An older building may be replete with charm or in just the right neighborhood for your restaurant’s demographic, but it can also present supersized challenges. That’s especially true when it comes to the kitchen, where new installations in adaptive reuse projects and even seemingly simple renovations of existing facilities can leave operators months behind schedule and hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget if those challenges aren’t understood and planned for well before construction begins.

In these instances, back of the house absolutely must be top of mind before signing on to an older property. Why? Because the constraints inherent in that property can wind up dictating everything from kitchen placement and design to flow of staff within the space, cooking style and equipment selection. And constraints within the property — not always readily apparent — can quickly turn what on the surface looks like a great opportunity into a major migraine.

Dual Divas: Exhaust, Utilities

While every building is different and infrastructure needs can vary significantly from concept to concept, putting new kitchens into older structures requires careful attention to a few common areas. Top among them: exhaust systems and utilities, the dual divas of any commercial kitchen project and the two areas on which operators can wind up unexpectedly having to spend the most money — even before getting to the actual designing and equipping of the kitchen.

“Hood ventilation systems are very problematic in older buildings,” notes Joe Spinelli, president of Restaurant Consultants Inc., based in College Park, Md. Spinelli, trained as an architect and a licensed general contractor, has developed several restaurant concepts over the years and retrofitted many older buildings for both client and personal projects. “Most of the counties and cities require them to be vented through the roof, so you may need to allow for design and installation of ductwork through the floors above your tenant space. And the ceilings in many older buildings are low, making hood installation extremely difficult if not impossible. Custom solutions are often required, which means much more time and money.”

Restaurant Consultants Ida Bs Table 1Ida B's

Restaurant Consultants Ida Bs dining roomDuctwork had to be run outside and up to the roof at the historic 1915 building that now houses Ida B’s Table. That work added more than $50,000 to the project’s cost.

Restaurant Cnsultants Ida Bs Kitchen The building’s floors had to be reinforced in order to safely hold the high-production kitchen equipment at Ida B’s Table. Photos courtesy of Restaurant Consultants Inc. Meeting fire safety codes, too, can be problematic, Spinelli adds. Installing a sprinkler system in an older building that wasn’t designed for one, for instance, is both time consuming and costly. That issue came into play when designing and building Ida B’s Table, a southern-style restaurant recently opened in a historic candy box factory building in Baltimore. Constructed in 1915 and granted landmark status in 2013, the building’s new kitchen had to be able to handle high-volume production for dine-in, banquet, catering and carryout business.

“They put the sprinkler system in, but the equipment dealer didn’t realize the compressor was going on the roof, on the top of the walk-in,” Spinelli says. “And the compressor didn’t fit because the sprinkler system was in the way. These are problems you don’t have with newer buildings where ceiling heights are higher.”

SSA, a foodservice design and consulting firm with offices in Tampa, Fla., and New York, offers another example. The firm was asked to design the kitchen for a new location being developed by a San Francisco chef. The building the restaurant was going into wasn’t especially old — 10 or 15 years at most. But its inherent constraints — primarily, lack of ductwork sufficient to handle the restaurant’s anticipated exhaust needs — required a multilayered problem-solving approach.

“We were going in on the ground floor of the office building. When the building was constructed, someone had thought of including a restaurant on that level, and they had included a fire-rated shaft going through part of the building,” says Ken Schwartz, FCSI, president of SSA. “Most of the other space on the ground floor was slated for retail, or banking or offices. The issue was that our client took the entire ground floor for his restaurant. As we started to get into design meetings, the first thing we requested was to talk about systems. He didn’t quite understand why, noting that we didn’t even have a design yet. But the reality is that infrastructure and systems might control the design.”

Ultimately, the reality was that the existing shaft allowing for ductwork to route through and then out of the building was too small to handle the menu the chef had planned and the anticipated volume of cooking. And expanding it wasn’t feasible: Doing so would have required cutting through already-occupied floors above and installing columns, inside of which the ducts could run en route to the roof.

The ultimate solution: Reverse engineer the restaurant’s cooking systems to work around the constraints of the building’s existing shaft.

That step introduced priority No. 2 when considering older buildings: utilities capacity. With the goal of converting as many of the cooking processes as possible from gas to electric, which typically has lower cubic feet per minute (CFM) exhaust requirements, determining if the kitchen would have access to sufficient electrical capacity preceded any design work.

