Deciding whether a commissary kitchen makes sense

bakery illustration

Which makes more sense: five chefs making 15-gallon batches of chili in a half-dozen kitchens, or cooking 100 gallons all in one place? That’s the primary logic behind a commissary, a centralized kitchen that serves auxiliary locations by tackling some or all of the food preparation. Though it seems like a common sense move, whether a commissary is logical for an operation comes down to costs versus benefits. 

1. Make room for growth

chairs at dining hall

Centralizing operations can help create space for growth when other factors aren’t flexible. Ohio University in Athens created its $11 million, 68,000-square-foot commissary while renovating its three existing dining halls to increase capacity. “We could not expand [their footprints] because of where they’re located on campus, so we had to take what was production space and turn it into seating space,” says Rich Neumann, director of culinary services. “For us to be able to service them properly and decrease the footprint of the kitchens, we needed a central operation.”

2. It's all about volume

mgm grand detroit

You don’t have to serve identical menus at all locations for a commissary to be effective. “You can have a lot of different items just as long as you have significant volume for [them],” Neumann says. “Our three dining halls have three different, distinct menus to increase the variety on campus.” During the planning stages for OU’s commissary, Neumann and his staff visited the MGM Grand hotel in Detroit, which also features a variety of concepts and menus served by a large commissary, to steal ideas.

3. Look for overlap

worker at bakery

Some operations may not require enough volume for a commissary to make sense across the board, but there could still be advantages for partial centralization. At North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., all baking operations for the dining halls, coffee shops and cafes are prepared in the same kitchen in the campus student center; that might include anything from sheet cakes to breakfast pastries. 

“Bakery seems to be the greatest impact area for us where we have crossover,” says Shawn Hoch, senior associate director of dining. “[For others], it might be a dining hall is producing and slicing meats and cheeses for a small cafe, and it’s already on your path for your trucks.”

4. The labor myth

kitchen staff

It might be easy to assume centralizing operations will help reduce cost of labor, but that’s not typical. “Your labor costs do not drop significantly,” Neumann says. Adds Hoch, “Every time you handle the food, it costs you. Pulling, prepping, transporting—sometimes it can cost you significantly more than you anticipate in labor.”

Instead, operators should aim to save in other areas, including equipment, food waste and purchasing. “[Our commissary] allows us to take full advantage of opportunity buys,” Neumann says. His department saves about $570,000 annually, a 5% reduction in overall food cost, because large quantities can be produced and stored for later use. 

5. Improve quality

chocolate chip cookies

A major reasoning for centralization is consistency in recipes and execution, which translates to the final product, whether a batch of chicken noodle soup or chocolate chip cookies. “Having a bakery is such a science. You need people that really understand, because heat, moisture, so many things can play into why the food’s not acting the way it should,” Hoch says. 

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