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


Making a Mark

Concept and menu drive a grill station’s design.

Whether serving as front-of-house theater or a secondary spot on a kitchen cookline, grill stations can drive a foodservice operation’s bottom line. The equipment used here may not be as high-tech as other forms of cooking equipment but make no mistake: Grill stations serve as critical back-of-the-house components.

“Grilling involves medium-tech when compared to sauteing, which is more high-tech,” says Michael P. Salvatore, senior director, consulting and customer engagement, Ruck-Shockey Associates Inc., a consulting firm with offices in Truckee, Calif., and The Woodlands, Texas.

Yet, many see grill stations as a driver of check averages, generating more profit dollars by preparing higher-ticket, center-of-the-plate items. “Saute stations may be more profitable, but these don’t impact the bottom line like the grill stations,” Salvatore says.

Laura Lentz, FCSI, design principal, Culinary Advisors, an Elliott City, Md.-based consulting firm, agrees. “This is one of the stations where I get into the nitty-gritty on how operators will use the space since it has the longest wait for made-to-order food,” she says.

Because COVID-19 altered restaurants’ rush periods, everyone was eating at the same time, which had a direct impact on the makeup and components of these areas. “One of the biggest things that changed during the pandemic is you have to design for peak meal periods that are more substantial than in the past, but also for the valleys,” says Lentz. “This may be about maximizing throughput or accommodating operations that need to be more labor efficient.”

Revolving turet grillThe unique revolving turret grill at Harrah’s Waterfront Buffet, Atlantic City, N.J.

Critical Components

The various interpretations of the optimal equipment lineup on a grill line start with selecting either a charbroiler or flattop. “Grilling is cooking something on a flat surface, whether a charbroiler or flattop,” says John Egnor, managing partner, JME Design, a Columbus, Ohio-based foodservice consulting firm. “If the menu calls for chicken and steak, this will require an open charbroiler, but if the station is designated for pancakes, eggs and burgers, a griddle is needed.”

Salvatore recommends gas assist grills for live-fire or woodburning concepts. Island grills with shields and access for multiple cooks are an option for the front of house or in the kitchen to expand cooking capabilities.

For added versatility, operators can consider including clamshell grills as part of their grilling stations. “In 5 feet of grill space, 2 feet can be the clamshell area,” says Marcin Zmiejko, associate principal, YoungCaruso, a Denver-based consulting firm. “It also is popular to bank together flattop griddles and charbroilers, which need Type 1 hoods and fire suppression systems.”

If storage or coolers are not nearby, additional refrigeration, such as a multidoor refrigerated worktable or an upright cooler, may be necessary in or adjacent to the station. Refrigerated bases beneath grills and griddles provide immediate access to ingredients.

A short-order station typically includes a griddle on the service side and a cold rail with toppings like lettuce and tomato for burgers or starches and vegetables as sides adjacent to a prep table. “I’m a big fan of putting raw, refrigerated products underneath the grill station in two or three drawers, with a small table nearby for seasonings or oils and a rail in front for tongs and spatulas,” Salvatore says. “Grills create a lot of smoke and grease, so there shouldn’t be anything directly above the cooking surface [blocking the vent]. This is unlike saute stations, which can have shelving or salamanders overhead.”

Vertical space can be a bonus for utensil storage, but grease buildup can be an issue, Egnor says. However, open wire shelving above a griddle can be easily cleaned. “Fryers or saute ranges may be to the left or right of the grill with a 12-inch table or landing area in between,” he notes. “For short-order operations, we include a 36-inch refrigerator by the griddle.”

Plate storage typically occurs via shelves either above or beneath the cooking equipment. And a grill station sometimes includes a printer and most likely has a ticket rail shooting out orders.

Along with considering the staff’s training level, the working height of equipment is a key factor with the design, Lentz says. “As for equipment, fryers are critical in these stations right now, and accessories such as an auto basket lift,” she says. “With made-to-order grill stations, I modify prep tables to counter height, which maximizes ingredient visibility.”

For Las Vegas-based Meta-Hospitality, a restaurant consulting, planning and development company, versatility and function are primary considerations when designing grill stations. For some of its higher-end installations, display cooking takes precedence. “Wood grills are very popular; chefs love the wow factor when in sight of guests,” says Luke Palladino, Meta-Hospitality’s president. “A high-volume steakhouse may need a broiler or convection oven nearby, but I don’t see the point of having both a broiler and wood grill. Ovens can finish off the steaks.”

Due to excess smoke, wood-fired grill hood requirements differ from charbroilers or griddles; wood storage and ash disposal represent key considerations to take into account, too. “With wood grills, you need the right size and type to keep up with the volume,” Palladino says. “Operators tend to think they need a bigger grill than they require, but this means more hood space and fuel. We recommend going smaller as we’ve never seen anyone run out of grill space.”

Maintaining grilled meats’ temperature involves keeping plates hot. This entails incorporating warming equipment into the station. “Heat lamps are insufficient; plates need to come from a warmer,” Palladino recommends. “If I’m having to put plates in an oven or salamander, that’s more steps taken. It’s better to have a hot holding cabinet nearby.”

Of course, while proteins tend to be the focal point of many grill stations, consumers’ blossoming appetites for all things plant-based may force operators to rethink their approach here. “Grill stations are now needing to serve more plant-forward options,” Lentz says. This may entail separate equipment for meat versus nonmeat grilling.

