These back-of-the-house blunders are common, but they can cost you. Here’s how to avoid the big ones and design a clean, efficient, functional kitchen that goes with the flow and puts out the plates.

Your restaurant kitchen is as unique as your concept. The right choices in the kitchen design phase will vary from restaurant to restaurant. For example, the kitchen in a barbeque concept won’t need the same equipment and layout as a restaurant where grilled cheese is the star. Design should differ based on culinary needs, and cooking techniques will help determine the proper flow of the kitchen.

But it’s not always that easy. Common problems continue to resurface. Bob Kraemer, founder of Kraemer Design Group, which specializes in hotel and restaurant design, has seen a lot of kitchen design mistakes in his day. He regularly brings crumbling buildings in the heart of Detroit back to their last-century Motor City glory. The group has been creating stunning new spaces that feature local food in an urban setting, accomplished through adaptive design and repurposing. That means he sees all kinds of old kitchens just waiting to break free from purgatory.

“There are tons of new restaurants opening up here in Detroit; a lot of startups,” Kraemer says. “The food is locally sourced and the idea of urban living and these older buildings is really attract- ing people to both the aesthetics and the social aspect of being downtown.”

Whether you’re restoring a 95-year-old speakeasy or breaking new ground in the suburbs, bad decisions can come back to haunt you in far-reaching ways.

“You cannot be shortsighted,” Kraemer says. “If you lay out your kitchen wrong and it doesn’t flow well, you’ll run higher costs for labor. And a kitchen that’s functional and clean and doesn’t fall apart will maintain morale. If it looks rundown, your staff will treat it that way.”

1. Mistake: Not Matching the Kitchen to the Menu

The goals of the kitchen should drive its design from the be- ginning. Initial talks with a kitchen designer or consultant must involve questions and answers. What is on the menu? What are the needs of each station? Which styles of cooking will be used most? How much volume are we talking about? How many tickets at a time do you want the kitchen to be able to handle? These are just a few icebreakers to get you started.

The better you can define your concept, your menu, even your brand, the better suited the design will be to helping you reach the goals that you have for the business. It almost seems like common sense, but it can be easy to veer off track.

Gavin Kaysen, who opened Spoon & Stable in his hometown of Minneapolis in November after an impressive run as executive chef at Daniel Boulud’s New York City restaurant Café Boulud, says a kitchen design blunder is having a shaky vision of your restaurant, i.e., getting confused and losing sight of your dream. “I’ve learned that you have to go with what you know,” Kaysen says. “Do not let people sway you one way or the other for a design purpose. Go with your gut.”

But instinct or not, Kaysen does advise working with a kitchen design consultant, stating, “It’s always good to have someone else in on your design,” he says. “They are experts on this, so it’s important to tap into their knowledge.”

From there, communications about the vision and the menu and what’s needed to get cooking can flow between the chef/owner and the designer.

Kraemer says restauranteurs come in two flavors.

“There’s the restaurateur who’s very aware of the menu, the food and the chef. And the second is more of the entrepreneur, more focused on the front of the house and the customer service,” he says.

No matter which category you fall into, successful commercial kitchens have a bit of give and take built in when it comes to the layout and the equipment. Flexibility comes into play.

“I have clients take a step back and try to see where the menu might be in the future,” Kraemer says, adding that the change could only be as far as the next season. The customers who love your farm-to-table concept are going to expect seasonal menus, for sure. And you want to give your chef the freedom to be creative and come up with new dishes on the fly when seasonal produce is ample. So the design can’t be so rigid that it can’t accommodate new items. Will the layout and equipment you choose lend itself to both a signature butternut squash soup in November and a fun grilled feta and watermelon skewer in July? The good news is, equipment these days is more versatile than ever. That said, equipment is another area of kitchen design where it’s easy to make mistakes.

2. Mistake: Too Much Equipment

Simplicity really does quite often lead to the best results. A “less is more” attitude combined with enough foresight to think about changes on the menu down the road should be your guide when deciding which equipment is needed. Minimize the equipment you need to get the job done and it’ll have a positive effect on the kitchen as a whole.

In a kitchen that’s functioning at a high level, you won’t find a lot of equipment that’s lazy. Every piece, from the flattop to the reach-in to the combi oven, is pulling its weight and helping toproduce more than one menu item.

Douglas Katz, owner and executive chef of Fire Food and Drink in Cleveland’s historic Shaker Square, has found that unnecessary equipment can clutter up the line and slow things down. What is his advice to anyone looking into equipment purchases? Beware the “bells and whistles.”

“The longer the line gets, when you add extra space for more equipment, it’s almost like you’re setting up separate stations,”
Katz says. “If your pantry station is 10 feet long because you wanted a sushi cooker, the longer things are going to take.”

However, “a couple of bells and whistles are OK,” he says. “You just want to make sure you have as much practical equipment as
possible, equipment that can be utilized in more than one way.”Specialty equipment isn’t considered a bell or a whistle if it’s something that’s central to the theme of your cuisine and the cooking of your signature item(s). This could be anything from a
wood-burning pizza oven to a barbeque smoker to a centrifuge used in the molecular gastronomy. Items like these are one place to spend money.

Still, in the “more successful restaurants we see, the equipment is pretty conventional,” Kraemer says. “The menu has to change,
and the equipment can handle that.”

What’s great is that many pieces of equipment available now are multitaskers by nature. In addition, food products are being
designed for use with pieces of equipment like a combi oven. That leads us to the next mistake that can easily be made in the excitement of planning the kitchen.

