For many kitchen designers, the prospect of having to design or reconfigure a kitchen into an area that ordinarily would be considered too cramped to prepare food goes against every practical operational instinct they possess.
But it is a challenge that the industry is being asked to solve with greater frequency, as the growth in the number of manufacturers launching slimmer items of equipment just serves to highlight. The small kitchen story is very much a two-pronged phenomenon.
On the one hand new developments are invariably containing less allocated kitchen space and on the other operators in charge of existing kitchens want to reduce their footprint to create extra space for other commercial purposes.
David Bentley, FCSI member and director of The Russell Partnership, acknowledges that while the emphasis on smaller kitchens has been gathering pace for several years, it has truly clasped most sectors of the hospitality industry now.
“Increasingly of late we have been requested by clients to review the space that is given over for kitchens, and it is predominantly on the basis of trying to make their operations more streamlined and more efficient from a revenue point of view, especially given that the energy costs within the kitchen for things like space, light and cooling are about 40% of the cost.”
With operators prepared to sacrifice kitchen space for additional ‘revenue generating’ space front-of-house, previous kitchen blueprints are being torn up in favour of a brave new approach.
Designers agree that the same basic design principles apply whether the kitchen is small or large: the workspace needs to flow, health and safety regulations must be adhered to, hygiene procedures have to be followed, and there needs to be sufficient space for storage. However, everything else — from the style of operation and menu to the number of covers and kitchen staff — will essentially be shaped by how much space is available, and vice versa.
Roz Burgess, FCSI member and owner of Intelligent Catering, says it is natural for people to examine the prime cooking equipment first, but without suitable storage and wash areas the cooking part of the operation will be ineffectual anyway.
“I look at the menu, cooking methods, covers and anticipated trading levels, and also the equipment required,” she says of her approach to managing compact commercial kitchen projects. “This then allows assessments to be made at design stage. For example, on a few recent projects these related to adjustments to the menu, cooking style, footprint and deliveries. This allows the client to make informed decisions relating to the business and with that knowledge the best feasible food service area is therefore created.”
In a compact kitchen, notes Burgess, provisions for ongoing maintenance and engineer access also need to be ‘designed’ into the proposal from the word go.
“This can also include replacing equipment in the future and how it can be moved into the kitchen and surrounding building areas,” she says. “Many kitchens now are several floors up and the easy time to fit equipment is during the build; altering the kitchen or incorporating additional large items is a challenge.”
The sort of gains that operators can realise from restructuring existing kitchen spaces can certainly be significant. The Russell Partnership has carried out work for one major restaurant chain that involved reducing its kitchen footprint by some 40% to 50% of its original size without compromising performance or output.
In many instances, the burden of attempting to minimise the equipment footprint can be shared by the adoption of alternative working methods or processes.
Take classic high street operators, says Bentley.They are renowned for evaluating the cost of their premises on a square metre basis, so should think about pushing their supply chains to absorb their food storage requirements, he suggests.
“We’re saying don’t build yourself an 8sqm cold room, build yourself a 2sqm one and have deliveries twice a day. What that is doing is moving storage out a very expensive rent area where you might be able to create a table of four in the restaurant and pushing that need down the supply chain.”
What is becoming apparent is that kitchen designers and planners are having to fight their corner on occasions when they encounter customers who defy the advice that the kitchen space they want might actually be unworkable.
As space becomes more precious, it’s an issue that Radford Chancellor, FCSI consultant and director of Radford Chancellor Limited, doesn’t see going away. He says: “During the summer of last year we designed a kitchen for a local government leisure facility which was grossly under-sized for the operation it was due to support. As space becomes a premium, some operators are defiantly looking to maximise space front-of-house to get ‘more customers on seats’, and too often it is at the expense of the kitchens and storage areas.
“Sometimes this is a false economy as it is a bit like having a jet plane with a hair dryer engine, we would always work with clients to highlight the risks and pitfalls of having an under-sized kitchen or stores. Extra space can often be found by working closely with the architectural team and stakeholders on a project.”
