Proper planning cannot be an afterthought when designing a commercial kitchen. Micaela di Piramo shares the secrets to getting the most bang for your designing dollars upfront.
It’s often said the kitchen is the heart of the home—it’s the place that brings the family together, where food is prepared and shared, and people are nurtured. The heart of a restaurant, on the other hand, is found front of house, in the manner of its staff and in the warmth of its ambience. But the heart remains an apt comparison for the commercial kitchen—if it stops ‘beating’, the consequences can be dire. And as with a human heart, prevention is better than a cure, which means that careful planning and regular maintenance are key to the longevity and success of a commercial kitchen.
Careful planning is vital because, as any commercial kitchen consultant will tell you, there are a myriad of rules and regulations that must be followed—from the Australian Standard for Design, Construction and Fit-out of Food Premises to occupational health and safety, fire and health regulations. Take exhaust hoods—not only are there certain specifications in terms of size and where they are installed, there are also specifications about the size of the fan inside the exhaust hood. Due to the sheer size of the equipment, not to mention electrical wiring and plumbing, non-compliance with these regulations can be costly. It pays to get things right from the beginning by enlisting the services of a professional kitchen consultant at the planning stage.
“A kitchen consultant knows all the rules and regulations,” says Tony Browne, a chef and national consultant for Global Food Equipment. “And they know about the equipment, too. An architect will not be familiar with kitchen equipment or be up-to-date with the latest regulations. And while some chefs like to design their own kitchen, they’re not likely to have much design experience or be aware of all the regulations. They will design the kitchen to suit themselves, not with the life of the business in mind.”
“Professional advice saves money in the long-term,” says Peter Macaluso, managing director of the Sydney-based The CKC Group. “There are so many rules and regulations these days. Clubs, especially, are aware of the potential liability and are using professional consultants more and more. The days of simply putting out a white cloth and platters of salads and cold meats are long gone. Today, both hot and cold foods have to be kept at certain temperatures.”
As an example, Macaluso mentions an establishment where management chose not to use a consultant. The fit-out costs exceeded the budget by 100 per cent. The kitchen, he says, had a lot of unnecessary equipment, and the kitchen benches had timber backing, which does not meet health regulations. Timber traps moisture and attracts cockroaches and other vermin. And it lasts only three to four years. The best material to use is stainless steel, says Macaluso, adding that “the kitchens we design are built to last 15 to 20 years.”
The first things to consider when planning a commercial kitchen are the nature of the establishment, the type of menu and the number of meals to be prepared at any one session. The type of restaurant determines the cooking equipment: a seafood restaurant will need extra deep-fryers, a steakhouse more char grills and a function centre will need combi-ovens to cater for the high-volume turnover. The number of meals helps determine the size of the equipment.
“One of the most common problems I see is incorrectly sized equipment,” says Browne. “People always underestimate their needs, whether it’s the size of the dishwasher or the size of the prep area. Upgrading to a bigger dishwasher is not as simple as it sounds. It can be very difficult because of the stainless steel benching. Likewise, a bigger char grill, say, may not fit under the old exhaust. Mistakes can be very expensive to fix, and you can lose business in the process as well.”
Finding extra bench space for the prep area may require a miracle, and that’s why getting the workflow right is critical, says Glen Barkhan, CEO of BevWizz Group. “First of all, the kitchen has to be in a certain ratio to the whole restaurant area. Then one has to look at the position of the kitchen. Where are the goods coming in? Where are they stored? Where is the food going out? Within the actual kitchen itself, the space has to be divided between the prep area, the cooking area, the serving area and the washing-up area.” Each area needs the right percentage of space attributed to it in order to have an efficient workflow. “If food takes too long to come out,” says Barkhan, “that’s a sign of a badly designed kitchen.”
“You have to be careful not to oversize the kitchen,” warns Browne. “If the cool room or storage area are too far away or are too large, it can slow down the whole process.”
Macaluso also cites “workflow logistics” as the most common problem he is asked to fix. The kitchen is a high-traffic area, and it’s important that people don’t cross each other’s paths carrying pots of hot stock, a razor-sharp meat cleaver or piles of dirty dishes. Likewise, the delivery area for fresh produce should not be near the waste-collecting area.
Roger Pearson, general manager of Darwin-based Arafura Catering Equipment, sums up commercial kitchen design as a matter of keeping the cold away from the hot, the wet away from the dry and the flammable away from direct heat sources. “You don’t put the dishwasher, a wet bench, near the servery area, which is a dry bench. You don’t put the deep fryer near the open flames of a gas stove. And you need to think carefully about where you place sinks and hand basins.”
Equipment maintenance is also very important, says Pearson, as invariably neglected equipment will break down at the most inopportune time.
“A lot of people focus on front of house,” says Barkhan, “and put second-hand equipment in their kitchen. Then they complain that it breaks down all the time. In a busy kitchen, if one thing breaks down, it will have an impact on everything else.” According to Barkhan, the biggest breakdown area is refrigeration. “Fridges are the slaves of the kitchen,” he explains. “They are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. By comparison, cookers, mixers, even dishwashers have it easy.” Refrigeration breakdowns, he adds, can be subtle, so that the fridge appears to be working but is not maintaining the correct temperature. This can lead to food spoilage and waste, not to mention health risks. Regular servicing, he says, is the best way to avoid a kitchen crisis.
Maintenance is important, agrees Browne, but better still is to invest in quality equipment. “Business owners need to look at the long-term picture rather than short-term savings.” Quality equipment will last longer, can be cheaper to run, can have multiple uses and will require less maintenance.
“The right sort of equipment can save you money even in the short-term,” adds Macaluso. “A $12,000 pot washer can seem extravagant until you compare it to the cost of hiring an extra kitchen hand.” But after 20 years in the business, Macaluso is a realist: “You can design the best kitchen in the world and fill it with top quality equipment, but its success comes down to the people who use it.”