Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
Anyone who has opened a restaurant or is looking at doing so is faced with the high cost of occupancy. Whether you lease a space or purchase it outright, one way or another, 5% to 10% of your top line sales will go toward paying for rent, taxes, and/or maintenance. It’s inevitable.
Skimp on size and you are simultaneously skimping on the number of seats… and seats in a restaurant are like beds in a hotel: empty ones don’t generate revenue. A common rule of thumb taught at Cornell, CIA, and Johnson & Wales is to allocate 1/3 of your square footage to kitchen production and “non-guest” space ( back of the house or BOH) – leaving 2/3 for seating (front of house or FOH). But what if you could change that equation to 1/4 BOH and 3/4 FOH? If a 3,000 square foot restaurant with annual revenue of $1.5M has 94 seats and a 1,000 square foot kitchen (following the first rule) then that same restaurant should be able to comfortably fit 12 more seats into a restaurant whose kitchen only occupies 1/4 of the total square footage. Doing the math on 94 seats, the existing restaurant is generating $15,957 per seat ($1.5M ÷ 94). Adding 12 seats, therefore, could increase annual sales by $191k or 12.7%. Nifty, ay?
Enter the “cockpit kitchen” – your secret weapon. Ask any food truck operator or Manhattan eatery owner about the value of square footage and they’ll share their stories of how they adapted to their space constraints to squeeze the most out of their situation. While many folks have experienced – as a rule – cramped dining experiences in New York, their tight kitchen facilities are also legendary. For the rest of us who don’t live in tight-space markets where guests have limited tolerance for cramped seating arrangements or a stranger’s elbow in your noodle bowl, shrinking the kitchen is the only option. Here’s why it’s good for you:
1. They must be run with fewer employees because space is at a premium. Fewer employees = lower cost. Small kitchens also allow restaurants to scale line service down to as few as one employee during the slowest times of the day because equipment is arranged for easy access.
2. They improve food quality because menus must be compact, and they must maintain their identity by keeping it compact.
3. They stay cleaner because there is not as much to clean. Also, workers tend to keep their areas clean out of necessity because clutter makes the job harder.
4. Maintenance costs on fewer pieces of equipment are lower than in a traditional kitchen with separate prep kitchens or many varied cooking technique possibilities.
5. As mentioned above, they allocate more space to seating…and more seats yield higher sales (exceptions being, of course, when the restaurant is already too big and struggles to fill the seats it has or when there are no seats because it’s a food truck or walk-up take-out place)
6. They force the restaurant to keep menus focused so fewer cooks can execute the greatest number of items possible.
7. Efficiency through inventory control, production control and limiting employees leads to faster ticket times and better time-and-motion efficiency.
8. Employees can earn more while you pay less. For example, if a larger kitchen requires 7 cooks and each cook makes $14 per hour, the cockpit kitchen for a similar restaurant can pay their 4 or 5 cooks $16 per hour. Assuming a 40-hour work week, the savings will be between $720 and $1,360 while your cooks’ incomes will be 14% higher.
If I’ve succeeded in convincing you that smaller is better, how do you get a smaller kitchen? Of course, the best way is to launch your concept from the start with a smaller kitchen. Like the food truck operator or the Manhattan restaurant owner – who have no choice but to work with a small space – start by limiting the blank canvas to 1/4 of the overall space. From there, determining menu assortment is the most important next step as ingredient cross utilization, storage, delivery schedules, prep time, shelf life and other factors must be considered to craft a menu that allows multiple menu items to come from fewer ingredients. Once the menu reflects the brand’s target identity, the horse trading begins. Recipes are tested and ingredients are shuffled to reduce the number of equipment pieces needed to produce it while reducing storage needs. It’s not an exact science as rounds of menu creation, equipment placement, and kitchen layout are cycled through until a balance is struck between speed, efficiency and quality. Massaging your kitchen to equilibrium is a process that never ends as seasonal menus, seasonal ingredients and competition constantly mix up the variables.
When you start with a small space and resist the temptation to annex more space, you force yourself to rework menu items and choose “must have” equipment pieces until you can squeeze it all into that footprint. Offices become tiny. Freezers disappear. Storage goes vertical. Off-peak shifts (like overnight shifts or early/late shifts) use the same equipment to prep items as peak service equipment versus building a separate prep kitchen that operates simultaneously. Specialty equipment like pasta cookers, steam jackets and combi ovens give way to more traditional – and versatile – equipment like a 6-eye burner with built in convection oven. Sometimes specialty equipment makes production more efficient – like impingement ovens, ceramic conveyor pizza ovens, and sous vide baths. Vacuum sealing sauces and prepared items allows refrigerators to be stacked with bags married to the exact size of the line vessel it will be kept in for service. For instance, if you use a special avocado cream sauce for your Peruvian wings and that sauce ultimately goes into a 16oz squeeze bottle on the line, you’ll vacuum seal several 16oz bags of sauce that can be stacked on a shelf with other sauces, taking up a fraction of the space than a traditional gallon container with lid. When you are ready for a refill, you simply open a new bag and fill a new squeeze bottle with the entire contents of the bag.
Even if you already have a kitchen that is 1/3 of your overall square footage, you can do things to maximize efficiency and sales:
1. Move the server station into the kitchen to add another table or two.
2. Reduce menu size to work from only a few major pieces.
3. Sell unnecessary refrigeration units.
4. Close offsite storage units and convert reclaimed space to storage.
5. Add a service bar into the kitchen to simplify main bar function and improve on-peak drink service speed.
6. Engineer “cheap variety” using ingredients and sauces in several items
7. Test different equipment layouts so that one cook can reach every piece of vital equipment in the right sequence in one or two steps so they can execute your menu during slower periods without straining. If they can’t, then keep working on your menu and moving equipment until you can. Ask your cooks to help you – they’ll know.
There are plenty of things to consider when designing a cockpit kitchen. It’s more difficult and time consuming to work through the bugs that will eventually deliver a small, efficient production facility. It will also likely cost more to design as there may be a need for some custom stainless steel work or more compact pieces of equipment. But the gains in efficiency, food quality, speed of service, employee retention and profit will be cumulative and permanent.