Design Tips for a More Efficient Kitchen

By Pamela Eaton, FCSI, LEED AP BD+C®, Regional Manager at Cini-Little International, Inc.

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The question was posed to me: “How do you maximize efficiency via commercial kitchen design?” Hmmm. What shape of a kitchen are you giving me? I know it’s shocking, but rectangles are significantly more efficient than a room shaped like a letter of the alphabet. And let’s try to keep the storage on the same level as the cooking. A clear path to and from the loading dock would also be nice. It’s surprising how often one of those seemingly obvious things can be questioned or compromised because of other considerations of the building layout. Occasionally dubious considerations, but most of the time valid.  

The basics of efficiency haven’t changed much since I took my first design class in college, and they probably pre-date that by decades. Direct paths between major areas of activity –dock to receiving area to storage to prep areas to cooking to guest and back to clean up. As my college professor said, the answer to all of life’s questions is “flow.” (For what it’s worth, my high school Latin teacher said it was “316.”) But back to flow. How easily does product flow from one location to another without twists, turns and crossed paths? Initially the plan is just big picture — as I said above, dock, receiving, storage, etc. But each area has efficient flow within it, from the dock all the way through the servery and to the waste or dish drop areas.

Back of House

The basics are pretty straightforward and most Health Departments will also be looking for them in the design review. When the food arrives at the dock, can it easily and quickly get checked in and then stored safely? Is there enough room to receive it without blocking the dock? Once it is in the walk-in or storeroom, the path to the first line of prep should be short and direct. Prep areas with sinks, worktables, mixers, slicers, and the like should be near. From there, the path can divide between final hot prep and final cold prep. The hot line should have refrigerated storage so that cooks can be stocked for all of their needs during the meal crunch and not need to go after additional supplies.  

The menu will also dictate locations of some pieces of cooking equipment. Are there multiple steps to the menu items? If you are making General Tso’s Chicken, having the fryer and the wok in proximity will make the process easier.  

Aisle widths also come into play. Will the equipment be operated by one person going from cooking line in back to chef’s counter in front? How often will someone need to cross that area? Will people be working back to back? A 36” aisle is good for one person working a compact station. A 42” aisle just makes them take an extra step. Good for the Fitbit counter, not so good for crunch times.  

On the server side of the chef’s counter, a larger aisle can increase efficiency. Adequate widths on lanes of traffic allow servers to move quickly from one point to another and avoid collisions.   

Planning for both peak times and slow times is also important. What is efficient with multiple staff members is not so when it’s only one. The length of the line needs to be considered. A suite layout may work better if items can be passed across or down as they work their way through assembly. 


Front of House/Servery

Then there is efficiency for the guests. When entering a servery, the most popular station should be visible but not typically first. This is for a couple of reasons – a long line at the entrance may discourage someone from entering, thinking the whole servery is too busy when it may only be the deli. Allowing customers to easily enter and review the options is the first step in getting them to buy something. But then there is also some value in the opposite of efficiency – if the guests wander past a few other counters of fabulous looking offerings, they may buy something different or more, or simply decide they will definitely come back again to try another offering — a bit of the supermarket “put the milk at the back” state of mind.

As seemingly straightforward as it seems, the coffee bar presents a lot of efficiency challenges.  Where should the customer stand? In front of the pastry case? But that blocks others from looking. Away from the pastry case? What do they do when they forget the name of the Blueberry Buckle Cake that looked so scrumptious? Step back into the crowd now in front of the case? And on the employee side, typically, how many will there be behind the counter?  One? Two? Three? More? Cross traffic between workers from point of sale to creation of drink to service should be avoided.

Clean Up

Now that everyone has enjoyed their meal, we need to clean up and do it again. For a full-service restaurant, the staff should have a direct path to the dish drop area that does not take them across servers with plates of food heading to guests. Ideally, it’s located near the entrance so servers don’t have to go too deep into the kitchen to drop off.

For self-bussed dining rooms, the tray or trash drop area should be easily located (although not necessarily easily seen) and on the way out of the café. Guests can get deterred from clearing their table by difficult-to-find drops. 

Step Back

It can be easy to get wrapped up in the station design or the cooking line design. A flow diagram can clearly map out lanes of travel and highlight potential inefficient routes or areas where employees and/or guests will cross paths. Use different colored lines and arrows to quickly highlight normal paths. If some area ends up around the back corner that you wish was more convenient, weigh the pros and cons of that location for the task versus other tasks and decide which is the least negatively impacted.