Paying attention to kitchen design can prevent dangerous and costly food safety issues.

15 Ways to Build a Safer Kitchen

Cross-contact and cross-contamination risks affect more parts of your kitchen than you might realize.

Designing full-service kitchens has become more complicated than ever. It’s important to consider appearance, functionality, and employee and food safety—it takes an army to accomplish this. From start to finish, kitchen design is a collaboration of architects, engineers, designers, food and beverage design firms, chefs, owner, operators, and food safety consultants.

From design concept until opening day, many ideas are considered, and each player brings their own point-of-view to the project. When I look at a kitchen design, for instance, my focus is on potential cross-contamination and cross-contact situations. I also assess whether equipment and building materials may be too difficult to clean, which could lead to higher risk of foodborne illness. A designer may look at that same kitchen and realize that the size isn’t right or the configuration is wrong. Something as simple as choosing the wrong floor tile can mean a higher number of employee injuries, and installing too few hand sinks means that the kitchen won’t meet health department regulations. These are issues you don’t want to face during your final inspection or after the restaurant is up and running. Hiring a knowledgeable, experienced team to design and install your commercial kitchen is important regardless of what size kitchen you are creating.

Commercial kitchens have become much more diverse than they used to be, and with that comes more chaos and risk. Chefs and their teams have to be concerned about issues that once weren’t as prevalent, such as food allergies. It’s estimated that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 1 in every 13 children under the age of 18, and this number is growing. Severe allergies are responsible for more than 200,000 emergency room visits per year, according to the CDC, and food allergies can be fatal. An estimated 1 in 133 Americans have celiac disease, and another 1 million have gluten sensitivities, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

In addition to food allergies and food intolerances, foodborne illnesses are always a concern in restaurants. The CDC estimates that each year, roughly 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die—that’s 1 in 6 Americans. Kitchen design can play an important part in increasing or decreasing your level of risk.

Here are some ways you can plan, design, and build a safer kitchen:

1. Plan the flow. The flow of your prep area should make sense for efficiency, as well as food safety. This will save time, money, and reduce risk. For instance, when your servers take food to your guests, they should never have to walk through the dirty dish area, which increases food safety risks.

2. Ensure that your hot water tanks hold a sufficient amount of hot water. If they don’t hold enough to get you through your busiest rush period of washing and sanitizing dishes, you either need to get a booster or a larger hot water tank.

3. Purchase equipment that’s easy to clean, with minimal nooks and crannies.

4. Consider even the smallest details, like the amount of tile grout you use. The less tile grout, the lower the risk for chipping. Chipping and cracks or holes in walls and floors equal bacteria growth. Your best bet is to use a non-porous material that doesn’t allow bacteria to grow.

5. Ensure that your floors have drains so they can be deep cleaned regularly.

6. Make certain areas that are impossible to reach for cleaning are sealed tightly. It is impossible for anyone to clean a ¼-inch gap between a wall and a counter space that the contractor neglected to close. This will eventually become an insect or rodent haven, which is obviously a food safety hazard.

7. Consider the placement of your sinks. Kitchen sinks must never be in an area where there’s potential for contaminated water to splash on consumables, clean dishes, or anything else that needs to remain clean. In tight areas, a barrier may need to be installed between the sink and a prep area.

8. Install multiple sinks for washing dishes, produce, poultry, hand washing, and so on.

9. Designate certain equipment and prep space for allergen-free and gluten- free cooking to safely accommodate your guests with food allergies and intolerances.

10. Purchase or make your own allergy kits, complete with color-coded chopping boards and pans and utensils, which are kept clean, covered, and stored away from flours and other potential allergens. Purple is widely used and recognized to designate allergy-friendly equipment.

11. Designate an allergy-friendly fryer, which isn’t used for any common allergens, including breaded products, fish or shellfish, or foods containing nuts.

12. Wash and sanitize allergy equipment and surfaces between each use.

13. Design separate storage space for common food allergens, such as flours and nuts, to avoid cross-contact with allergy-friendly foods.

14. Design space in your food allergy area to hold different-shaped or different-colored plates, and use these dishes to serve allergy-friendly meals.

15. Ensure that your ventilation systems don’t spread flour dust, nut particles, or other allergens throughout the facility, which could contaminate virtually everything. Also, once your kitchen opens, be sure that all flours, nuts, and other common allergens remain covered to prevent cross-contact.

It’s important for restaurants to make a commitment to becoming allergy friendly and to getting it right. Having a list of dishes with allergens on your website or menu doesn't make your establishment allergen friendly. It’s important to prepare your kitchen to safely accommodate all guests, and that starts with design.

Being properly equipped to serve food-allergic guests can mean an easy increase in sales. Individuals who have food allergies are willing to travel to restaurants that they know are allergy friendly, and will become fiercely loyal to the restaurants that can expertly accommodate them. For a relatively small investment in kitchen design and training, the increased profits can easily offset the initial costs and save someone’s life. In many areas of the U.S., food allergen training is becoming mandatory. In fact, in 2012, the Department of Justice ruled that food allergies constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so ensure that you’re properly set up to accommodate food-allergic guests.

After your kitchen has been designed and is deemed to be food safety ready and allergen friendly, take the time to thoroughly train your team; otherwise, all of this time, energy, and expense will have been wasted.

When planning and designing a commercial kitchen, it’s critical to consider the big picture elements, such as kitchen flow, placement of equipment, designating a special allergy-friendly area, as well as the tiniest details, including reducing the amount of grout, sealing small areas to prevent insect and rodent infestations. Create a team of experts with relevant and diverse experience, as each different perspective will be valuable in creating a safe and successful space. 

Francine L. Shaw

Francine L. Shaw is president of Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., which offers a robust roster of services, including food safety training, food safety inspections, norovirus policies for employees, norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. The Food Safety Training Solutions team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos, and convenience stores. The company has helped numerous clients, including Paradies Lagardère, McDonald’s, Subway, Marriott, Domino’s, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America, Dairy Queen, and Omni Hotel and Resorts, prevent food-borne illnesses. Additionally, they work with restaurants of all sizes, schools, medical facilities, convenience stores, hotels and casinos. Francine has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, Food Safety News, and Food Management Magazine.