Commercial kitchens: that shrinking feeling

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Commercial kitchens are being allocated smaller spaces. Howard Riell discovers how consultants, operators and manufacturers are finding innovative ways to make it work

A smallish kitchen is one of the oldest challenges in foodservice.

“Kitchen space has always been the first square footage to get hit when foodservice is secondary to prime business requirements,” says Howard Stanford FCSI, senior vice president of SSA Foodservice Design & Consulting in Tampa, Florida. “Increasing rental cost per square foot forces potential entrepreneurs to rethink how to be successful within a smaller footprint.”

Rudy Miick FCSI, founder and president of The Miick Companies in Boulder, Colorado, says this is a dialogue that has been going on since at least 1992, if not earlier. “It’s not a new idea; there is simply more need now. Every project we’ve done since the 1990s has built the smallest kitchen possible,” he says.

Contributing factors in driving down kitchen size have been the percentage cost of rent or mortgage versus income – the front is where the money is made – and the basic cost of construction. “The bigger the kitchen, the more expensive the build-out and overall budget due to equipment and utilities,” says Miick.

This is a globally recognised situation, as Ian Grubb FCSI of Ian Grubb Consulting in Germany notes. “The kitchen areas in new project buildings in European cities are becoming smaller and smaller,” he says. “The main reasons are the rising prices of real estate as well as growing building costs, but high personnel costs are also a driving factor in this urge to concentrate on developing compact working spaces.”

Changing dining trends inevitably have an impact on the make-up and set-up of a kitchen, as Paul Bartlett FCSI, principal of Kitchen Solutions Consulting in Baltimore, Maryland suggests. “I think commercial kitchens began shrinking with the advent of food ‘anytime, anywhere’,” he says. “We all realised if there was a need to be filled, we could do it. For example, when I was the chef at the University of Maryland in the late 1990s, we realised the need for late-night food.”

Nowadays, Bartlett continues, more and more operators realise that, “overhead is killing them and controllables are just barely controllable. Rents for prime space are high. Wages for prime employees are high. Everyone, and their brother and sister, wants to be a rock-star chef, so there are more restaurants and more competition than ever. What’s an aspiring culinarian with the need to make a dollar to do?” he asks.

It has to be noted that not all operations are plagued by the challenge of a shrinking footprint in the kitchen. In the high-end projects where Alex Hofer FCSI of H44.Team works in South Tyrol, Italy, he says he rarely has to fight for more space in the kitchen. “Of course, the room designer and the architect want to give more space to the guest and for attractions,” he says. “But a good kitchen designer has to stay strong to make sure he has enough space for the kitchen.”

He points to higher-end restaurants where operators are often looking to add more production in-house. Many products that operators bought outside in the past are now made in-house, including pasta, bread and charcuterie.

These operations also have good reason to consider staff when allocating space. “Good employees will say, ‘OK, you have a nice restaurant, nice design, but I have to go and work in this hole? I won’t do that’,” Hofer explains. “Some designers might say, ‘I don’t care, I get cheap labour’, but I would say the world is changing and countries, such as China or Romania, where employees might come from, are developing.”

John Thomas FCSI, of Sangster Design Group in Australia, suggests the focus on optimising space can be a good thing. “Many commercial kitchens to this day remain grossly over-sized,” he says. “The biggest challenge in kitchen design is when insufficient consideration is given to minimising staff movements outside their key workstations.”

“Working the space hard and considering every part and its interactions have always been key to commercial design,” explains Roz Burgess FCSI, principal of Intelligent Catering in the UK. “Focusing the client and the entire team’s minds on what the actual capital expenditure [capex] and operating expense [opex] costs are to the design means not just looking at the areas separately, but at each element separately and then as a part of a whole.”

 More retail space

The complications for consultants, operators and manufacturers caused by lack of square footage alike are, unfortunately, many.

It was more than a decade ago that operators began trying to maximise retail space, according to Ian Maitland FCSI, lead consultant for RPP Solutions in the UK. One way it has been achieved has been by, “matching menu requirements to the equipment capacity, not deploying equipment that is ‘nice to have’.”

