An efficient, well-designed storage area prevents back-of-the-house chaos.
In many foodservice facilities, when it comes to space allotment, storage often gets the leftovers. Dining and food production areas — the revenue generators — are the priorities, and storage can seem like it simply eats into square footage that could otherwise be directed there. But a lack of sufficient, efficient and well-planned dry and refrigerated storage can lead to chaotic conditions in the back of the house, impacting everything from safety and hygiene to labor and purchasing.
These areas require smart planning, and the right design and equipment choices can enhance these spaces, even when small.
"If you don't have a facility that will support your menu and enable you to present a consistent, quality product in a reasonable amount of time, customers may try you once, but they're not going to come back. Especially with the labor situation all operators face, it's critical to have a physical plant that takes a lot of the responsibility away from the individual worker," says Jerry Weinberg, C.E.C., a veteran design, operations and equipment consultant at Fayetteville, N.C.-based Thompson & Little Inc. "Certainly that applies to food production, but also to storage. Employees need to be able to access products in a timely, safe and efficient manner. If that's provided for, the restaurant will flow well, and the operator will be better equipped for success."
Weinberg takes a collaborative approach to designing storage areas, starting with the operator and/or chef and, depending on the nature of the project, bringing in the architect and engineer as well as the building and health departments. And, he adds, it's all based on three critical drivers: form, flow and function.
To that end, the evaluation of the menu and product mix, operating hours, and number of seats represent the first step in designing storage areas, Weinberg says. Together, those numbers provide an estimate of the maximum potential volume that storage areas will need to support. With takeout and delivery growing fast, the need for careful assessment of the potential volume of off-site business also continues to grow when considering storage needs. The foodservice operation will require additional food product beyond what the number of physical seats might indicate, of course, but takeout packaging is bulky and can consume significant dry storage real estate.
Go with the (Product) Flow
From there, storage design planning begins at the back door. The flow of incoming product to finished product ready for service should drive the configuration of this space as much as possible.
"When we design kitchens, we always design from the back forward within the designated footprint," says Jim
Richards Jr., partner at PES Design Group in Sarasota, Fla. "We plan it out in terms of how product will need to flow from receiving into storage, prep, production and service. The location of storage needs to be such that it's easily accessible from the receiving door but also from where the cooks need to access products."
Weinberg adds that configuring storage areas close to the receiving door makes it convenient for staff to check in product and also eliminates the need for vendor personnel to pass through the back of the house. "You always want to avoid unnecessary traffic in the kitchen," he says. "It's important for safety and sanitation, but it also minimizes opportunities for theft."
Both designers agree that, beyond evaluating menu and volume potential of the foodservice operation, no clearly defined formula exists for determining the required amount of space for storage. Every situation and facility differ. But what is common, they say, is underestimating the need for storage.
Richards, who works with a lot of school accounts, notes that architects often drive the program spaces in many larger projects. Unfortunately, architects usually do not interact with the foodservice staff. He emphasizes that what works for one facility or one district doesn't necessarily fit the needs of another, whose student population, menu and operations may be quite different.
"If it's a school or other large facility that does batch cooking from raw products, for instance, the items go from refrigerated storage to prep to production to serving line," Richards says. "They may not require as much refrigerated storage space as an operation that requires refrigerated storage of raw foods that go to prep and then to cook-chill. In the latter case, they may be cooking an entire week's worth of food, blast chilling it and putting it back into cold storage. In that case, they need space not only for the raw product, but additional space for the prepped and parcooked food that will later get pulled out and rethermalized. So it really depends on the operation of the kitchen."
The Big (or Small) Chill
For cold storage, Richards says most space-starved restaurants can be well served with a walk-in cooler as small as 8 feet by 10 feet. Depending on volume, the site may simply need to increase the frequency of deliveries. "That's an inconvenience in a busy kitchen, because someone has to stop and check deliveries in and inventory them. You also can't prep as much at one time," he notes, "but it's a good solution in undersized facilities."