3. Mistake: Leaving the Chef Out of the Design Process

When the chef isn’t involved in the planning of the kitchen, it’s not only a missed opportunity, it can also lead to some bad situations, frustrations and even hard feelings down the road. Plus, there’s a practical side to it. Go into a kitchen design without your chef and you’ll spend time trying to figure out or, worse, guess about things your chefs and line cooks already know. They possess knowledge that only comes from stumbling into the same refrigerator door or taking 10 extra steps up to the receiving area every hour on the hour.

“I see too many kitchens designed by designers, and front-of-the-house teams without input from chefs,” says Jet Tila, a Los
Angeles-based chef and restaurant partner who specializes in classic Thai and Chinese cooking.

“And no input from chefs usually means a few things: First, the wrong equipment for the restaurant. Second, the ratio of kitchen to the front of the house is off. And that usually means not enough space in the kitchen,” Tila says. “And third, the flow is totally wrong.”

Kaysen wholeheartedly agrees. “Remember, as a chef you have worked in this environment for years,” he says. “You know what works and what doesn’t.”

“I have clients take a step back and try to see where the menu might be in the future… So the design can’t be so rigid that it can’t accommodate new items.” – Bob Kraemer

Chefs will know things and point out important details that restauranteurs and owners may not think of. Your chef can tell you that a little shelf or some hooks right above the sauté station would be great for storing pans or that a little reach-in would be perfect underneath the sushi station.

“The person making the sandwich is usually not the same person making the design decisions,” Kraemer says. So getting feedback from the whole kitchen staff can be a good idea, too – that is, to a point.

While getting input from chefs is key, you don’t want to go too far, giving your chef carte blanche on designing his or her personal dream kitchen. For example, maybe your chef is 6 feet 4 inches and wants higher countertops. Sure, he’ll love it, but do you know for sure that he’ll be part of your team for years to come? What if the next chef is 5 feet 1 inch?

4. Mistake: Wasting Steps/Forgetting to ‘Think Like the Product’

Let’s make a long story short: Wasted steps waste money. When a chef has to take too many steps to accomplish a task, that’s time that he’s not cooking, leading you to higher labor costs. Fewer steps means fewer people can get the job done each day.

One unlikely step-wasting culprit is having too much space (yes, a kitchen can be too big).

“A kitchen with too much space creates pockets of disorganization and long runs to the fridge and back,” Kaysen says.

Aisles between stations can also be too big. You need to be able to let people get through, but not too much more. That’s the rule Katz swears by. “Any more than that and you are adding steps,” he says.

Ergonomics play into efficient design as well. The heights of shelves, the hot spots on the line that get heavy traffic, the patterns your cooks follow all day. Everything related to the human beings working there has to inform the design.

If your cook is turning around in circles, that’s a good sign. That means he or she is grabbing a stock out of the reach-in, hitting the sauté pan with it and finding smoked paprika on an uncluttered counter, all just an arm’s length away. It is ideal and efficient.

But the thought process should start well before the ingredient is in the chef ’s hands. In fact, work backward from a perfectly
seared cheeseburger on a plate. Think about the truck pulling up to your receiving dock with ground beef and go from there, Kraemer says. Now become one with the ground beef.

Does that sound a little too “zen” for you? Putting yourself in your food’s place can be a surprisingly good tactic when imagining what the kitchen needs to accomplish.

“Think of it this way when you start designing: I’m the burger,” Kraemer says. “Where is the beef delivered? Where are we storing it? Where’s the cooler in relation to the mixer when it’s time to make the burger blend? Where are we forming the patty? Is the tray cooler near the broiler or the grill? And let’s make space nearby for the buns. The cook should be able to basically turn around in circles. It’s about efficiency. Fewer steps means fewer people to get the work done.”

“Forward flow” is critical; meaning the product (a menu item) is always moving… from the prep area to the sauté pan to the pickup window to a server’s tray to the (hopefully) loving embrace of a happy customer. The important thing during this journey is no back-tracing. This means cooked food doesn’t retrace its steps over raw food. Dirty plates don’t reappear where they started.

And, by all means, please don’t make servers come too far back into the kitchen to get orders. This is part of the flow, too. Preparing and plating food, then getting it to a server happens smoothly. People aren’t getting in the way and dirty and clean product isn’t crossing paths.

You could say the last step on any menu item’s “journey” would be the dishwashing station. Whatever you do, don’t forget about
that, Kaysen says. It’s a mistake he swears he’ll never make again.

“Make the dishwashing area as good – if not better – than the line,” he says. “It is the heart and soul of any restaurant.”

Also, when working with the designer at the point at which they are working in computer-assisted design (CAD), it will help a lot to see things from different angles. When we think of blueprints and kitchen plans, we tend to think of looking at the layout from a bird’s-eye view. But then how would you know if the chef will have a place to stash needed equipment or clean dish towels when working at a particular station? The answer is using what kitchen designers call “an elevation,” a view that looks like you’re looking at the kitchen head-on.

5. Mistake: Not Paying Enough Attention to Ventilation

Let’s face it; you just can’t pay too much attention to the air balance. Sure, it’s not one of the sexier areas of design, but ignore it at your own peril. The hood is sucking out hot, greasy air and it’s also taking out good air-conditioned air that you paid for. Work with a pro to get the balance right or you could be facing high energy bills in the near future.

The exchange of air from the kitchen to the outside via hoods and vents absolutely cannot be given too much attention. Too small
or too-weak systems can mean dollar bills flying directly through your roof. There is a science to it; too much to go into here, but your kitchen designer should be able to get you where you need to be.