Take, for example, Washington, D.C.-based Eastern Point DC, where the 4-foot grill is designated for nonprotein items. Here, three concepts use the same kitchen: a speakeasy bar offering street food, a restaurant with American fare and a casual Italian eatery. Grilled items for the 300-seat operation include carrots, Swiss chard and bread. Culinary staff prepare most of the proteins on a rotisserie.

“A typical grill is a showstopper, but we don’t do that here,” says Kat Petonito, executive chef at Eastern Point DC. “We use it as support to infuse grilled flavor into different dishes without being overwhelming.”

Scotch 80 Palms Casino Resort in Vegas 2The live-fire grill at Palm Casino Resort’s Scotch 80 in Las Vegas.

Functional Aspects

Key to a grill station’s success is its makeup. Not only should the appropriate equipment be in the lineup, but efficiency and speed of service bank on proximity.

“The least number of steps, the more efficient the operator,” Egnor says. “The primary menu function is in the center of the grill station. And you’re always working two sides that have to mirror each other in terms of supporting the process. One side is hot cooking and the other side is plating, and these need to be directly opposite the other.”

Situated in the center of the cookline, the grill is flanked by a combi oven, six burners, a flattop and fryers. Refrigeration, including lowboys and cold wells, is parallel to the cooking station. “This gives us the ability to use sides of the grill for accompaniments when needed,” Petonito says. “We also have shelves by the grill to rest warm proteins that are occasionally prepared there, like steak and fish in the summer.”

Logistics are important in the design equation. Having all components within reach not only provides faster service and better efficiency but also ensures food quality is at its peak. “Stations that are ergonomically functional and symmetrical allow easy access to all items,” Zmiejko says.

The logistics of this area play an important role in the entire kitchen’s functionality. “Underneath the exhaust hood, equipment that isn’t cooking doesn’t support that real estate,” Egnor says. To capitalize on this space, “cooks can use the griddle’s back corner, which is rarely used for cooking, to keep items hot.” When incorporating a hot well, he says it’s best to go horizontal, adding 18 inches on the left or right of the grill.

Proper placement will also provide sufficient preparation space for carving, plating, resting and keeping food at proper temperatures. “Having everything close by, such as wood, resting racks, a circulator and seasoning is necessary so staff can quickly and efficiently get food out,” Palladino says. “There should be a place for a cutting board, with ample room to carve, and plates nearby.”

The order of each piece of equipment can vary depending on the kitchen setup. “A traditional linear cooking line has a fry station, a grill station with griddle or charbroiler to cook proteins mostly, and a saute area for veggies and pasta that all work hand in hand,” Egnor says. In terms of positioning, “fry stations are at the end as they support the main dish being prepared on the grill, the grill station is usually in the center, and the saute station is to one side.” He recommends including an oven in reach of the grill to warm or hold cooked items.

“Everything in the kitchen is based on a 36-inch module,” Egnor explains. “But for a 300-seat sports bar that is grill- and fry-heavy, I’ll need to specify a 72-inch or two 48-inch grills.” Also assess the space allocation for doors and drawers.

Scotch 80 Palms Casino Resort in Vegas 1Unlike saute stations, where there are pans and liquids involved, grill accessories are more straightforward. “Any sauces or condiments are added during plating, so these aren’t by the grill,” Salvatore explains. “This area is more spartan, which minimizes cross-contamination [with raw meat].”

Creating the shortest path between raw and cooked proteins helps with food safety and kitchen efficiency. Lentz recommends aisle spacing between the front counter and back cookline to minimize steps. “Action and assembly stations need more flexibility,” she says. “What’s unique about a grill station is it’s operational in all three dayparts, with someone attending to it at all times.” This area may involve prep or be directly connected to other stations, or it can be solely a turn-and-burn protein station.

Unique Setups

Atypical arrangements can add to grill stations’ functionality. For example, Meta-Hospitality has clients that have incorporated sous vide for faster results.

“We’ll sous vide steaks in bags with rosemary, herbs and olive oil, then bring it up to temperature in an immersing circulator for quick and consistent grilling,” Palladino explains. “It takes longer to cook refrigerated product; with sous vide, the meat is already at 120 degrees F.”

The industry continues to consider more electric equipment today, but for grilling, gas remains the preferred method. “It’s difficult to achieve a charbroiler effect with electrical equipment,” Zmiejko says. “Also, the highest voltage would be needed for the best recovery.”

Instead, equipment such as clamshells, heated food warming units and equipment stands with refrigerated drawers can enhance grill stations’ speed and efficiency. “We’re also seeing combined stations as people are wanting to see grill station activity even if they prepaid and preordered,” Lentz says. This may include grills with an action component or unusual equipment in a traditional grill station for menu variety.

“I had a client that wanted a B&I servery for employees that would resonate with hospitality and run as a restaurant, even though it wasn’t,” Lentz says. “I worked hard not to have anything institutional in that space, using a cooking suite for the back of the grill station line. They appreciated being able to walk around it and the good communication. The customer perception is that it is a display kitchen since the sense of transparency and activity is still there.”

These nontraditional setups add flexibility to run the action station during nonpeak times or provide the ability to limit grilling hours. Looking ahead, radio frequency ovens that provide faster cook times may be a substitute for standard or convection ovens in grill stations.

Whether serving as a primary component of a cookline or reserved for limited menu items, the grill station’s design sets the pace for the entire back of house. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but having a solid, well-thought-out concept and menu, and equipment that supports that, is the key to its design,” Salvatore says.