ralph Goldbeck of Kitchens To Go, which facilitated the setup at the Carolinas HealthCare System. Mobile units, he says, offer an opportunity for staff to train on new equipment specified for the new space.

Shockey and Egnor also worked on the The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center renovation together. The work was done in phases. They would close down one area, finish it and close another. This job took around 31 months compared to the 14 months at the Charlotte facility.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Deciding whether to keep any equipment from the existing foodservice operation can prove difficult. When making these decisions, though, Egnor harkens back to the desired outcome. "What is the purpose of the new design? Renovation of the physical space also requires renovation of the operation, which may drive the need for different equipment," he says. If the desired outcome is to modernize the kitchen, the answer becomes fairly clear: in with the new.

Schwartz says deciding if any equipment stays depends on the operation. "If it's a 50-year-old hospital kitchen, there isn't going to be much left that shouldn't be replaced. If it's 25 [years old], there might be something that could be salvaged."

On the new side of equipment, Schwartz frequently adds more hand-washing stations to meet operator's current food-safety goals. "We are probably guilty of putting in more hand sinks per square foot than any facility [designed by others], even more than the board of health requires. If you don't put a sink at a functionally necessary point, it won't be used," he explains. Cook-chill equipment is also making more inroads today to avoid improper chilling of cooked food. The equipment to support this process is more than likely going to be new.

Egnor advises that equipment needs should change out according to the life of its usability, which can also translate into creating a better system. For example, while working on the renovation of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Egnor designed a way to decentralize delivery of patient trays. Instead of heating food in the kitchen only to have it arrive lukewarm at patient rooms, the hospital set up hospitality centers on each floor for plating and heating, enabling the food to be fresh and hot when it reaches patients.

OHIOstateIMG 0598Prior to renovation, the prep and production area at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center was dark, with low ceilings. The renovation helped improve sightlines and brightness.

"A server delivering a meal to a table of four is the same as delivering a tray to patients. They both are providing a delivery service," Egnor says. "Anything you can do in a hospital to make it more like a restaurant setting will be a plus."

As for next steps, Billings says, "I recommend that, if you are going to reuse any of the equipment, besides getting your equipment supplier in, bring in a service technician. Get one who knows how to fix the equipment if need be and have him evaluate it from the standpoint of whether it is worth reusing. This is especially true of high-tech equipment, such as combi ovens."

Budgeting May Be Malleable

"Developing a proper budget is understanding the renovation plan and how it is affected by all the operational and physical external influences," says Egnor. He adds that owners may change things — or try to change things — along the way. They may want a new piece of equipment, which can add expense to the budget. This will require a feasibility decision.

"The more info you have up front about the conditions, the better the budget is going to be," Shockey says. This is why it is smart not to rush through the early investigative stage.

Schwarz even creates alternative budgets — sort of a Plan A, B and C — in case decisions need to be made on what to keep and what to give up.

Hidden Issues at Pinch Chinese

The plan was for Pinch Chinese to open soon after the new owner got the keys. Since a Chinese restaurant had been operating there, the transition appeared simple. But because it was continually operating, designer Billings couldn't get in ahead of the ownership transition to check out potential problems with the infrastructure. "The kitchen had dishwashing in it, basically everything except storage," Billings says. However, it turned out that the equipment was not serviceable, so they had the landlord remove it all.

"The owner's program required a lot more hood and a lot more production space, so we moved the dish room to a hallway that was not being used," Billings explains. "We expanded the cooking area by adding about 10 feet of hood." They replaced the water heater and updated the HVAC, but the gas mains and ductwork were okay.

The problem came when they pulled out two walk-in coolers below the kitchen. The wood floor joists that were below the original dish room had rotted out. The floor load was actually bearing on the top of the walk-in boxes. "When we ripped out the boxes, the whole ceiling caved in," Billings says. The restaurant has been open for a year now and is a neighborhood draw.


Continuously educating the owner and the team about every detail of the process will always present a challenge, says Egnor, as will keeping everyone going in the same direction. "All the things we've uncovered that will support the original purpose of the renovation have to be understood. The architect, the engineers, the contractors — their role is getting to the end goal."

Getting the operational planning right in the first place represents another key challenge, per Egnor. He believes it is the most supportive aspect of the renovation process.

Finding contractors to do nighttime work and stay within a reasonable budget represents a key challenge for Glen Davis of RPM. Given the scope of RPM's 187-unit project, making sure supply meets demand serves as another challenge that can keep project managers awake at night. "Some of the vendors can't keep up with the demand, resulting in having to find new sources," Davis adds.

Billings notes that a client's unrealistic expectation of the schedule tends to consistently pose a challenge. "A lot of times they think they will be done in four months, and it takes four months just for the design," he says. "It's the unknowns that can change expectations."

Shockey lists the situation of having to renovate a hospital in phases rather than being able to move the production to a nearby site as her biggest challenge.

With every renovation comes an opportunity to reinvent, recreate and reimagine a foodservice operation. In the end, that's the biggest driver of them all.

Domino’s Multiple Prototypes


What does renovating 187 units involve? Glenn Davis, director of RPM Pizza, a large Domino’s franchisee, found out four years ago when Domino’s Pizza Inc. announced mandatory renovation of all units to open up the kitchen and create a pizza theater atmosphere.

Franchisees, staff and even customer research identified upgrade needs. The design team then came up with five prototypes that could adapt to the space and infrastructure at different units. That meant renovating the lobby and part of the kitchen in each store. RPM has 187 units, so it was a significant undertaking.

In the old design, customers walked in the front door and ordered. The new design enables customers to walk by the now open kitchen. Existing walls were replaced by half walls with glass. Kitchen equipment was upgraded in some cases, but Davis says generally this was only if equipment was failing or close to failing because of age.

Work was done at night in most units. In such cases, Davis says, it was necessary to clean up before opening every day to meet health department guidelines. Management took photos each night and posted them on the cloud so Davis could make sure everything was complying with required standards. If a complete renovation was required inside and outside, the unit would close for two or three days.

The company-wide renovation was originally scheduled for completion by the end of 2017, but that date has been extended to the end of 2018. Davis says that sales have increased in the units that have completed renovation.

Best Practices

Practical advice from designers when undertaking a renovation:

  • Determine the owner’s desired outcome — everything flows from this.
  • Go slow. Don’t shortchange the planning stage.
  • Be a detective. Investigate every aspect of the site. Discover unknowns.
  • Be flexible and willing to adapt.
  • Involve essential staff.
  • Know local health department rules and regulations.
  • Stay with it until the end.

Learn More Renovation Best Practices

FE&S Editorial Director Joe Carbonara continues the renovation discussion via a live webcast with Chris Wair, design principal at Reitano Design Group, and John Egnor, owner of JME Hospitality, on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 1:00 p.m. Register today!