A well-designed commercial kitchen serves staff and owners in a host of ways by reducing costs and producing efficiency, writes Stephanie Sword
A successful restaurant is often known for its service, ambience and the culinary skills of its chef. But the unsung hero is the most crucial element of the whole operation—the kitchen. Restaurateurs know how vital a well-designed kitchen is to their success, and its equipment, layout and efficiency can make or break an establishment.
Kitchen consultant Syd Hiller, of Hiller & Associates in Maroochydore, Queensland, understands the importance of a well-designed kitchen. “It is absolutely critical. Just ask the big operators, and remember at some point they were small operators.”
When working with restaurateurs on a project, Hiller has them focus on the key principles of commercial kitchen design—flow and functionality, aesthetics, budget and code compliancy.
“We think of a kitchen as a ‘factory’, and the menu as the ‘product’. We then arrange the factory in a logical sequence of its component tasks, including receiving, storage, preparation, cooking, holding, transport, service and ware washing,” says Hiller.
Tim Smallwood, of Foodservice Consultants in Victoria, says you should start with the point of service to the customer, then develop the workflow and processes back toward the point of delivery.
“The design of a commercial kitchen is the design of an operating system. Think through all the processes required for the production and delivery of meals: receiving, storage, preparation, cooking, plating, service, washing, waste removal and recycling. Remember food safety requires temperature control, verification and monitoring,” he says. “Design what is required and ensure the contractor/supplier is clear about what you are expecting.”
In addition to the basic principles, a successful design should represent the combined input of designers, consultants, owners, chefs, and all food and beverage staff. “It is indeed a team approach, and as such good communication between all parties is essential to produce the desired outcome,” says Hiller.
Additionally, Hiller says if the designer is capable of doing the supply and fit-out, it makes the entire process easier to manage and immediately reduces the number of players involved. “This is called a D ‘n C approach (design and construct), and it is fast becoming the preferred method for food service facilities’ development,” he says.
The business benefits of a carefully executed design include managing food safety risk and maximising workflow. Michael Bradley, of AC&R Commercial Kitchens in Canberra, says that unless a kitchen is well designed, staff may not be able to serve and produce meals in a timely and economical manner.
“Furthermore, without the proper equipment such as refrigeration, there may be questions about the safety of the products being served.”
“A good design and construct has an immediate positive impact on the bottom line by reducing the big costs of operation, namely food cost and labour cost,” Hiller says, adding restaurateurs also see savings in energy and water costs.
But not all restaurateurs find themselves in a position to invest in new technology or equipment, particularly energy-saving units that, while good for the environment, can be costly. The solution? “Don’t over-equip, and don’t try to do too much. Modify the menu based around the resources available so that even if you don’t have the variety, you’re concentrating on quality,” says Smallwood. “As the business grows, add to your capability.”
Ray Jones, of Restaurant & Bar Solutions, recommends looking at labour-saving devices first. “Labour is the dearest commodity. Restaurateurs need to invest in kitchen appliances that keep labour costs down,” he says. He also recommends using Silver Chef, an equipment funding company that let’s restaurateurs lease kitchen equipment before investing too heavily in it. “The ‘rent-try-buy’ solution doesn’t tie up all their money. A lot of restaurateurs are going this way.”
Hiller adds it is important to prioritise the needs of your kitchen, focusing on the essentials. “Consider purchasing the piece of equipment that will give the best return on investment—and that is typically not the least expensive. If money is tight, try renting or leasing or, as a last resort, sourcing second-hand units.”
Bradley warns that used units often come with their own set of issues: “With second-hand equipment it’s always ‘buyer beware’. There is no point in buying second-hand equipment if it will not do the job,” he says. “Old sandwich bars are a perfect example. These were primarily made with only a cold plate, which in reality did not keep the food below 5 degrees. Should you buy an old piece of equipment that will not meet your requirements, you would be wasting your money.”
Prior to investing in any equipment, Bradley recommends utilising designers who have an understanding of workflows and a strong knowledge of the proposed equipment. “An example of this can be designers who specify refrigeration from a supplier’s product book. Unless they’re up-to-date with the supplier’s products (including what comes with the units, such as legs, castors or plinth mounting), it is very easy for them to specify a fridge, such as a back-bar fridge, for a kitchen because it fits the widths. But back-bar fridges don’t normally go into kitchens because they’re too tall to work on.”
To know what does work in the kitchen, it helps if the restaurateur comes into a design project with a clear idea of what their needs are. The designer’s role, on the other hand, is to act as the client’s representative, particularly when dealing with developers, architects, engineers, building trades, and health and building inspectors. “This ensures the project comes to fruition on time and on budget,” states Hiller.
As for future predictions about which equipment will prove most popular, Jones gives his nod to Sifa, an Italian manufacturer of component counter systems. “The Sifa modular counter system has really taken off in Europe and in the UK. It’s a concept we’re hoping to get off the ground here in Australia. Being a modular system, it’s like a one-stop shop. It all arrives on site and is put together very quickly, saving the client time and money.”
Bradley, however, places his money on combi steamers: “They will be the most wanted piece of equipment in a kitchen. All major hotels and hospitals will have them in their kitchens. Many of the small restaurants may not find the space to have one. However, their versatility can enhance the performance of any kitchen,” he says.
“When we are designing kitchens today, we are designing for the future,” says Smallwood. “Think about the changes that have occurred in the past five to 10 years and project where business will be in the next decade. Why would you design an obsolete system/kitchen just because that is how you worked in previous years?”