Balliceaux owner Steve Gratz shut down his restaurant for the entire summer last year — in part, because of his kitchen.
“We’ve had a really difficult time, I think, with the size of the kitchen and getting the food out to the tables in a reasonable amount of time,” Gratz said last April. His plan was to throw out the old menu and bring in one influenced by Southeast Asia. Gratz wanted to do smaller dishes that could get to diners as soon as they came off the stove.
According to commercial kitchen designer Marty Zinder, owner of Victor Products Co., the menu is the starting point of any design.
“The menu drives the equipment,” he says.
And the equipment is determined by what kind of food the restaurant will make. A seafood restaurant, for example, will need lots of steamers, Zinder says. Want to serve pizza? You’ll need a convection oven to get it out fast enough.
Johnny Giavos, who co-owns a multitude of restaurants, including Stella’s, Sidewalk Cafe and Kitchen 64, has had a lot of experience working with small kitchens that need to produce food at a high volume. Giavos has retrofitted most of them.
“Sometimes you have to work with what you have or can get,” he says. “We try to get as much equipment in that space as we can so you don’t have to move as much.”
Before Giavos begins planning, one of the first things he looks for is whether the lines in the kitchen are gas or electrical. That determines the type of equipment he must buy and how much he’ll have to spend. The next factor is the ventilation hood. It must be large enough to meet code requirements or you’ll need a different kind of equipment that doesn’t put as much demand on a smaller one.
When he opened Kitchen 64, Giavos ran into an unexpected challenge. The restaurant industry veteran had long lines of customers snaking out the door, and the kitchen wasn’t able to get the food out fast enough to keep up with demand. He shut Kitchen 64 down within a week of opening to reconfigure the setup, and he ended up moving everything 18 inches to the left in order to move two of his fryers next to a third one. That sped up the process on the line and solved the problem.
An entirely new complication arose after he opened Stella’s. Giavos installed a large, expensive grill. But once he began cooking nightly for customers, he realized that he didn’t have enough pots and pans and places to put them for the kind of food he was producing. The grill had to be cut to make room for more burners. He says he learned as he went.
And room for washing dishes takes up a surprisingly large proportion of kitchen space — anywhere from a third to half of it. Zinder says the size is determined by the number of seats in the front of the house.
Another factor that first-time restaurant owners might not anticipate is the logistics of getting kitchen equipment into a space, Zinder says. He’s building a rooftop bar for a client at the moment and all of the equipment must fit into elevators. Old buildings with irregular entrances and exits can offer similar obstacles.
For the novice, a kitchen designer is crucial, Zinder says. “They’ll decide to save $50,000 and do it all themselves — be their own general contractor — and it takes them six weeks longer to get open. They might run out of money before they even open the doors.”
Giavos is more prosaic. “When we opened Sidewalk, we fixed one thing at a time,” he says. “We had no money. We didn’t have a choice.”