SPECIAL REPORT: How do you pick the right kitchen house?

Crosbys kitchen 1

You might have a clear idea of what you want your ideal kitchen to look like, but without the expertise and guidance of the right distributor or project house there is a real risk it could all turn out very wrong. Choosing the right company to lead or manage a new kitchen scheme is therefore as important as selecting the brand of equipment that goes into it. But how do you pick the right partner? FEJ gathers experts from the sector to find out.

Creating a kitchen from scratch can be a pretty complex process, particularly if, as seems to be increasingly the case these days, it is located in a place that was never originally designed with catering in mind. Then there are services to consider, the suitability of power supply and an endless list of hygiene and safety boxes to tick.

It all sounds rather daunting, not to mention exhausting, but for most professional catering equipment distributors it is part and parcel of daily life. Needless to say, operators that appoint the right partner — which understands their needs and can execute the project smoothly and successfully — are worth their weight in gold.

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Mark Kendall, managing director of Inox Equip, a leading catering equipment distributor based in Buckingham, says a competent kitchen house will have the ability to manage a project from inception to completion, with suitably qualified project managers that hold relevant construction lead experience providing a buffer for the client from the main contractor. “They should have in-house design capability using AutoCAD as a pre-requisite with added services such as 3D visualisation and BIM level 2 capabilities. They will also have an open and unbiased approach to capital equipment procurement and specification,” he says.

Although there is a degree of commonality between kitchens across different market sectors, many operators will feel compelled to appoint a distributor that has clear experience of their particular niche. It’s a wise choice, agrees Ben Crosby, projects and design director at Newcastle-based Crosbys Catering Equipment.

“I think the most important factors would be the experience, track record and relationships between the distributor and the client,” he adds. “We prefer to form long-term relationships with our clients going forward, as long after the kitchen fit we continue to supply the day-to-day products our clients need.”

QCM Equipment in Bristol is only a small company but with senior staff boasting 30 years’ experience in the industry it is a preferred partner for many restaurants, cafes, schools and farm shops. General manager, Gerry Oakley, explains: “We are able to help a client develop feasibility plans and designs and compile accurate and detailed costs no matter how complex the job. We then produce manufacturing drawings for ventilation systems, coldrooms and kitchen fabrication, and then project-manage through the fit-out stage to ensure completion on time and in line with the agreed budgets.”

When selecting a kitchen design contractor, ‘partnership’ really is the key word. An operator should be able to expect that the chosen company fully understands their operation, how the menu is delivered, what volume and type of storage is required and how the each menu item is prepared.

Crosbys kitchen 2

Experience and track record are important factors when choosing a kitchen contractor.

Leigh Howard, director of Lakes Catering Maintenance in Cumbria, says: “Getting the design right goes a long way to making the kitchen a flexible, safe and efficient place to work, future proofing it to be versatile where needed. Consultation with client and chef is key. As the kitchen is the main hub of any foodservice facility, the equipment should be laid out making best use of the space available, providing a linear workflow from the preparation areas through to the servery.”

QCM’s Oakley adds: “An expert kitchen specialist should be able to match the right equipment to each stage of the process, making a clear and justifiable case for each area of expenditure so the operator is not over- or under-equipping. In addition, make sure your potential kitchen specialist is like-minded and you get on with them. It may sound obvious, but you need to forge a close working relationship and that’s not easy to do if you don’t hit it off!”
In the casual dining sector, where some of the leading chains are rolling out new sites at a rapid clip, smart kitchen design is crucial to driving productivity and profitability — as well as ensuring equipment downtime is kept to an absolute minimum.

One of the most respected providers in this market segment is Advance Group. The Bedfordshire-based outfit employs experienced chefs that can contribute relevant industry expertise and professional insight to every aspect of cooking methodology and the design process.

An expert kitchen specialist should be able to make a clear and justifiable case for each area of expenditure so the operator is not over- or under-equipping”

“Firstly we invest time in getting to understand what the customer is looking to achieve with their menu composition in terms of volume, time and menu specifics,” explains commercial director Darryl Pannell. “These are the factors that determine the primary gearing of the kitchen. Consequently, the ergonomics are absolutely vital — chefs shouldn’t be walking more than three feet while cooking the dish. With burgers, as a common example, there is a set process that involves the main product being taken out of the fridge and then the assembly of many other ancillary ingredients — efficiency of movement is therefore a real priority.”

Many catering equipment providers tend to base their designs on traditional models with fixed zones. They are also inclined to work off a tick-box list of pre-determined brands and products rather than focusing on end-user processes. This, claims Pannell, contrasts with Advance Group’s bespoke approach, which starts off by developing an in-depth understanding of the customer’s methods. “The key is creating an operating solution that works for every aspect of the menu. This means determining, dish by dish, what is the volume, the capability and the quality level. All of this needs to fit with the customer’s objectives.”

Some of Advance Group’s work with emerging brands highlights how it is also able to add extra value to the process, too. For example, it has a tried and tested methodology for refurbishing and cleaning existing customer equipment, which can then be put into a new kitchen. “Our test facilities have been used by many of the UK’s biggest casual dining brands. We work right through the production process with the customer to ensure there is a balance between creative solutions and functionality,” says Pannell.

Airedale kitchen

Project houses will be able to manage ventilation and fabrication.

When it comes to shortlisting kitchen equipment providers, operators will no doubt find they are confronted by a queue of companies all professing to offer the world. So how can you quantify if one company is better qualified than another? Well, one way of doing this is by examining the certifications or skills they hold as a company or through their staff.

Accreditations such as CHASS, CSCS, SMSTS and Constructionline for any CDM-based scheme are must-haves. “Industry recognition and membership of trade bodies such as CEDA, which is the premier trade association representing the most professional 100 catering equipment distributors and service companies in the UK, is also important,” believes Inox Equip’s Mark Kendall.

