ANALYSIS: Is it time to rethink conventional kitchen design?

As the restaurant industry endeavours to cope with new methods of delivery and a more engaged customer base, flexibility towards conventional kitchen design is poised to become the order of the day. FEJ reports.

There has been much speculation about the way in which commercial kitchens might evolve in the future. The slimming down of kitchen space is inspiring manufacturers to come up with evermore accommodating equipment, while designers are forced to achieve new levels of creativity to deliver functional workspaces that meet the demands of a modern foodservice operation.

Nothing illustrates the changing landscape better than Deliveroo’s ‘Dark Kitchens’ model, where purpose-built offsite kitchens fulfil delivery orders for restaurant chains. Such facilities not only provide operators with a potential added income stream, but reshape the conventional way that food is prepared and delivered to a customer.

High street chains are scrutinising their business models closely in a bid to keep ahead of the curve, and this is leading to the formation of new kitchen formats designed to service the current generation of customers.

Mexican restaurant chain Tortilla has taken inspiration from Deliveroo’s Dark Kitchen idea with its own ‘backstage’ kitchen concept, which is currently in operation at its Bankside branch. It consists of a secondary servery that has been constructed behind the scenes to specifically process online orders, and means that food can be prepared without interfering with customers’ in-store experiences.

The backstage kitchen is equipped to help staff process an extra 150 orders per hour, allowing Tortilla Bankside to meet demand following average like-for-like growth of 9% over the past 12 months.

We’re in a changed time and obviously there are lots of pressures even for good businesses, so how can we bring four walls to life more?”

Tortilla’s managing director, Richard Morris, says that in a well-established site such as Bankside, it’s difficult to drum up new business, which is where the backstage kitchen proves invaluable.

“By embracing the changes in the market, especially those on the high street, we can increase throughput without too much compromise,” he explains. “As much as we tried to avoid it at the start, online delivery is here to stay and unfortunately for a lot of fast-casual brands it’s a case of adapt or die.”

Compact restaurants and backstage kitchens are among the ways that Tortilla plans to tackle the ever-changing high street landscape, according to Morris. “London diners especially understand the frustrations of grabbing a bite to eat from a seemingly empty restaurant, only to find yourself waiting for service due to online orders and duffel-coated drivers constantly coming in and out!”

Elsewhere, Pizza Hut has been working on testing and refining a ‘counter service’ model aimed at achieving faster service in its UK stores.

Testing of the model was first implemented in Coventry last year and has since been rolled out to more than a dozen sites. The company hopes the approach will boost restaurants with lower sales by making the customer journey simpler.

Compact restaurants, such as the one at Putney, are helping Tortilla overcome service challenges.

Pizza Hut highlighted its plans in its latest annual report, explaining: “The project is focused on restaurants with lower sales, and simplifies the operation with ‘greet and seat’, ‘order and pay’ at till point when you are ready to place your order, and self-serve condiments, drinks, salad and ice cream.”

There are some who think the industry might eventually need to rip up the rulebook and look at kitchens in a different way altogether.

Mike Faers, managing director of culinary consultancy FIS, suggests there is no reason why innovative operators in the fast-casual won’t do for foodservice what Apple has done for retail.

“I think you will see a removal of the traditional kitchen, and you will see that space becoming an assisted finishing space that is engaging with the consumer, so the consumer is part of that experience. Think about the Apple store — when you go into one there is not a tillpoint anywhere so they have completely reimagined what the shopping experience is like, or the Amazon store, where everything is cashless,” he says.

Faers is not the only one who thinks a shake-up is in store. TV chef Jamie Oliver predicts that the challenges that are gripping the industry may lead to a scenario where operators will need to treat their businesses more like gig venues or museums in future.

Speaking to the Manchester Evening News recently, Mr Oliver said: “The world’s changed in the restaurant industry in the last year and a half. It’s like any other business on the high street, it’s just really, really tough. We’re in a changed time and obviously there are lots of pressures even for good businesses, so how can we bring four walls to life more? How can we curate a space? Is it a restaurant or should we think of it more like a gig venue or a museum?”

These are questions that will only truly answer themselves in time, but even the most ardent supporter of traditional kitchens would find it difficult to contest the view that change is afoot.

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