Foodservice operators are dealing with a convoluted web of trends — from technology advancements and labour shortages, to open kitchen designs and skyrocketing real-estate prices — that are having a marked impact on their kitchen design and equipment choices. While the basic drivers are consistent throughout the industry (the need for speed, efficiency and cost savings), each sector has its own spin on the dilemma.
With real estate at a premium, the push is on to reduce kitchen sizes and make them more efficient. For larger formats, it can lead to major equipment changes. QSR operations, on the other hand, have long been proficient at working within the confines of a small footprint.
“QSRs have always done well fitting in small spaces and are getting even smaller. Then there’s the growing popularity of ghost kitchens for food delivery,” says Josh Wolfe, corporate chef and director of Sales with Food Service Solutions Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. “Ghost kitchens have become a primary method to take space in an industrial area that doesn’t have to be retail driven. As a result, restaurants can take more of a QSR approach because you don’t have the burden of front-of-house costs.”
And, as delivery, takeout and online ordering gain popularity, Nanci Giovinazzo, principal at Food Forward Consulting in Toronto, says her clients are reconsidering how they plan out their kitchens.
“I’ve got some clients with 30 per cent of their revenue coming in from takeout,” she says. “So, [many of them] are adding commissary areas that are not downtown based and are a less expensive to build. These commissaries are able to service the smaller location, their main kitchen, which then becomes the finishing kitchen.”
MORE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK
With the higher cost per square foot, casual and fine dining are motivated to shrink kitchens in order to add more revenue-generating seats, Wolfe says. “But you can’t just reduce the footprint of the kitchen and generate the same volume of output doing things the same way as yesterday. It simply doesn’t work.”
Reducing kitchen size and labour requirements in back of the house allows operators to get out front where the revenue streams are, explains Doug Feltmate, foodservice and hospitality consultant with Planned Foodservice Solutions Inc. in Ottawa. “If you’re paying $35/sq. ft. gross rent for your space, 15 sq. ft. will cost $525 a year in the back of house. The same 15 sq. ft. could generate $1,000 to $15,000 annually in the front of house.”
The question remains, how do you take a 2,400-sq.-ft. space and achieve the same productivity and revenue in 1,800-sq.-ft. of space with fewer staff, he adds. “The equipment used in your operation with be that determining factor.”
Equipment basics that can play a key role in reducing space and labour requirements are a combi-oven, a blast chiller/freezer and a vacuum-pack machine, Feltmate says. “The proper combi can replicate several different cooking environments and eliminate the need for several other pieces without sacrificing food and service quality and times.”
Technology also comes into play on a number of fronts, Wolfe notes. “Many efficiencies are technology driven. For example, self-cleaning appliances, cloud-based connectivity for remote programming and maintenance, capacitive touch interfaces and tablets allow operators to be more effective in controlling operations. With cloud connectivity for example, you can videoconference, conduct training across the country, program equipment, manage diagnostics and even do maintenance remotely.”
Self-ordering/self-paying kiosks in QSRs are proving valuable tools for optimizing space and reducing the number of cashiers. “McDonald’s has led the charge in self-ordering and payment kiosks,” Feltmate says. “Three kiosks will replace two cashiers and eliminate lineups. A $15,000 to $20,000 initial investment could save $60,000 to $75,000 annually in labour.”
Switching to a cashless system for any operation also saves considerable labour at the end of the shift, allowing for instant server and management reconciliations with the POS system without having to count, balance and do cash deposits.
The QSR sector is also leaning a bit more on speed-cooking technology, Wolfe notes. “They’re not having to predict how many [items] they’re going to sell. Rather, they can heat and crisp items when they need to without pre-heating.”
“Even in food-court kiosks, they may not be cooking but finishing it in front of customers in a rapid-cook oven. It adds a level of quality to the process. To that end, we’re seeing more attractive rapid-cook ovens coming into play, with curved corners and matte colours, not institutional hunks of stainless steel,” says Andrew Waddington, senior consultant with fsSTRATEGY Inc. in Toronto.
With the growing trend to expanding menus, multi-purpose equipment is gaining ground at all levels and driving the need for multi-purpose systems even more, he adds. “Even Tim Hortons is doing fries and burgers now. When menus expand, footprints can’t match it, so equipment has to do more with the same space.”
More operations are adding eco-friendly functions to the equipment mix, Waddington says. “Most major refrigeration companies are using more environmentally friendly coolants, for example. More operators are choosing high-efficiency hoods and demand-control exhaust systems. We’re seeing a lot more focus on ventless technology, rapid-cook ovens and warewashers that recapture heat and require less chemicals.”
Fine dining stands apart in situations where equipment is often more about branding and innovation. “Because fine dining pushes innovation in food, it’s also pushing equipment innovation,” Wolfe says.
Open-display cooking is becoming an increasingly popular option. “People always want to see the kitchen; they want to see the action,” says Ori Grad, broker at CHI Real Estate Group in Toronto, which helps restaurateurs find their ideal space. “But this means operators need to have better and cleaner-looking equipment.”
In fact, for many fine-dining operations, the push is on to create showcase kitchens that include higher-end equipment in a wide range of materials, finishes and formats to reflect the branding and decor, Wolfe notes.
“Once you lose the walls, you can do a lot with the space. Now you can take predetermined setups and configure lines however you want into a smaller space, with [modular] elements like burners, French tops, warming spaces or griddles.”
“When you become a more-specialized restaurant, the equipment reflects that,” Waddington says.
Whatever the equipment and technology choices, operators will need to move outside their traditional comfort zones, Feltmate says. “They’re going to have to explore different ways to do things and dump the traditional thought process of, ‘well that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ Good operational planning and facilities design are needed more than ever. The solutions are out there…they just have to be put in place.”
Written by Denise Deveau