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So what about equipment suppliers? Where do they fit in all this? As operators look to achieve menu and kitchen efficiencies without diverting from their core brand or product heritage, there is now an onus on catering equipment suppliers to provide solutions that meet the needs of the modern compact kitchen.
Designers experienced in drawing for compact spaces say that smaller generated prime cooking items, including stove tops, combination ovens and miniature ovens, are proving invaluable for their minimal footprints, although this, of course, has to be balanced with the flexibility and output they can deliver.
In the hotel sector, meanwhile, pressure bratt pans and multi-use bratt pans continue to be desirable fixtures, while rapid cook ovens and combi microwaves remain popular with many retail operators because they can be used for everything from cooking fillet steaks to warming paninis.
“Historically, where you used to have eight or 10 items of equipment in a kitchen to deliver a menu, that same menu is deliverable off maybe four to six items of equipment now because of the way food technology has moved on and the way that these items have become more sophisticated,” comments Bentley.
James Lee, director of Eximius Projects, says several items of equipment come into their own when it comes to saving space. “The use of induction equipment allows the operator to utilise the cooktop for prep and work space when it’s not being used for cooking and this always helps with tight spaces,” he says. “Utilisation of Rational ovens gives multi-cooking capabilities while multi cookers, combination pasta cookers and water baths are also excellent ways of maximising available space.”
Some designers suggest that one of the consequences of the drive towards smaller kitchens, and the growing uptake of accelerated cooking appliances, is that there is a degree of “de-skilling” taking place. They point out that pre-prepared meals or frozen parts of meals can easily be regenerated in smaller footprint equipment with lesser skilled staff.
At the end of the day, says Mick Jary, project manager at Manitowoc, we exist in a market where space equates to money. The compact kitchen of today is therefore dictated by operational efficiencies which lead to increased operational margins.
“To ensure that the space is as compact as possible while offering menu movement through the seasons we have to ensure that the equipment proposed has not only the flexibility to cover this, but is operationally friendly via smart control panels,” he says.
“This is now essential as the operators in these types of units are not necessarily trained chefs but they will need to continually provide a standardised product within strict time constraints. These types of operation are seen regularly by Manitowoc and we now provide these solutions into operations ranging from QSRs through to five-star hotel resort satellite kitchens.”
With compact kitchen schemes requiring designers to be increasingly creative in their proposals, FCSI consultant and FSC owner, Derek White, welcomes any moves by foodservice manufacturers to reduce the footprint of their equipment.
He says: “Depths of equipment, even to 25mm, certainly make a difference when you are trying to design something that has a tight working space. The challenge is trying to produce a piece of equipment that will deliver the same capacity, but on a smaller footprint. It is not easy, but that is the way that it has to be done.
“I am doing a nice boutique hotel in Oxford at the moment that is very limited for space. Because of that we have used the new Ambach Chef 850 rather than a traditional 900 series. It will give the same performance but it is a slightly smaller footprint — in some of these tight spaces 50mm makes all the difference.”
Refrigeration is another area where White says that a slight alteration in specification can have a dramatic impact on the way that space is utilised. “Up until recently, most refrigeration manufacturers’ standard under-counter fridge was 700mm deep. The problem is it is using up valuable space, so for a couple of the kitchens I have done we have put under-counter refrigeration in which is 650mm and 600mm deep. If you have got one unit backing onto something else, all of a sudden you have gained another 100mm and that is a massive amount when you are talking about very narrow spaces.”
Availability of narrower refrigeration is said to have been an issue not too long ago, but manufacturers are now coming to market with leaner designs. Liebherr, for instance, now offers a professional combi fridge-freezer that is housed in a 600mm footprint but can still hold more than 430 litres, while Williams is even producing 500mm cabinets under the Jade Slimline brand.
Williams insists the 500mm line retains all the features of the standard range, which, of course, is the Holy Grail as far as equipment design is concerned. As designers make a point of saying, reduced dimensions only matter if the functionality of the product isn’t compromised.