As a result, he says, kitchens and product quality have been compromised. Operators must understand that, “when the equipment matches the menu requirements, the footprint can be more effective.” At the same time, manufacturers should ensure that the evolution of the equipment is in line with menu trends. The limiting of space, Maitland believes, means consultants are, “required to update with equipment evolution, and have the ability to use deterministic data in justifying the equipment and space required.”

According to FCSI associate Jay Bandy of Goliath Consulting Group in Atlanta, Georgia, for consultants smaller spaces mean more time spent on layout and finding solutions. For manufacturers it means updating design to be more efficient in smaller footprints.

Miick says manufacturers are being called on to come up with more flexible equipment that requires a smaller footprint to do similar tasks, as well as to develop faster cook/chill/prep technologies. Operators themselves, he adds, are faced with a complex set of challenges. “A smaller kitchen keeps the budget low. Less storage equals less waste, less theft, better cash flow and, potentially, higher profit. Less prep space needs better management of production and time. And there is more income space if the operator is smart,” he explains.

Adapting to new demands

The smaller the kitchen, says Miick, the more difficult it is to come up with a design that maximises production. “This takes real talent for a designer.”

The reductions are being accomplished, he notes, through units such as combi-ovens and hoodless equipment. “Storage is reduced, which is good because it demands just-in-time ordering and tighter turns with less waste.”

According to Grubb this requires the kitchen consultant to, “adapt to new demands and free himself from the routine planning of standard footprints for outdated work processes with conservative kitchen equipment.”

The need to adjust the number of menu offerings and develop ways to create them with less equipment is an inevitable complication. Stanford says his firm’s approach is not to focus on what to eliminate but to specify equipment capable of multi-tasking while not increasing production time. For consultants, it means, “being more creative with solutions to make the space workable, creating new widgets,” he says. “Some manufacturers have more solutions than we give them credit for. The majority of the manufacturers we deal with love the challenge to do something different, to twist a product or combine a few items they have to fill a special request.”

For operators the task is to be willing to try something new. “A different approach in order to utilise the space and equipment available to produce the product they require without compromising the outcome they need to be successful,” he says.

All the options

Given the reality of shrinking kitchen space, the challenge to consultants – now and in the future – is obvious.

“Consultants need to think like operators,” says Arlene Spiegel FCSI, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York City. “They need to have a broad knowledge of the challenges the operators face as it relates to the cost of space, the cost of labour and the capital expense of build out. They also need to develop a strategy for optimising output by putting forth all the options and thinking outside the box.”

From a design perspective, a competent consultant should always be the key driver to shrinking commercial space by eliminating spaces and workflows, says Thomas. “Additionally, the client has increasing costs of delivery, be it cost of ingredients, labour cost, or utilities expenses. They are searching for effective ways to do more with less.”

Foodservice professionals are managing the challenge of smaller space in different ways. “We have case studies of staff being reduced up to 80% for previously inefficient areas,” says Thomas. “On a current large project, we have increased output by 300% in terms of capacity to deliver fine dining, yet the team has only increased by one member. The chef in charge is happy, and dealing with this dilemma very well.”

The ideal ratio

According to Bandy, “It’s about using modular equipment and focusing on efficiency. Prep areas are shrinking, dry storage is on rollers, and combi ovens are replacing conventional ovens and steamers. Speed ovens are replacing toasters and microwaves. Mobile prep carts and custom shelving require less space. Employee restrooms and lockers have been cut.”

Miick’s rule of thumb for a full-service kitchen ratio is ideally four to one, front to kitchen. “Any bigger than three to one is not acceptable,” he says. For fast-casual concepts, he adds the ideal ratio is four to one, and no bigger than three to one. For quick-service, it should be, “one to one or one to two, front to back.”

The need to maximise space is clearly not going away. “Why would it?” asks Burgess. “We need to validate all aspects of a project and ensure that what is needed is included, but not just pop everything in just in case.”

Part of being a professional consultant is to discuss, consider, provide options, debate and query requests. “The more compact the area the more of a challenge, which is certainly something we excel at,” she adds.

Howard Riell


Illustration: Alice Mollon