Walk-in coolers — generally, the most efficient and appropriate cold storage option for all but perhaps the smallest of operations — provide maximum refrigerated storage capacity and come in a variety of sizes and ceiling heights. Different configurations, such as combination boxes that include an interior door to a separate freezer compartment, also offer effective solutions. And choosing a low-profile evaporator coil over a standard coil, which is large and bulky and hangs low in the cooler, can help to maximize usable space inside the walk-in.
Where back-of-the-house square footage is especially tight and local codes allow, locating a walk-in outside may be a good option. "That's always something we look at in the initial framing process," Weinberg says. "Sometimes you elect to do that right off the bat because it allows you to maximize cooking and seating areas, which can lead to faster ROI."
When locating coolers outside, Richards points out that additional important factors, driven by the external environment, need to be carefully considered during the design and purchasing process.
"Here in Florida, for example, locating a walk-in outside is a little more costly because we have hurricane wind loads, and they require engineered drawings, etcetera, which are additional expenses," Richards says. "And in this market, you also want to specify stucco aluminum versus the cheaper standard stucco galvanized panels. That's because aluminum stands up better to the salt air and is easier to maintain. So it's important to understand the environment and be sure that what you're putting in is designed to stand up to those elements."
In hot and humid markets such as Florida, designing walk-ins with enhanced flooring becomes important too, Richards adds. While operators often opt for standard floor panels to save money, relatively inexpensive upgrades will extend the cooler's life and performance.
"We like to put floors in our coolers because they get beat up and then you get condensation, which isn't good," Richards says. "But flooring decisions also need to be based on what the production environment will be like. Standard flooring capacity in a walk-in is about 600 pounds per square foot. Many times, at least in our market, operators opt to recess the cooler box and tile right from the kitchen into the walk-in. If you have a lot of heavy traffic, such as pallets or carts coming in and out, that floor will flex over time, and you'll get cracks in the grout. When there are spills or water builds up, that liquid can seep in and drop the floor, and pretty soon you'll be replacing the cooler. Putting in a reinforced floor, which is a fairly minimal upgrade, increases the capacity to 12,000 pounds per square foot and protects against such cracks and seepage."
Beyond choosing reinforced floors, operators can also consider materials. Where floors are reinforced, nonslip tile is a good choice, Richards says. Another option: one-piece rubberized floors. "It's easy to clean because there are no grout lines," he notes. "And it's durable but does readily show marks and scratches. A downside is that if it should tear, the entire piece has to be replaced."
Maximizing refrigerated storage space also means selecting appropriate equipment for production areas at active prep and cooking stations. If the operation does not require ovens directly below the grill or cookline, for instance, installing refrigerated or freezer drawers can place product right within reach of cooks as they need it. Refrigerated salad and sandwich units on the expo or production line do so as well — as do refrigerated prep tables positioned near the prep sink.
"I always like to use a lot of refrigerator and freezer worktops in the production area because that allows you to keep food at safe temperatures and have it at the point of cooking," Weinberg says. "It results in faster, more efficient production and takes pressure off of the walk-in. Again, the goal is to create storage design that supports forward flow of product, from the back door through to prep, production and service. These types of equipment make it possible to efficiently achieve that goal."
Storage Space Planning:
- What to Consider
- Menu style and product mix
- Number of seats
- Maximum anticipated daily volume
- Percentage of takeout and delivery expected
- Desired frequency of deliveries
Strategies for Maximizing Dry Storage
- Go vertical. If ceiling heights allow, incorporate higher loft shelving for storage of lightweight products, such as disposables, that are easier and safer for employees to retrieve if accessing from a ladder or stepstool.
- Tap racks. Can racks are big space savers — imagine
- storing 156 cans in a 2-by-2-foot space — and they help keep dry storage areas organized. Gravity-fed for easy dispensing, they come in a variety of sizes and capacities.
- Add shelving to work/prep tables. Accessory units are available in single- and double-deck configurations as well as adjustable-height and fully welded versions.
- Go mobile. Rolling can racks and ingredient bins as well as adjustable, mobile shelving units maximize dry storage capacity and flexibility.