Radford Chancellor says: “Some manufacturers are developing compact combi ovens, which is helpful for smaller sites, however the Kw loading or power output of compact models is normally lower than the standard units, which sometimes means chefs complain that the ovens are too slow or under-powered. There is not a huge move to the development of compact units — I would imagine it makes up a very small percentage of any manufacturers’ sales. Some manufacturers offer a compact unit simply because their competitors make or sell one.”
The over-riding view — and one that all suppliers which value their market share need to bear in mind — is if a preferred piece of equipment isn’t compact enough, there will always be an alternative that is. “We personally have not found that you need to make a compromise in the items of equipment you want, but sometimes you might have to make a compromise in the manufacturer of the equipment you want because some manufacturers just don’t physically make it in the size you want,” says The Russell Partnership’s David Bentley.
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Reduced surface size is one answer to the compact kitchen dilemma, but there is another, which is to embrace equipment that is truly multi-functional in what it does. The type of equipment provided by the likes of Frima and MKN is really striking a chord with designers that need to find a way of helping clients satisfy menu volume and variety without specifying an excessive amount of equipment.
“Equipment versatility is key to the design process,” says Intelligent Catering’s Burgess. “It is about selecting the right items of equipment which, while being versatile, will also perform consistently without breakdowns, as there is no other item of equipment to replace it. The versatile equipment also allows the menu to adapt to future market and menu demands.” Eximius Projects’ Lee concurs. “The more multi-function equipment you have, the more varied the dishes that can be offered,” he says.
One of the main considerations when choosing multi-functional equipment is making sure that it is fast and that the time between changeovers of different cooking methods is as short as possible. If that can be achieved, the benefits are huge.
Graham Kille, managing director of Frima, says its VarioCooking Center Multificiency combines all the functions of a kettle, fryer, griddle, bratt pan, tilting pan and pressure cooker in one unit, so it does not stand idle. “Multi-functional cooking equipment can provide a solution to the demands of saving space in modern kitchen design — it can reduce the space needed in your kitchen by 50%,” says Kille.
One of Frima’s recent customers is Gochisou, a new Japanese take-away restaurant in Chiswick Business Park. It offers an authentic and varied Japanese menu, yet the twin-pan VarioCooking Center Multificiency is the only major piece of cooking equipment in its kitchen.
Gochisou’s operations manager, David de la Torre, reveals the company ended up building the dishes around the Frima equipment. “This is an A1 retail unit, so we were restricted as to the cooking equipment and ventilation we could fit,” he says. “The Frima is a really innovative concept, very energy efficient, and it gets round the restrictions, yet gives us all the cooking processes we need — shallow frying, deep frying, boiling, and so on. Its UltraVent hood means we don’t need extra extraction. Basically, we couldn’t have had Gochisou here, on these premises, without the VarioCooking Center.”
Whether the answer lies in multifunctional equipment or smaller versions of standard models — or a blend of both — the industry is adapting to the changing landscape.
With development costs spiralling, operators desperate to maximise customer spend and companies under pressure to slash energy costs, the compact kitchen — in the truest sense of the meaning — is here to stay. Now, where’s that tape measure?
Room for compromise
Designing smaller kitchens or downsizing existing kitchens often involves making compromises. But there are areas that some designers insist should be left untouched.
“Warewashing is one area you should never, if possible, compromise on because you will still have the same volume of plates and the same volume of waste,” says Derek White of FSC.
“If someone doesn’t like something on a plate in a commercial restaurant, they are still going to leave it and you will still have to get rid of it. And you will never reduce the amount of tableware that is being used, so the one argument that we continually have with space planners and architects is the dishwash must have a decent amount of space.”
David Bentley of The Russell Partnership says his company would review an area like warewashing in the same way that it would cooking.
“There is a tendency with clients generally to try and have a bigger machine because of the peak volumes that they achieve, and what we try and do is highlight the bigger picture, and say, ‘look, rather than getting the plates through really quickly, having a large machine and having a clear dumping table, would it really be a problem if you had three stacks of plates and it took you 30 minutes to go through? Because if not we have just saved a load of space on the washer and a load of energy on the washer as well.”