As a restaurateur, you spend a lot of time trying to anticipate the next big consumer trend and how your business can capitalize on it. Most often, these changing tastes deal with new flavors, original preparations, and innovative presentations.
Each change in what the customer sees and tastes, however, can have major effects on your back of house — ones you may not have even considered.
At the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, Joe Carbonara, editor in chief for Foodservice Equipment & Supplies magazine, discussed the ways restaurants can accommodate these changing appetites, trends affecting restaurant layouts — and some of the new equipment that can make your back of house more efficient than ever.
Shrinking Kitchens, Blurring Lines
According to Carbonara, one important trend is that restaurants are slowly increasing their front of house spaces to accommodate more customers — effectively taking space from their kitchen and prep areas.
“Operators are looking for ways to maximize revenue opportunities,” said Carbonara. “Even though you need the kitchen to make the food that you serve, the fact of it is the wallet, the disposable income, sits in the front of the house.
“More seats means more revenue, but the key message here is how do you balance the shrinking back of the house with the expanding front of the house?” he added. “You have to be thoughtful in your approach. If you shrink the back of the house [too much] and you shrink its ability to be able to produce food in a timely manner, you’re going to have lines and then you’re going to have brand erosion.”
Trends toward sustainability and “farm-to-table” preparations are affecting this shrinking of back of house spaces, as well. As consumers show greater interest in the sources of their ingredients and the preparation of their food, areas that used to be hidden are starting to move into public areas.
“We’re seeing a transition,” said Carbonara. “We used to have two clear parts: Back of the house and front of the house. Now what we have is back, front, and middle, where a lot of display in finishing the order is going on.”
Further compounding this issue is the increasing cost of furnishing and maintaining this ever-important area of your restaurant. As back of house real estate increases in value — reaching upwards of $1,100 per square linear foot for space under the hood, according to Carbonara — it becomes even more important to use that dwindling space wisely.
So how do you capitalize on the remaining back of house space you do have? According to Carbonara, using “combination” equipment can help make every inch more efficient.
“We’re starting to see people really embrace combi-ovens,” he said. “I think it ties in to that whole conversation about if we can keep the hood smaller, it lowers our cost of operation and our initial cash output. If I can get a piece of equipment under there that does a couple of different things for me, that’s a really good investment.”
But it’s not just the appliances that can help create efficiencies in smaller kitchen spaces. Designing the layout of each area, and addressing the efficacy of each process, can also help increase output.
“We’re seeing more ergonomic or well-thought out workstation design [as well],” said Carbonara. Now, when considering their work areas, he says, operators need to ask themselves, “What’s the safest, what’s the fastest, what’s the [design that] can get them to turn out the most food in a quicker period of time?”
Sustainability from Door to Dumpster
We know that consumers are increasingly interested in how their food is made and the ingredients that go into it. But this trend doesn’t end at more visible kitchen spaces and fresher inventory. It also affects the usability — and sustainability — of every process and piece of equipment behind the scenes.
“Restaurants are using fresher, more seasonal, locally sourced ingredients,” said Carbonara. “That has definitely impacted layout and how they can deploy resources more. [You’re] having to do more [prep] work. The tools you’re using, the process is very different.”
Even the health-conscious side of this trend affects each tool, appliance, and process you use.
“We’re not burying so much stuff with heavy sauce anymore,” said Carbonara. “We’re steaming our vegetables and finishing them with maybe a little bit of garlic and olive oil. So you really have to make sure the equipment you use is cooking to a way that brings to life [your] culinary vision.”
Just like for accommodating small spaces, when it comes to being sustainable — and addressing the consumer’s desire for farm-fresh food — identifying any product or appliance that can serve multiple purposes is key. For example, operators can build or purchase large cutting boards that can overlay prep sinks, turning an area with only one purpose into a simple, space-saving solution. Or, try keeping extra produce in translucent refrigerators somewhere in your front of house. This way, you’re not only showing customers how fresh their meal is, but also clearing room for work space elsewhere.
Even those products and equipment that don’t seem to serve a dual purpose can have hidden efficiencies you may not have considered. Including a digester in your back of house set up, for example, can transform unusable ingredient waste into gray water, which can be reused to operate toilets or water vegetation, if you choose to grow some of your own produce.
But strict waste management isn’t the only consideration when designing a sustainable kitchen — creating a more efficient space can also help you manage changing food costs for these extra-fresh ingredients.
“You can’t take a price increase on your menu every time food costs go up. It’s part of that battling customer perception, you have to be really strategic in terms of how you handle price,” said Carbonara. “Whatever equipment and supplies you have [in the kitchen], you really have to make sure they maintain or increase yield.”
Tools for Transitioning
All of these changes to your back of house may seem daunting, but with a few tips and tools, creating a more efficient, sustainable business can be easier than you think.
Start with careful planning to assess your business’s needs, and what equipment will best suit the ways you’re already serving your guests.
“Walk an ingredient through the whole process [and] understand how you’re going to use it, because it’s going to impact the equipment you select and where you’re going to put it,” said Carbonara.
Once you understand the life cycle of your food, pick what you consider to be your most integral piece of equipment — such as a cooktop or oven — and start building in efficiencies there.
“Because that [equipment is] going to help you get the flavor profile you want, it’s going to help support the mission and the culinary vision you have for your organization and you can move forward from there,” said Carbonara. “Understand what your equipment does to the fullest … [then] let the equipment and technology work for you.”
Free tools, such as the equipment calculators found on the website for the North American Association of Equipment Manufacturers, can help estimate the true return on investment for each piece of equipment purchased — and help you stretch the cash you’ve saved or received from a Merchant Cash Advance further.
Ultimately, however, the key is to remember that becoming sustainable and creating a more efficient workspace is a marathon, not a sprint.
“I think the most important thing is understanding ROI,” said Carbonara. “It’s not just ‘I want it to pay me back in 18 months but it’s not going to pay me pack until 20 months, so I’m not going to buy it.’ Look at the bigger picture and set realistic expectations.”
Want to start creating a more sustainable operation, but don’t have the funds to make it happen? We can help with one of our Merchant Cash Advance solutions.
Special thanks to Linda Hays for her contribution to this piece.