Collaborating with building engineers and a hood manufacturer, SSA’s team calculated the maximum amount of exhaust that could flow through the existing ductwork. “We got that number, and that’s what we started designing to, putting as much firepower as we could under it and then converting as much as we could to electric,” Schwartz says. “But we ran into another challenge. There was only so much power coming into the space, and the cost to increase the power supply with new transformers, etcetera, would have added another half million dollars to the project, which obviously wasn’t a solution. We couldn’t change the constraints the building presented, so we had to figure out how to balance things out. We turned to energy-efficient equipment like induction cooking pieces and electric steam instead of gas steam. We worked with the client’s culinary group and were able to juggle equipment and power sources to make it work.”

While that project was fairly unique, Schwartz adds, the scenario and the issues raised are par for the course in any project going into existing — and especially older — buildings. And it illustrates the importance of uncovering and addressing such issues very early in a project.

Indeed, scratching well below the surface of what a particular site appears to offer and matching that up against current building codes represents a critical step, agrees Armand Iaia, FCSI, regional manager at Cini-Little’s Chicago office.

Cini Little Roby Hotel The Up Room Interior

Cini Little Roby Hotel Cafe AG wide angleA 1920s art deco office building in Chicago was recently transformed into the boutique Robey Hotel, which includes a main floor cafe (right), second-floor lounge (above) and rooftop lounge. Cini-Little’s team installed multiple kitchens, shifting designs and layouts along the way to work around existing infrastructure. Photo by Adrian Gaut

“In a mixed-used or multitenant building that has already been redeveloped, for instance, you may be assured that there is existing ductwork for exhaust,” Iaia says. “But it’s important to go a step further and find out to what extent that existing system would be shared by other tenants in the building. That’s going to impact your operations and your ability to tap into that same system. We had a project recently in which the client wanted a test kitchen put into an existing building, which was mostly offices but that also had a cafe tenant on the ground floor. We couldn’t install a new shaft for additional exhaust ducts, so we ended up having to get special variances and add an expensive modulating fan system so that the existing ductwork could accommodate both the cafe and the new operation and meet code requirements.”

Even single-use buildings that previously housed restaurant tenants and have existing kitchens in place can’t be taken for granted. New ownership means new permits, and securing permits for kitchens in older buildings often means having to replace equipment and/or systems to bring them up to current environmental, health, fire and safety codes.

“Operators often go into these situations thinking they can just use what’s already there and build their budgets based on that intent,” Iaia says. “But in older buildings, it’s very likely that what’s already there — even if it might potentially meet their menu and volume needs — won’t meet today’s codes. That’s especially true with HVAC systems, so it’s really important to get advice and confirmation on that before you get too far into a project.”

Likewise, Iaia says, thoroughly vet utilities capacity early. “Is there enough gas and electric coming into the space for what you need? Are the water lines sufficient? If the kitchen is going to be on a higher floor, is there gas running up there? If not, how are you going to handle it?” he asks. “Bringing gas lines up and upgrading electric can be done, but it requires forethought and planning because it impacts everything you do in the kitchen and the equipment that you’re able to select.”

Where those utilities come into the building can be important as well, Iaia notes. While undertaking utility upgrades is relatively straightforward, the farther away the point of entry sits from the desired location of the kitchen, the higher the cost of upgrades.

Weights and Measures

Grat Lakes Prime Proper 1 The four hoods for upscale steakhouse Prime & Proper’s new kitchen had to be vented outside to a back alley with a makeup air unit running 13 stories to the roof. Image courtesy of Great Lakes Culinary Designs At

Designers faced many structural challenges to accommodate Prime & Proper’s showpiece, a massive solid-fuel grill

Great Lakes Prijme Proper 4


Detroit-based Great Lakes Culinary Designs, design lead Joel Schultz and his team have seen a wave of urban renewal, retrofit and adaptive reuse projects the past several years. While HVAC and utilities get immediate up-front attention, Schultz reviews a laundry list of additional structural factors to determine if an older building can support an operator’s needs without breaking the budget to get the kitchen in place.

Some, Schultz says, seem pretty simple but often aren’t adequately researched prior to signing the lease or specifying equipment. Doorways, windows and elevators in older buildings, for instance, are often too small to get kitchen equipment through. And if a building has a historical designation, as many in Detroit do, making structural alterations to widen points of entry can be difficult, extremely costly or prohibited.

“We immediately check for things like door entries and ceiling heights,” Schultz says. “With existing buildings, we often encounter historical codes that limit what we can do, so we have to think very carefully about how we’ll get equipment into the kitchen from the exterior. In those cases, equipment selection becomes a key component based off just simple things like ceiling heights, entryways and what we can actually fit into the building. We may be able to remove glass and get equipment in that way, but if it’s a historic building, we have to replace and match that glass so as not to alter the appearance of the building, and that type of glass may no longer be available. So these are all issues that come into play.”

