Modern equipment and improved layouts mean today’s restaurant kitchen is more efficient.

Today’s back-of-house restaurant kitchen has taken on its own identity. It’s a far cry from the operations Julia Child would have recognized, but it’s been honed since her days to be more efficient and more technologically advanced. Mostly this is achieved through equipment—and that equipment is often smarter and faster than its forebears. But along with new equipment, operators are playing around with kitchen size and layout to achieve the results they want.

This spring Huddle House will open its first unit with an overhauled kitchen prototype, one that is slightly smaller than its existing kitchens. The Atlanta-based diner-style chain, which has 365 units, will use the prototype for all new restaurants and for renovations in existing locations starting later this year. 

Improve Productivity and Food Quality

The goal of the new Huddle House prototype is two-fold: to increase productivity and serve hotter food to customers, says CEO Michael Abt.

“We wanted to elevate the guest experience, and one of the things we learned from guest feedback was that our food wasn’t hot enough,” he explains. “And people equate quality with temperature.”

Huddle House hired Synergy Restaurant Consultants to help redesign its kitchens. The biggest change was switching the kitchen from a linear design to putting the cooks in the center of zones, where they do everything simply by turning, as opposed to walking. Every Huddle House kitchen will contain three self-contained zones: One has a griddle and the finishing production counter; one is for waffles, pancakes, and salads; and the third has fryers and conveyor toasters. The redesigned space will be led by four cooks, one cook at each station plus one floating among the stations to support each area. Once the food is ready, it goes to a pass-through window for servers and expediters to collect.

Huddle House’s biggest change was switching the kitchen from a linear design to putting the cooks in the center of zones.

The result will be less congestion in the kitchen, via fewer cooks working in the new kitchens as well as fewer bodies since servers won’t be milling around, and instead will only come to the window. “With the old design there was traffic everywhere and people bumping into one another,” says Danny Bendas, managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, Newport Beach, California, “but now they’ll have the central pickup area.”

With this new design the physical requirements will be easier for chefs, who will work front-to-back instead of left-to-right, enabling them to take significantly fewer steps. And the travel time for the food is also reduced because the food goes directly to the pass-through window as soon as it is ready. 

It’s this efficiency of preparing food that will contribute to Huddle House being able to serve hotter food in the future, Abt says. “The food flows into a central location where it sits under heat lamps to be expedited,” he says. New cheese melters will also contribute to the heated environment, as will new plate warmers.

While the new prototype costs more to build—$150,000 as opposed to the former $125,000—the chain should gain roughly another 20 seats in the front of house, which should help recover the investment. While expanding the front of house wasn’t intentional, it is a welcomed benefit.

Cúrate, Asheville, North Carolina, decided to more than double the size of its kitchen.

Bigger and Better

While Huddle House’s kitchens are getting smaller, an independent restaurateur in Asheville, North Carolina, has decided to more than double the size of her kitchen. Katie Button, owner of Cúrate, recently purchased the space adjoining her restaurant. This allows both the kitchen to grow and 60 seats to be added to the front of house, bringing the service capacity to 150 guests in the dining area.

She wants the extra space mostly to incorporate new equipment for her Spanish restaurant. She’s adding a combi-oven, a sauté station, a fryer, a gas range, an oven, a grill, a tilt skillet, plus a blast chiller, walk-in cooler, and walk-in freezer. She’ll retain a current walk-in cooler for the bar program, and the new one will be double its size.

When the expanded restaurant opens next month, there will be two prep kitchens on the lower level (currently there’s one) plus an exhibition kitchen in the upstairs dining room. There will also be two new dishrooms, in addition to the existing dishroom—one new one downstairs and one upstairs for glassware only—which will make the process much more organized and less chaotic.

The current prep kitchen has very little equipment—just an electric oven and induction burners—so almost everything is cooked in the exhibition station upstairs. But that’s about to change when the equipment moves downstairs from the exhibition cooking station. The removal of this equipment from upstairs means all prep will be done downstairs and Button will be able to add charcoal-burning Josper grills in the exhibition station to showcase grilling in front of guests. 