Membership of or involvement with sector-specific industry trade associations, such as HCA for hospitals or LACA for the public sector, may also be interpreted as a sign of credibility.

Quite often, though, the most reliable measurement of ability lies in the work they have done. “As there are few relevant qualifications which demonstrate competence in the design and fit-out of kitchens, by far and away the best indicator of capability is for an operator to seek recommendations,” argues QCM’s Gerry Oakley.

“Ask your prospective kitchen supplier where else they have worked — look for expertise and success in similar environments and go and visit completed work if you can. A new kitchen fit-out is an expensive undertaking and you need to make sure every penny you spend is invested well and will continue to give you value for money,” advises Oakley.

Our ethos is to never cut corners and to minimise snagging. Snagging is unavoidable so responding to these and first-fixing any issues is also vital”

Peter Walker, marketing manager at Airedale Group, one of the largest distributors in the UK in terms of revenue and headcount, also believes that site visits offer the clearest clues to a provider’s abilities. “We are the chosen partner of many of the national chains so we can take our prospective clients to reference sites. It is too easy to not do the all-important research element correctly but if you do not do so, your catering operation is unlikely to work optimally, which will have long-term negative effects on the operator.”

One of the obvious questions for operators is whether to appoint a contractor that is based locally. If you operate nationally then some experts insist it makes sense to partner with a kitchen house that provide nationwide coverage, but it’s worth checking that their coverage includes both project management and after-sales support.

It is relatively easy for a kitchen specialist to attend a few meetings before a job is underway to agree designs and costs, but you need to ensure that their support structure will allow a project manager to be available whenever needed during the fit-out stage and that they can provide a prompt and reliable nationwide after-sales support once your new kitchen is operational.

Conversely, if your business is regional then you might well find that a locally-based supplier will provide a more responsive support due to their proximity — assuming that they have all the skills and competencies which are important to you.

QCM kitchen

Qualified project managers will be able to see the job through from inception to completion.

Ben Crosby from Crosbys is among those who feel that local distributors can offer specific value: “I think this is a very important factor. Apart from site revisions and visits, I think the dealer has to know everything about the local industry and competition, what others are doing and what trends apply to the locale.”

Lakes Catering Maintenance’s Leigh Howard endorses this view: “Having someone local who can be there when a client needs them is key — from a project management point of view right through to product support and emergency calls. Kitchens simply don’t function Monday to Friday 9am-5pm. On larger projects, multiple disciplines will be involved such as architects, site managers and M&E. New-builds can soon require a quick visit to coordinate or advise on services drawing, quickly avoiding added cost or delays. Keeping a frequent and insightful eye on the project can put a stop to it drifting; small issues can soon grow into larger and more costly hurdles to overcome. This hands-on local service is a real benefit for the unseen issues that need resolving as the project develops.”

National players point out that they have the ability to do all this as well. Peter Walker, marketing manager at Airedale Group, a kitchen partner for many UK chains, notes: “Having a proven track record in delivering similar schemes for similar clients is more important [than being locally based]. At Airedale we have seven offices, from Scotland to the South Coast, so this helps us respond quicker than having just, in our case, the HQ in Bradford.”

There are many factors to consider during the partner selection process, but perhaps the biggest one comes down to making sure that the contractor has the skills and background to see the project through without problems. Good project management skills are intrinsic to successful execution.

5-point partner selection guide

“Our ethos is to never cut corners and to minimise snagging,” explains Airedale Group’s Peter Walker. “Snagging is unavoidable so responding to these and first-fixing any issues is also vital. Communication to the client and our own team is also essential. Our project managers will be managing not only our own installers but all of our suppliers and specialist sub-contractors so a lack of communication would cause issues.”

At Crosbys Catering Equipment, the company’s project salesmen are also project managers. “It means we don’t have the conflict going forward,” explains Ben Crosby. “This way the client and project manager form a strong relationship and both have one point of contact. We are committed to seeing the project through, from design and installation to commissioning and training,” he says.

When it comes to selecting a kitchen partner, it truly is a case of ‘the devil is in the detail’. It can take time to establish a contractor’s credentials, experience and skills, but your kitchen project will most certainly turn out better because of the due diligence.

Consultative approach to casual dining kitchen design

Advance Group is one of the foremost suppliers to the casual dining sector. It prides itself on working right through the production process with the customer to ensure there is a balance between creative solutions and functionality.
Commercial director, Darryl Pannell (above right), says a perfect example of this consultative approach entailed Advance carrying out an operational study on a grilled concept for a major casual dining group.

We established that the customer actually needed grills that cooked food more quickly, rather than greater capacity”

“The customer had already started to install a £5,000 chargrill that would cost £3,000 a year to run and £500 a year to maintain. Multiplied by hundreds of sites, this represented a huge investment decision for the company. We established that the customer actually needed grills that cooked food more quickly, rather than greater capacity. Moreover, food wasn’t being delivered on time due to specifying grills not up to the job — consequently the temperature recovery time was totally inadequate. We helped the customer save tens of thousands of pounds.” Darryl Pannell, commercial director

Another multi-site casual dining customer, meanwhile, asked Advance to look at every aspect of its process, from menus to in-house challenges and delivery. The customer also required the development of a future-proofed kitchen operating platform that could respond to multiple needs.

Pannell says: “We sketched out how the kitchen would be laid out, asked questions about any volume constraints and shaped our re-designs around high volume items. Our advice came from working in kitchens producing food in a more ergonomic way, which worked for the customer’s exact menu. This was a good example of a customer seeking out our specific expertise and advice on how to adapt, evolve and develop dining brands — essentially reinvigorating what had previously been perceived as a slightly tired but major national brand.”

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