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How to make a small kitchen work

Changes are a must when back-of-house space is tight.
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When searching for a space for Asian-inspired The Spice Jar in San Francisco, chef-owner Ryuichi Hamada sought out a small space for two reasons: to control costs and for ease of use. “It’s one step to reach everything you need,” he says of his now-four-month-old, 600-square-foot restaurant, which features a 250-square-foot kitchen and 25-seat dining room.

A need for efficiency also is what drove casual-dining chain Houlihan’s to develop a smaller prototype—reduced to about 4,300 square feet in all from upwards of 7,000. “The goal was to get the overall cost down from the current prototype we had in line, and to get something a little greener, a smaller footprint, less utilities and so forth,” says Brad Shaw, director of construction. Shaving inches has another perk. “It’s helping with our franchise community … they can go into smaller markets now with this smaller footprint,” he says.

With profit margins for restaurants remaining tight and the cost of rent only going up as prime real estate gets harder to come by, operators are looking for areas to cut spending—and increasingly, that’s square footage. But jumping to a small footprint means workspace in the kitchen is at a premium. So operators are sounding off about how they’re making small spaces work.

Tailoring the menu

For his first of two locations of wine bar Tria Cafe in Philadelphia, president Jon Myerow converted a 1,100-square-foot shop. “I did not want a ventilated restaurant kitchen,” he says. “If you don’t need a hood system, that opens up a lot of different opportunities.” Myerow is able to execute Tria’s menu of salads, sandwiches and bruschetta with double and single panini presses , a toaster oven and a soup warmer behind the bar.

Keeping space in mind when designing the menu is key, says Nicholas Corbishley, director of development for Good Times Burgers. “If you go crazy with [a] menu that needs exotic pieces of equipment, that’s going to balloon the size of your kitchen.” After acquiring Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar in May, Good Times Burgers developed locations at 3,600 to 3,800 square feet, down from an original size of 5,000. “It’s all about compressing things as much as possible,” says Corbishley. “We went from four individual fryers at Bad Daddy’s to one bank fryer,” he says. “It has a slightly smaller footprint.”

Changing the game plan

Houlihan’s original stores feature a main kitchen and prep kitchen, both with hood systems. When the full-service chain launched its smaller prototype about two years ago, it installed a hood in the main kitchen only and moved some equipment from the prep kitchen to the cooks’ line, allowing it to reduce the size of the prep kitchen.

The new configuration meant a change in procedure. With the original design, cooks worked in the prep kitchen to stage the line for lunch. Now, to maximize use of space, they work in both areas, and most of the prep is completed before service.

Reconfiguring footprints

At Portland, Ore., tapas restaurant Toro Bravo, “we had what we called ‘oven wars,’ where we were all just waiting to get into an oven,” says chef-owner John Gorham. “We had a 24-inch space for a charbroiler grill and this whole empty area underneath.” So, he swapped in a 24-inch charbroiler with an oven below it to make use of the dead space. The custom piece was expensive, but making use of every inch of the kitchen was worth it, says Gorham.

Sometimes, the solution lies outside the kitchen. Gorham converted basement space beneath Toro Bravo into a curing room, so salumi and fermented condiments don’t take up valuable space in the main cooking area. 

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