Josper grills are a combination of a charcoal grill and oven, which will allow her to add dishes that require a real charcoal fire to the menu, including things like housemade blood sausage, suckling pig, and rice dishes similar to paella. “A lot of the things we do are traditionally done on fire but we’ve just done them in the oven,” she says. This will allow the restaurant to offer a broader and more authentic menu.

“Currently we feel very limited menu-wise, and it’s hard to do anything differently,” Button says. “We’ll become more creative and be able to do our dream menu. It’s about expanding into the dream we’ve always envisioned.”

Trending Equipment

As with Huddle House and Cúrate, chefs are keen to incorporate new equipment into their kitchens, for efficiency or specific tasks. Overall, there is more equipment in today’s restaurants because everything is being done from scratch, says Chris Huebner, principal at Kiche, a foodservice design and consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia.

“Menus are getting more diverse, productions are getting more intense, and chefs are trying to do more from scratch—so you have specialized prep areas, like an area to roll out the dough or an area for bakery prep, and specialty equipment is a big thing,” he says.

Huebner sees everything from baking ovens to wood-fired ovens, pasta cookers, pasta extruders, batch freezers, doughnut fryers, and pressure fryers. “They’re very expensive and take up space, so kitchens are getting bigger,” he adds.

Anthony Ferrari, project specialist with RealFood Foodservice Consulting, Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggests the opposite: Commercial kitchens are getting smaller as equipment becomes smarter.

“You have more technology in the kitchen than ever before,” he says. There are combi-ovens where multiple products can cook at the same time, holding cabinets that can hold food with moisture, and turbo ovens that can accelerate cooking times. These are all growing in popularity, he explains.

Then, of course, there are blast chillers and freezers. “They’re basically time machines that freeze food in time and quality, which can really help with food costs,” Ferrari says. “The perfect marriage [alongside] a combi-oven is to be able to rapidly chill hot food, to maintain quality and shelflife as well as to protect against the growth of bacteria.”

Some of the new equipment also requires its own supporting equipment, or infrastructure, in order to operate properly. Wood-fired ovens require separate ductwork, ventilation, grease filters, and exhaust hoods. And Huebner says it’s simply not feasible to add those elements after the fact.

Wood-fired ovens also require monthly, instead of quarterly, cleanings. “There is a higher incidence of grease fires if ductwork is not designed or maintained properly,” explains Clare Marino, who works closely with Huebner on many projects and is a partner with GTM Architects in Bethesda, Maryland.

Additionally, the exhaust hoods used by most of this equipment require a fire-suppression system that has been rated by the National Fire Protection Association. 

All of this equipment can also add considerable heat to a kitchen, but exhaust hoods, if correctly designed, should capture most of that heat. However, Huebner says he typically increases the aisle depth in areas where there’s extremely high-heat equipment—such as wood-fired grills and woks—because, he notes, “Some of the heat will inevitably escape.” 

Adding all of this new, advanced equipment can be very expensive, says Marino. “But it has such a marketing value to it that there’s value in the end—[even] with that higher initial investment,” she says.

Efficient Spending

It’s not just about new types of equipment but also about finding more efficient equipment. Ryan Smith, manager, purchasing and operations with Horizon Equipment, Eagan, Minnesota, says the big driver in kitchen makeovers these days is efficiency. 

“Having extra seats doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have the kitchen capacity to keep up with demand,” he says. 

Additionally, restaurant operators are spending more time finding Energy Star–rated appliances, and looking into rebate dollars that are offered through state and local governments to incentivize investment in more efficient choices. 

“This allows operators to focus on controlling their bottom line better, especially for multi-unit operators,” Smith points out. “Some of the higher efficiency fryers use less oil so they recover faster. And with more efficient burners and more efficient exhausts, it takes less fuel and less oil—and that also reduces the energy needed to heat the oil.”

