Good workflow means more than just moving people and product quickly; it means guiding them through safely as well.
"When you’re designing a kitchen, maximizing safety means minimizing people traveling and carrying things for excessive distances," says Heath Braunstein, director of purchasing and food safety for Lackmann Culinary Services.
Look at the work flow, he advises. Have the receiving area close to the storage area. Arrange work areas so that employees aren’t crossing paths. "There should be a flow of product through the facility that makes sense," says Braunstein, "and it follows through to the serving area."
As an example of good design, Braunstein cites a facility his company managed several years back. "The cooler had two doors, on either end. One door was the receiving end, where product came in and was put into the coolers. The other door opened into the kitchen." The pot-washing station was in the center of the kitchen, equidistant from all of the workstations, he recalls. "It had probably the best flow of any facility I’ve seen."
Slippery when wet: Materials are an important safety factor in workflow design. Flooring surfaces, for example, should have traction impregnated in them, whether they’re poured concrete or terrazzo tile. That traction should work whether floors are dry or wet. Whether due to spills or proximity to warewashing areas, most foodservice floors often get wet, so that factor should be taken into account when specing flooring materials.
A good HVAC system not only keeps staffers more comfortable but it also makes kitchens safer.
"If employees are more comfortable, they’re more alert and are going to work more safely and efficiently," points out Braunstein. Ventilation systems not only remove excess heat from kitchens and keep ambient temperatures comfortable, but also circulate the air and keep it fresher.
In a busy kitchen, open flames can be risky. That’s one reason induction cookers have become more popular. Induction cooking is especially used on the serving line. “It is certainly a much safer option than a portable butane stove is,” says Braunstein, where the gas could leak and possibly create a fire hazard. Plus, he notes, having an open flame isn’t allowed by the fire code in many facilities.
Safely handling hazardous chemicals is also a design concern. Managers should be sure chemicals are stored near receiving areas, Braunstein says, and well away from any food storage areas. At the same time, they have to be conveniently at hand for use. Otherwise, says Braunstein, employees will be tempted to store cleaning products at their stations, which certainly is a safety hazard. Materials Safety Data Sheets and any emergency information should be close at hand to chemical storage, too.
Open wide: "Trends in worker’s comp issues are what we consider when we look at designs," says Scott Papke, a district manager with contract caterer Taher, Inc., which services the eldercare, college/university and public-school segments. "This includes things like wider aisles, bigger doors, more open space," says Papke.
"Sometimes you bump into people coming in and out of doors, or you bump the items that you’re trying to get in through these doors. If they’re wider they are a whole lot safer." He would spec five-foot-wide hallways, for example, instead of three-foot-wide ones; and big 40-inch doors instead of 36-inch ones.
Another issue with safety implications is proper lighting, according to Papke. "You have to make sure that people aren’t straining to see clearly, or falling asleep because it’s too dark."
Kitchens are potentially dangerous places, with big machinery, open flames, hot materials and people working with knives. "Sometimes an operator will go cheap on lighting, which creates a dangerous work environment," says Papke.
The Need for Speed
Efficient kitchen layouts make even the most complex foodservice demands manageable.
"The first thing to consider in renovating a kitchen is where the existing equipment is set up," says Mark Brodersen, director of corporate standards and a regional manager for Minnetonka, MN-based foodservice contractor Taher, Inc. "That determines how much renovation would be involved in the project. Even though major work might be advised, it’s not always possible."
"Unfortunately, sometimes money dictates that," says Brodersen. In such cases, he may do what he refers to as "a minor renovation," that is, moving things around to create a more human-friendly workspace.
An example of a kitchen in need of minor renovation, Brodersen explains, is one where there is a production person doing various functions, but there’s another work center—cooking equipment, counter space, refrigeration or freezer—within a fairly tight space. The goal is to make sure staffers are not crisscrossing as they move to, from and around workstations. "You want to make certain that workers don’t have to run around the kitchen all the time looking for something," advises Brodersen.
Unfortunately, Brodersen points out, often in existing setups, storerooms, walk-in coolers and freezers are in inconvenient locations but can’t be moved. Instead, he may shuffle some of the equipment in the cooking battery or under the hood to make it more functional. He might also advise spreading workers out more.
