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Design masterclass: regaining the art that brings us together

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Michael Caruso, Stephen Young FCSI and Marcin Zmiejko FCSI of William Caruso and Partners Inc. look at the role of shared kitchens to redeliver the art that binds us

It is a Monday morning in mid June. Like many, I just ended another conference call, one of many today. As I sit at my desk watching traffic moving briskly and unencumbered east and west along the highway outside of my window, I ponder how divided we seem these days. Divided in many ways. I wonder if we have always, to some extent, been divided. Is it the natural order of things? The Ying and Yang. Two opposites of Yin and Yang attract and complement each other and, as their symbol illustrates, each side has at its core an element of the other. Maybe.

I don’t profess to understand the concept of Ying and Yang beyond the belief they complement and work together to complete each other, keeping balance in the universe. I have sought, in times of division and conflict, to seek common ground. “Is there one area we can all agree?” This is the question I always ask. During the past few months I have struggled with this and finally found a meme that hit me like an epiphany. It was a simple yet accurate statement: “So, in retrospect, in 2015 not a single person got the answer right to ‘Where do you see yourself five years from now?’”

Separate, but together

We all share a reality that is very different than what we imagined, and are forced to move forward in to the tired yet accurate phrase coined ‘The new normal’. Many of our comforts, our adult self-soothing rituals, have been taken from us. All of us. As a foodservice consultant I naturally gravitate towards food and drink. Food is love. Eat, drink, and love. But now we are all displaced. Separated, yet strangely together. All of us. How will we eat, drink and love moving forward?

Many restaurateurs, chefs, servers and hostesses who share a passion for food and drink no longer have a place or means to share their culinary talents. Without theses businesses, the world losses the art and science that brings us together. One thing we all have in common is that we must eat and we must drink. How will restaurant owners and chefs deliver their art moving forward in the new normal? Shared kitchen spaces.

Shared kitchen spaces, a concept that was gaining traction prior to Covid-19, may very well be hitting Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. For the foreseeable future, many consumers will simply not venture out to public spaces for a variety of reasons. They will want their food delivered. Shared kitchen spaces have recently had their setbacks because many of their clients (restaurants) have either gone out of business or seen up to 85% reduction in revenue. The tipping point for shared kitchen spaces will be taking advantage of the increasing market of customers who want food delivered.

Shared kitchens are in the best position to pivot to ‘Direct kitchens’. Direct from kitchen into your home. Unlike restaurants that have large and expensive spaces, the shared kitchens have smaller spaces with more flexible leases. The leases tend to be less expensive as they do not need to be in high traffic areas. They are the speedboat in the harbor and can make adjustments faster and easier than traditional restaurant owner. Additionally, more business will be exiting the market during the economic downturn.

What is exactly is a shared kitchen space? A shared kitchen is a commercial space that has been licensed, certified, and equipped for professional food production. The space is available for business owners to rent. Unlike traditional leases these rental agreements are more flexible. Simply put they are membership organizations for food businesses. You pay an agreed upon rate (daily, weekly, monthly and so on) based on how much time you need to the space. Each shared kitchen space may have its own specific requirements, such as a minimum amount of monthly rental time. Given the current market, some may allow more flexibility and rent space by the hour as needed. Regardless of the specific model chosen, access to the space, equipment, and regulatory compliance it provides is a significant tool for restauranteur.

Traditionally, these spaces were meant for food businesses that did not need direct personal customer interaction at the food production location. Caterers, wholesalers, packaged food sellers, and food truck vendors were ideal businesses for the utilization of shared kitchens. Until recently, they were not ideal for actual restaurants, since they do not offer extra space of accommodations for consumers to visit. However, this issue has lessened due to the growing interest of consumers in kitchen to dining room service and a shared kitchen is poised to service this market. Low overhead and flexibility give the businesses who participate in this model a marketable advantage over traditional brick and mortar operations.

Converting from the traditional

The winners will need to show how able they are to convert from the traditional way of running culinary operation into this ‘new normal’. What does it mean to foodservice design? Well, even though there so far is no proof of Covid-19 contamination from food, equipment and utensils, customers prefer to stay safe. Face masks, social distancing and human-to-human separation during foodservice operation may stay around for a while.

Many of you may have noticed that a number of foodservice manufacturers have advertised Covid-19 related products, especially hand sanitizer dispensers. Something that was a peripheral component offered by detergent purveyors became a key item in the arsenal of dispensing systems manufacturers at the time of pandemic. That type of production adjustment shows that the industry can be creative and adaptable to new conditions.

As foodservice consultants we can look into the past and present times and see how something a product, a design or an operation concept, that was a requirement for the particular moment can find its application in our current world. How would a perfect food path look? Do we need to implement any additional stages into the journey from the goods delivery point, through the prep/cook process onto the customer’s table? Maybe something of that nature already exists? Is separation a key for healthy food production?

There are places in the world where foodservice operators have to strictly follow food separation for religious and local or traditional purposes. Foodservice designs may include larger receiving and staging areas that will allow for certain food items to stay for a longer period of time before it is transported to its final destination. Maybe food from staging should be moved to food washing section and then packaged and stored properly?

It looks like masks will stick around for a while; therefore we will need to make sure the temperatures at the kitchen will favor work with face coverings. I can’t imagine prepping and cooking processes change due to pandemic, but we may have experience some significant changes in food plating/packaging. The world of concessions or cafeteria may change for the long run. In the past three months we did see how almost an entire world of restaurants restructured from on-site dining into take-out and delivery models. That will stay for longer period of time and will most likely evolve into much a stronger branch of foodservice operation.

The perfect opportunity

The world of social distance and requirements for limited restaurant dining will create opportunity for packaging manufacturers. Companies that produce packaging equipment may look into portable units that will seal produced means and place them in attractive, insulated packaging. Industry will require light-duty packaging for menu items served on the premises and a little more robust for take-out and delivery applications. Many locations will need to include a designated food packaging space, something that was historically not a part of a standard foodservice operation.

Growing demand and shrinking competition may be the perfect opportunity for shared kitchen and small business owners to seize their market share and deliver the art the world desperately needs.

The world is changed and keeps changing. Our industry will change with it as there is a high demand for design responses to pandemic conditions.

Michael Caruso, Stephen Young FCSI and Marcin Zmiejko FCSI of William Caruso and Partners Inc.