Huebner and Marino are also seeing improvements in the efficiency of restaurant kitchens—but for them it’s in the layout. Many operators are making use of high wall space for storage, which will free up some under-counter storage. And, says Marino, kitchens are starting to place water heaters and other mechanical equipment above the ceilings or on platforms, to free up floor and wall space.

Huebner is seeing adoption of designs and processes similar to the Huddle House format, with island worktables that allow staff to stay in their area, while specialized equipment is on carts and rolled up as needed. This also eliminates moving the food around the kitchen unnecessarily, and that has the added advantage of reducing food safety problems.

The next big changes we’ll see in restaurant kitchens, predicts Horizon Equipment’s Smith, are induction cooking and new refrigerants. “When induction cooking takes off, it will be a more efficient way to heat and cook, but at this point it’s not happening,” he says. “People are familiar with what they know and what they like, but it’s a different cooking experience and there’s something about flames that people have a hard time getting away from.” 

However, induction cooking will replace ranges and cook tops, he says, and manufacturers are developing griddles for this technology. Smith expects the prevalence of induction cooking to grow as a new generation of student chefs tries it at culinary school and gains exposure to it. And unsurprisingly, once the price of induction cooking technology drops, it will gain popularity.

Ferrari also expects we’ll see more of induction cooking. “This is trending because of the flexibility,” he says, “so a kitchen can alter during the course of the day.” There are downsides, such as specialized equipment, he adds, but even that’s changing. Soon, he expects the U.S. to catch up with Europe, which has been using induction technology for years.

Another change that Ferrari expects is that more equipment will be enabled with technology solutions and Wi-Fi, sending alerts to chefs using apps so they can alter cooking times or temperatures without even entering the kitchen. He also expects to see more cooking with solid fuels like wood or charcoal.

In terms of refrigeration, the newer refrigerants, hydrocarbon and propane, are much less ozone-depleting than the current fluorocarbons, says Smith, and these more sustainable options will soon become mainstream. 

“I think these will be more efficient and better for the environment, and I don’t think there will be performance compromise,” he says. 

Fortunately, this should not demand a lot of changes for operators, who won’t have to replace old units, but will simply buy units that meet the new requirements when they need to replace existing equipment.

Ventless cooking equipment will be another wave of the future, agree Huebner and Marino. “That means equipment won’t have to be under a grease hood even though it may produce grease, because [a ventless system] eliminates the grease by a catalytic convertor,” Huebner says.

Efficiency rules in the tiny kitchen at Zero Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.

Greater Than the Sum of Its Space

The kitchen for Zero Restaurant + Bar, within the Zero George Street boutique hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, is a minuscule 100 square feet. On top of that, it’s located in the lobby of the 16-room hotel. 

Here, executive chef Vinson Petrillo dishes up some 325 plates per night for his nine-course tasting menu, which means that organization and the right equipment are key. “First, I designed a huge, square butcher block table around a refrigerated unit that stands in the middle of the room,” he says. This is accessible from the top, via a cutout, so he can reach inside for his mise en place. Underneath, next to the refrigerated unit, there are hidden drawers where he keeps small wares like spatulas and knives.

And he’s implemented a custom-built French range to replace the four-burner range that proved insufficient, especially given that there’s a pot of water on one burner at any given time. The French top will hold 16 pans “and will open up a whole new world,” Chef Petrillo says, “even though it’s the exact same size as the old range.”

He’s also added lots of shelving in a former fireplace converted to a pantry of sorts, and custom-built a second table that stands behind him during service and is used for plating the food. He accesses this from one side while the servers pick up the plates from the opposite side.

Other essentials for Petrillo’s micro-size / macro-efficient kitchen: a Vitamix and a small tabletop fryer.  But the most important thing, he says, is being tidy, clean, and organized—true for kitchens of all sizes.

Feature, Kitchen Equipment, Restaurant Design