Even if it’s possible to get new equipment into the kitchen, it may not be possible to install that equipment without first reinforcing the floor beneath it. Many types of foodservice equipment, after all, not only require a lot of power but are also extremely heavy.

“Buildings designed and built more than 50 years ago might not be structurally compliant to hold the weight of kitchen equipment,” Spinelli notes. “That was definitely the case at Ida B’s Table, where we ended up having to spend an extra $20,000 to re-support the flooring systems before installing equipment. And that was on top of the extra 30 or 40 grand we’d already spent to run ductwork outside of the building because we couldn’t run it straight up and through to the roof.”

SSA’s Schwartz adds that when kitchens are built on higher floors, the issue of floor load capacity is even more critical. Older buildings — and even newer ones originally built for residential or office use — typically aren’t rated for the necessary number of pounds per square foot that a restaurant kitchen would require. Where specialty and/or large-capacity equipment are required, advance research into floor strength and potential remediation costs is paramount.

“Think about things like 60-quart mixers or large steam kettles,” Schwartz says. “They’re heavy on their own, but you also have to factor in the weight of the products that they’ll hold. A steam kettle might hold 200 gallons of product, so it’s the combined weight that matters. Or maybe it’s something like a hearth-style pizza oven, which can weigh 6,000 pounds or more. You might be able to reinforce the area where those pieces of equipment will sit, but you also have to be able to get them in place without causing damage on the way.”

When going into a 13-story, nearly 100-year-old retail and office building in Detroit, the team behind upscale steakhouse Prime & Proper encountered a full spectrum of HVAC, utility and structural challenges from low ceilings to unusual demands for ventilation, thanks to the restaurant’s showpiece hardwood grill.

“We had to have a special hood system dedicated just to that grill,” Schultz says. “Then, we have three additional hoods. Running that all up 13 floors and being able to put it outside with a monster structure was a big project. Inside, there was a lot of open space and structural columns to retrofit through and around, and unfortunately, we had very low ceilings. That made tucking all the mechanicals and utilities up there really tough. What’s more, we had to quarry though floors that were 12 to 16 inches thick to get the utilities in play. All of the walk-ins are in the basement, and we have a custom refrigeration system that has 19 different things running off it. This was a case where the building was never designed to be a restaurant and that required a lot of unique solutions, but it’s now a gorgeous space with a large open kitchen. The owner was experienced and knew what he was getting into, so he was prepared.”

Being prepared — both for the types of surprises that can crop up and with the funds to handle them — is what’s most important when developing in older properties. The biggest piece of advice that consultants offer: Before signing a lease or contract to purchase, invest in a thorough site investigation by multidisciplinary professionals who understand and can identify likely trouble spots.

“It’s very easy to fall in love with an old building and visualize what it could be. There are some really beautiful spaces, and with enough money and time, most of the hurdles can be overcome,” says Schultz. “But if it just isn’t going to work for your concept, your budget or your required return on investment, it may be best to walk away. You have to consider the reality of what you can achieve there, and if you can’t reasonably achieve a well-functioning, efficient, code-compliant new kitchen in that beautiful old building, it’s best to know that early on.”


Advice from the Pros

Thinking about putting a new kitchen into an old building? Keep these strategies in mind.

  • Don’t just listen to the broker. Hire experienced professionals (architects/engineers/consultants) to perform a detailed site survey before moving forward. The findings will inform design and equipment decisions. Flag if and where significant investments in infrastructure will need to be made.
  • Be sure adequate funding, both for knowns and inevitable unknowns likely to crop up once the project is underway, is in place before starting.
  • Before signing a lease or purchasing a property, check out the most common and costly kitchen issues: exhaust ductwork, utilities capacity and location, entry and ceiling dimensions, and floor strength.
  • Know who is responsible for what. Oftentimes, architects, consultants, engineers and equipment dealers don’t talk to each other and important details get missed.
  • Know the codes — current and historical — as they relate to the property. Permitting for older structures, particularly those with historical designation, can take significantly longer.
  • In retrofitting existing kitchens, have plan B in place should something go wrong. Keep what equipment you can, but replace aging equipment that will be mission-critical for your menu and operation.Be flexible with equipment: Older facilities may require nontraditional cooking methods to meet exhaust and utility constraints.