"You need to consider the space you have to work with," concurs Christian Fischer, corporate chef and director of culinary development for Lackmann Culinary Services in Woodbury, NY. Key design considerations are the costs involved and the final results desired. Fischer suggests operators consider these questions: "What is the menu I’m trying to prepare? What are the time constraints? Am I going à la carte or cafeteria buffet style? Will I be offering items for take-out?"
"My dad is an architect,” says Brodersen, who also does design studies and analyses, "and I tease him. I’ll say, 'Dad, human beings have to work in that space, so you have to remember how big they are and how long their arms are'!" In other words, the space has to be designed so that equipment and tools are within reach, so there is little wasted movement. On the other hand, counters and other fixed stations have to have enough clearance so that mobile equipment like racks can pass through. "It sounds almost silly,” admits Brodersen, “but those things really make a difference."
Form and function: Another thing foodservice operators need to consider is the function and placement of work stations. Questions like, what job is that station responsible for and does it really have to be in that part of the kitchen or could it be moved to a better location, or out of the kitchen altogether? "Are there some things you can do in front of the customer, so that you don’t have it back in the kitchen?" asks Brodersen.
"If you look at the old-fashioned kitchens, there was a production side and a preparation side," points out Fischer. "Well, those days are gone in noncommercial foodservice." The production of more and more menu items is being taken outside of the kitchen these days where customers can see them being prepared.
"That way they can see that you actually do prepare your items from scratch," he says. That’s why a design should include production facilities outside, and at the same time, the main kitchen areas are becoming smaller as a consequence.
The Hook-up Hang-up
Whether you cook with gas or electric, be sure utilities match the work flow.
When it comes to utilities, some operators have no choice: their situation dictates whether they use gas or electric equipment. But for the lucky operator with access to both gas and electric, they should select equipment according to use and efficiency. For example, an electric deep-fryer cooks faster than gas, and would be the optimum choice there. But most chefs prefer gas heat when it comes to stovetops. Conversely, many cooks prefer an electric oven over a gas oven.
One development, which has worked well for many operators, is that it is much easier to cook right on the line than it used to be. So, given the opportunity, designers will create a facility in which as much of the work as possible is done on the line, with the kitchen basically used for support.
Power display: These days, more utility hook-ups than ever are scattered about dining rooms in expectation of use for display stations. These are mostly electric. Gas equipment is seldom used for display cooking, because most foodservice directors feel it is too dangerous.
For display stations, use the utility that works best for the specific application. When setting up an exhibition cooking station, for example, electric induction is better—or at least safer—than gas. But for a pizza oven, gas cooks up a much better pie.
"With an existing location, you need to know your menu needs in order to arrange the kitchen and dining area for maximum efficiency," says David Chechik, director of business development for Unidine Corp. in Newton, MA, a foodservice management firm with accounts in 12 states.
He notes that most electric equipment draws off a standard outlet. But major production equipment—ovens, dishwashers, fryers—needs connections with higher voltage and amperage. "You want to lay out your kitchen based on where the utilities come in," says Chechik, so that the equipment is arrayed most efficiently. "For example, you don’t want to have a convection oven 20 feet away from a prep table just because that’s where the outlet happens to be."
Chechik also advises that refrigeration be installed as close as possible to the serving area, and keep in mind that you’ll need backup service at peak times. "You don’t want to have to run all the way back to the kitchen to get something out of a walk-in refrigerator just because there aren’t any electrical connections at the ready."
Logical sequence: One other main point Chechik offers about workflow and utilities is to be sure outlets are in a logical sequence, so that the support elements are grouped together. For a cold food display, for instance, place work tables next to the accompanying refrigeration and display unit.
Don’t forget the coffee, especially if you serve breakfast. In a servery, plan for electrical outlets to feed the coffee brewers near the entrance. "You want to follow the guest throughput through the servery," points out Chechik.
And when customers come in each morning, the first thing they’re looking for is coffee. "You want to make it as easy as possible for customers to spend their money, so plan the utility hookups in accordance with the items people want, for the flow," he says.