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Super-Sized Kitchens

Commissary design hinges on understanding operator needs and designing in possible labor efficiencies.

Like traditional back-of-the-house operations, commissaries and central kitchens combine multiple functions. The type of operation will dictate the design, including size and layout. Typical components of a commissary can include a dock area, receiving, cold holding, dry storage, a large bulk prep area, a hot production area, a baking area, and a cake or pastry finishing area.

“In the world of massive foodservice operations, commissaries are the main hub,” says Marcin Zmiejko, associate principal, YoungCaruso, Denver. “A commissary at a stadium or convention center will accommodate dry, frozen and refrigerated storage, then transition to a kitchen equipped to handle high-volume cooking.”

By contrast, an on-site commissary has to transition to serving food. “If it’s in a separate building, refrigerated and/or heated trucks are needed to get food to the point of serving,” Zmiejko notes.

School districts typically use off-site commissary kitchens to store ingredients before staff prepare, cook, repackage, palletize and distribute food items to individual schools and other points of service. There may be on-site satellite kitchens for reheating or final prep or food may be sent and stored hot or cold, ready for serving.

“Whether the commissary is in the same building as serving or at a satellite building, the functions are the same,” Zmiejko notes.

Successful commissary design relies on proper flow for speed and efficiency.  Photo courtesy of NGAssociates Foodservice ConsultantsSuccessful commissary design relies on proper flow for speed and efficiency. Photo courtesy of NGAssociates Foodservice Consultants

Main Goals

Because every commissary is different, the design typically starts with programming and understanding client needs. “The mission and goal behind it can be anything from labor efficiency to consistency,” says Nahum Goldberg, principal/consultant, NGAssociates Foodservice Consultants Inc., based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Often, operators are working in improvised central kitchens and want to move to the next step with more space.”

In that case, the goal is adding features to increase functionality and quality control. “We’ve worked with tech companies’ central commissaries, where fresh and hot menu items are being shipped to various regional offices,” Goldberg says. “For higher education programs, commissaries may ship product directly to residential dining halls, most having full kitchens and action stations finishing off product on-site.”

In the second scenario, says Pamela Eaton, project manager/design and operations consultant, NGAssociates Foodservice Consultants, “the residential dining hall kitchens are not just finishing off product but may be doing limited prep, say, for a salad bar.”

Where bulk prepared food is distributed from a commissary to locations with no kitchens, the logistics become key. Here, the focus is on maintaining safe food temperatures and keeping quality intact during transport and storage.

In addition to increasing efficiency and saving labor, commissaries can save on operational costs. This is typically the impetus behind these operations. “This works best with food items made on a repetitive basis,” says Ken Schwartz, president, SSA Foodservice Design + Consulting, Tampa, Fla.

Flexibility is another important aspect of commissary design as operations and needs change over time. “Designing a large-scale kitchen for today and anticipating growth in two to five years is not easy,” Schwartz says. “Operators want to build what they can currently afford, but when designing in cooking capacity, they need to make room for possible future equipment as the business grows.”

It’s also necessary to build in extra space throughout the facility to accommodate employee traffic as well as bulk food deliveries. “In a production facility like a commissary, there is a lot of movement,” Schwartz explains. “Goods come in on big pallets that require a lot of space, and the clearance and turning radiuses need to be taken into account.”

Those preparing product for a pan to be stored on mobile racks also will need additional space to move, stage and cool product. In some instances, the facility itself can provide additional challenges. SSA Foodservice Design + Consulting recently designed a central commissary for a contract management food company that works with hospitals. The firm was tasked with converting rented warehouse space into a large-scale kitchen.

“The way warehouses are designed, the roof structure accommodates air conditioning and its ducts; there is no room or the infrastructure for kitchen ventilation hoods,” Schwartz says. “We needed structural engineering to hang hood systems and ductwork, and there were a couple pieces of equipment that needed to go outside.”

The operator ended up leasing additional space by the loading dock for more refrigeration and ice production. Other modifications included a thicker floor slab to accommodate heavy equipment, grease traps for sewer lines and enhanced electrical service.

“Piping in refrigeration systems is another aspect that needed addressing,” Schwartz notes. “It’s important to maximize the commissary’s use to ensure it’s worth the expense; part of the return on investment is labor savings as efforts are not duplicated if all or the majority of production is managed at one site.”

Building in extra space for employee traffic and deliveries, along with storage, is key. Photo courtesy of YoungCarusoBuilding in extra space for employee traffic and deliveries, along with storage, is key. Photo courtesy of YoungCaruso

Critical Components and Considerations

Knowing as much information as possible prior to design lessens the likelihood the project team will overlook a key detail.

As in other foodservice operations, menu drives the commissary design. Such details as quantities/batch sizes, how often food is prepared, the amount of inventory that will be on hand and how product will be distributed if the facility is off-site represent key considerations.

