As restaurant budgets tighten and real-estate prices skyrocket, operators are finding better value in shrinking spaces and equipment — whether it’s hoods and fryers or ovens and refrigeration, there’s a movement afoot to get more from less. In this new economic reality, when it comes to equipment, size matters.
Space efficiency is the number-1 driver, confirms Joel Sisson, president and founder of Crush strategy Inc., a Mississauga, Ont.-based foodservice consultancy. “You don’t see as many chains doing 6,000 or 7,000 square feet,” he says. “Rather, they’re asking if they can have the same table count in 5,000 to 5,500 [square feet] and shrink the kitchen. And, in the case of casual dining and independents, they aren’t that full Sunday through Thursday, so saving on occupancy costs makes perfect sense. Equipment plays a big part in being able to do that.”
Michael Sangregorio, chef and owner of Local Kitchen & Wine Bar in Toronto has been working with minimal square footage since opening his resto in 2009. With only 200 sq. ft. to spare for kitchen space, equipment versatility and size are absolute essentials for survival, he says.
At the wine bar, a Vac Pak machine is used for the prep work, saving time and space, while countertop electric burners are used for basic water-boiling chores. Sangregorio’s Robot Coupe food processor is a “super small, really, really efficient tool,” he says. The smoker, a model the chef picked up at Springfield, Mo.-based Bass Pro Shops for $400, executes multiple chores, including cooking potatoes for his signature gnocchi dish.
Whether talking large pieces or small, versatility is important to chefs who don’t want a multitude of equipment stealing prime kitchen real estate, says Patrick Watt, principal with Day in Life foodservice consultancy in Saint John, N.B. “There are interesting things going on, like sous vide in a combi-oven, or modular equipment that can sit on top of refrigerated bases to save space. Combi-ovens in particular have come a long way.”
“Now that the price is coming down, combi-ovens are a worthwhile investment, because they can do everything, limit the chances of wastage and human error and fit well into a smaller footprint,” Sisson notes.
Even small-scale hotel operations are looking for space savings on the appliance front, says John Placko of John Placko Culinary Consulting in Toronto. “I’m hearing more and more about small hotels having tiny kitchens with a Turbo-Chef, Merrychef or combi-oven, where everything is programmed. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of that in light of the skill shortages and consistency issues.”
As machines such as combi-ovens are used for the grunt work (and thinking), surface space is freeing up, and ventilation demands and hood system requirements are being reduced. “In a lot of cases a 16-foot hood can be taken down to 14 simply by having smaller equipment,” Sisson notes. “If you use high-recovery fryers in a high-volume establishment, you can have one or two less [fryers] on the line since they come up to temperature faster. Pitco has a great one for about $1,500.”
With less stovetop requirements, kitchens are also being designed with less burners, Sisson says. “Four or six is usually enough for a high-volume operation. Instead investments are going into fryers, combi-ovens and refrigeration.”
The newly acquired surface space is becoming home to a plethora of smaller scale, high-density equipment that does the job in a fraction of the time, Watt adds. “Electrolux has a high-speed sandwich grill that does wonders for speeding up sandwich counter service. Bakers Pride has also put out a nice charbroiler countertop series. One item we’re getting a lot of feedback on is the AccuTemp Accu-Steam griddle that uses steam for more even heat distribution.”
Modularity is also becoming increasingly important as restaurateurs change with the times, reducing budgets. Watt notes that modular stainless-steel chef’s table systems from Tarrison Products Ltd. are very cost-effective, because everything snaps together compared to a more costly fabricated system.
And, chillers are being made with added functions such as quick-thaw features, which allow operators to take frozen food to a tempered state more quickly than thawing in a standard refrigerator. “American Panel has some under-the-counter models that work quite nicely,” Watt says. “Chillers are also great for extending the life of your produce. You just wash, clean and dry it and give it a quick chill to firm it up for a lot better shelf life.”
The increased interest in local sourcing is also freeing up kitchen space, because it minimizes the need for a freezer, although it might mean more refrigerators are needed to hold the extra produce.
Vacuum-based devices are also becoming de rigueur for chefs who like to source locally without cluttering the kitchen. Chamber vacuum sealers are now being used for a range of functions, from storage to marination to cooking.
Rudi Fischbacher, program coordinator for the Hospitality, Recreation & Tourism program at Humber College in Toronto, says the gastrovac is another nifty device that creates a vacuum in a cooking chamber to intensify flavours while preserving nutrients. This unit combines a pot, vacuum pump and heating plate in one.
As Placko notes, vacuum sealing and sous-vide cooking don’t cause much of a mess and help keep kitchens cleaner. “With a PolyScience immersion circulator and a FoodSaver vacuum sealer you don’t see a lot of open flame. In fact, I’ve been in places where they have a circulator and sealer, an induction burner and a few pans for searing and frying, and that’s the extent of it.”
Fischbacher says vacuum tumbling is also gaining interest from some chefs, because it speeds up the infusion process. “I’ve seen a tabletop vacuum tumbler that can marinade food in about 20 minutes and reduce cooking time,” he says.
Brian Morin, chef and principal partner at Beer Bistro in Toronto says a vacuum tumbler is just one of many “alternative” equipment items in his small kitchen space. “Our footprint is zero,” he jokes.
Morin says his vacuum tumbler is a relentless workhorse. “It’s magical. You can take 16 duck breasts, put them in the 25-lb. drum, add a litre of cherry beer and tumble for an hour. When you open it up the meat is cured like prosciutto.” Other meat-prep toys he enjoys include vacuum packers, sausage stuffers and emulsifying blenders.
Aside from meat-prep tools, one of Morin’s favourite pieces is the Cookshack hot-and-cold smoker. “It’s basically a locker about the size of a home refrigerator with an electric heater. You fill the cavity with the smoke, add ice and seal it up for 24 hours. We’ve got that going pretty much around the clock.” Vegetables are prepared in thermal circulators, while a dehydrator is kept busy drying seasonal fruits and tomatoes. A cheese kettle and a cheese cave for aging his in-house creations rounds out Morin’s toy cupboard. “We’re proud of what we’ve got here,” he says. “It’s unique.”
Placko confirms that dehydrators are being used more as a creative outlet for chefs who like to work from scratch. “TSM dehydrators are wonderful pieces of equipment because [several models] have stainless-steel racking and run much quieter to deliver a consistent product.”
Another Placko pick is the Thermomix, a multi- function food processor that weighs, blends, grinds, cooks and times food. “The beauty is you can duplicate a product in exact time and there’s no waste of labour, because you never over- or undercook the food. You just set it and forget it.”
“There’s also been growing utilization of Pacojet micro-grinders for puréeing everything, from pâté to sorbet,” Fischbacher notes. “It’s an amazing device that’s very small,” and doesn’t have product waste.
Whatever the equipment choices, the real deal is the creative talents of the chef using it, Sisson says. “Multi-functionality is one thing. But it’s the creativity of the operators in finding different ways to use their current equipment when they’re pushed against the wall to save money. The most impressive thing I’ve seen is when they can solve their own dilemmas with what they have.”