Over the past few decades, I have been asked to design a number of kitchens for restaurants and banquet spaces – a task that I thoroughly enjoy.  Owners and operators will typically shake their heads at initial designs holding their ground that “chefs” like to create elaborate kitchen palaces that they really don’t need and that they (the owners) can’t afford to build.  I understand this reaction but know that this is not really the case.  “Chefs” want to create kitchens that work, spaces that are designed to correct the numerous problems that were previously faced in poorly designed kitchens.  When a designer is asked to compromise on space, flow, or equipment I know that this simply means that the operator wants to build in problems in production or service in the future.  They are either willing to accept this (believing that the chef will simply need to figure it out), or they simply do not believe the designers conclusions.

In what other industry are developers inclined to accept built in problems with design?  Are auto manufacturers fine with poorly designed assembly lines?  Are hospital administrators fine with operating rooms that are not quite right?  Are operators of meat packing plants fine with inefficient cutting lines?  Inefficiencies cost money, frustrate employees, and oftentimes set the stage for poor quality results.  Is this the objective that operators and owners are after?

Creating restaurants is an expensive endeavor.  When owners are faced with a design that will cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars their first reaction is: “Kitchens don’t generate revenue – dining rooms do.  Kitchens are cost centers and a drain on potential profit.”  This, of course, is far from the truth – kitchens are the driver of sales and potential profit, but only when they are designed to accomplish both.  When it comes to setting the stage for restaurant success – “good enough” is never good enough.

Every additional step costs the restaurant money in labor, every poorly designed storage area costs the operation money in lost opportunities for purchasing volume and in product waste, every poorly designed prep area costs money in production efficiency, and every kitchen that is poorly designed from a flow perspective costs money in timing and service efficiency.  Chefs and cooks are at their best when they have the right environment and the right tools to accomplish the work they do.  Isn’t this true in every profession?  Yet, why would you hamper an employee’s ability to complete his or her work in the time that makes sense and at the quality that any successful business demands?  Penny wise and dollar foolish is certainly applicable here.

There are established standards for space, distance, and reach in kitchens that have been time tested.  Every effective kitchen designer knows them.  When we ignore these standards, we are building inefficiencies into the system and setting the stage for poor performance.  We know that a kitchen employee requires a certain amount of space to be effective in his or her work, we know that certain floor surfaces help to reduce back and leg strain, and we know that a designated amount of lighting will reduce eye strain and headaches and reduce unwanted accidents in the kitchen.  We understand where the dish machine should be located to reduce cross-trafficking in the kitchen and cut down on accidents and broken china, we understand that an expensive combi-oven can replace the need for multiple other ovens to complete the required work.  It is apparent that banquets are far more efficient, with less waste, and a much higher consistent quality level when there is sufficient cooler space for rolling racks and pre-plating and a cook-chill system is built into production.  We know that a slow cook oven will reduce cook shrink on roasts by 15-20% and produce a much more uniform product.  Yet, operators seem content to use their erasers on kitchen design and disregard what we know and simply move to save some money up front. 

One fact is absolute, one reality is the reason why too many kitchens are poorly designed, and there is one cause of the frustration that ensues from an ill-conceived kitchen space:  people just don’t know any better.  Unless you have worked in many kitchens, worked through hundreds of busy nights on the line, serviced banquets from 50 – 1,000 guests, taken inventory in kitchens without concern for proper storage, or tried to work with equipment that is constantly in dis-repair – you just don’t know.

When an owner or operator relies on an architect who has never worked in a kitchen (the rationale that they have designed dozens of kitchens before doesn’t cut it) and decisions are based solely on cutting expenses or adding a few more tables to the dining room – then problems are sure to arise.  When that architect is told to cut 25% off the cost of a kitchen – they will do just that; little thought is given to the impact of those decisionsIf I seem frustrated – I am, but not for any personal reasons – I am frustrated because I know the chef and cooks who walk into a kitchen designed in this manner will be challenged from day one.  I know that they will be forced to sacrifice something: quality, health, efficient use of labor, or be faced with a swinging door of cooks coming in with loads of enthusiasm and quitting with a ton of angst.

Is there any room for compromise?  Of course, there is, and chefs who design kitchens can get carried away, but at least listen to them, talk the issues through and push the chef to look at alternatives that might work just as well.  Don’t simply view the space as a “chef’s palace” that is only created to be a showcase.  This is a manufacturing space as well as an environment for artistic people to perfect their craft.  The space should be designed to feed both objectives if you want your restaurant to be all that it can be.

If you don’t have the money to do it right now, when will you find the funds to fix the problems later?  I know it seems arrogant to say – “If you don’t have the money to do it right then find the money”, but that is really the answer.  If you can’t find the money, then change your concept to accommodate a budget that works for your finances and still service the important aspects of design or stay away from the restaurant business.  Please – don’t build problems into the system and then wonder why it isn’t working.  Don’t allow an architect to design your kitchen in a vacuum.  Involve a chef or a chef designer in the process, create an open dialogue, run through scenarios in the kitchen to see if your design is adequately prepared for things that can go wrong.  Invest your money in efficiency and everyone will be much more productive, the operation will be staged to reach its financial goals, and your employees will thank you.


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