“It’s essentially a food factory, so not only do we need to determine if it provides thousands or hundreds of meals, but it’s also important to understand if the operation is cooking a few days a week or 24/7,” Zmiejko says. “The key information includes the output and whether it’s per person or per event. Based on that, we determine the required storage, then ascertain the percentage split for dry, refrigerated and frozen storage.”

The layout, like all kitchens, relies on proper flow. This starts at receiving and includes cold, bulk and dry storage. “With some facilities, everything comes in on pallets, so it involves holding, de-boxing, washing and sanitizing raw product like produce, and then repackaging and storing in the relevant departments or holding area,” Goldberg says. “Flow continues to departmentalize prep areas [such as a dedicated vegetable- or meat-cutting room], then on to holding, cooking and processing.”

The design of ingredient rooms allows for assembly of portioned spices for large-batch recipes that may total hundreds of gallons of a specific sauce or soup, for instance, Goldberg adds. Generally, commissaries separate into specific zones. “The production and cooking area may have specialized equipment for cook-chill, cook-and-serve or a combination of both,” he notes. “Specialized packaging solutions are common, depending on portion or batch sizes and who is being served.”

Commissaries typically include larger-scale cooking equipment, such as steam kettles and banks of combi ovens to produce greater quantities in quicker duration. “Cook-chill programs come in different shapes and sizes,” Schwartz says. “Cooking kettles or tanks that are static or mixed-use gas, steam or electric to cook product. Depending on the item and quantity, these items may be cooled using tumble chillers, blast chillers or ice baths.”

Storage areas will need typical walk-ins that support daily operations in the kitchen; this encompasses coolers on one side for quick use and a second set on the other side for food that’s being transferred to another location.

When working with food on a larger scale, stock management becomes a factor with design. Operators may store ingredients on either pallet racks or, for smaller items, on traditional shelving.

Perishables will have different storage requirements. “In a Meals on Wheels commissary we toured with some of our clients, frozen products were distributed, so the operator needed a way to drop off a week’s work of packaged frozen dinners,” Goldberg says. This required massive freezers for holding and refrigerated trucks for distributing.

Eliminating redundancies was the goal for a commissary Schwartz designed for a foodservice operation that services healthcare operations. “Prior to the commissary, the healthcare facilities were making food items on-site every day,” Schwartz explains. “With the commissary’s bulk preparation, there was no need for daily production, so the client saved labor.”

Type of food items will impact commissary design and equipment. For example, a menu for a healthcare operator may include proteins or sides produced in bulk, while a
coffee shop’s central kitchen would focus on baked goods like cookies and croissants.

Even though the commissary may not be designated for cleaning tableware, a warewashing area is required for pans, utensils and transfer carts.

Other technical issues may arise to meet large-scale equipment needs. “We determine if vertical storage is needed as commissaries with two, three or four tiers may require forklifts,” Zmiejko says. “Otherwise, a facility may have two tiers that call for a larger footprint.” In addition to vertical space, the design needs to take into account clearances necessary for maintaining equipment without interrupting production, he says.

Racking should meet designated criteria for storage needs. For example, pallet racking enhances and extends capacity, while push-through racking systems accommodate more than two pallets. Specific needs should also be considered. “Commissaries often include areas for recipe and menu development as well as staff training kitchens,” Goldberg says.

Schwartz was working with a hotel client that owns independent restaurants. “For this client, we got granular to develop a prototype bar area in the central kitchen for training as well as testing new cocktail recipes,” he says.

The design should also take into account ancillary areas, such as restrooms, changing rooms, lockers and offices. “Having wall space for whiteboards or equipment, and infrastructure for programs and apps, is necessary for the extensive planning and logistics management needed for these operations,” Eaton says.

Equipment and Technology

Newer technology has increased commissary efficiencies. “For cook-chill programs, there are units that can hold food cold at the satellite kitchen or serving area, then heat it when needed,” Goldberg says. “The cold holding unit turns into a retherm device that has built-in monitoring to keep track of the time and temperature critical for food safety.”

There are also updated devices for waste management. “Although not new, bioconversion of compostable waste to methane energy in central plants [is becoming more widespread],” Goldberg says. “With this method, kitchen green waste goes through a grinder/pulper, which extracts liquid. It is then placed in a tank that is collected; the slurry is transported to a methane conversation facility.”

Though not approved in all jurisdictions, other digesters can take pulped organic waste and convert it into a liquid that can be flushed down the drain, dramatically reducing the overall volume of waste. “Each project has different needs,” Eaton says. “We look for appropriately scaled technology solutions, which often resemble methods used for massive-scaled processing of the fresh or frozen prepared items we buy in our local supermarkets.” 

Other newer developments involve incorporating electric equipment rather than gas, skylights for brighter work areas without using electricity, and adjustable tables and workstations to improve ergonomics.

“There are many things that allow us to make commissary work easier,” Zmiejko says. “We can control ventilation with demand systems, and we can eliminate production steps with depositors, conveyors and robotics.”

With commissary design, every function has to be evaluated in terms of capacity and the operation’s size. The success of these large-scale kitchens depends on it.