Designing for Flexibility: How Much Can You Afford Not to Do?

Many factors come into play when designing a restaurant. The décor and ambience represent obvious considerations but one design element many concepts fail to consider is building flexibility into the front-of-house, middle-of-house and back-of-house designs.

What is design flexibility?

Well, this somewhat abstract notion covers how a design is able to adjust to meet the unique demands each daypart brings and how the design allows the operation to adapt to future, not yet known consumer needs. Sounds simple, right?

Let’s start by discussing a topic I’ve touched upon many times in other blog posts: an efficient back of house. The work station represents a critical element. For example, instead of one long production line that includes cold rails, hot food holding equipment, overshelves and various other items all built into a monolithic piece, would the operation be better off with a line that consists of several modules that the staff can move around? These modules can reside beneath the hood or outside it.

Some may argue that a modular design can be more expensive, but others feel differently. Without a doubt, modular equipment pieces will definitely allow for more flexibility in the future. Recently I worked on a couple of retrofit designs that involved moving several pieces in the back and integrating these with new platforms. Since the previous design was made up of individual pieces, the cost of retrofit was lower as most of the existing pieces could be used and moved to the optimum place to drive better efficiency.

Another way to have a flexible and efficient back of house is to install foodservice equipment that can perform multiple functions. For example, set up a kitchen with rapid cooking ovens that feature infinite cook settings. Again, some may argue that these ovens do not provide as good a quality product as more traditional cooking platforms, but if you consider the consistency these devices can provide, perhaps you may develop a different quality conclusion. After all, one of the key aspects of a brand is consistency.

There is nothing more consistent than putting a product in an oven, pressing a button and taking it out when it beeps. The same can be said of using conveyor ovens, but in this case the number of cooking settings (time and temperature) are more constrained, and the product has to be designed to meet the equipment (and there’s nothing wrong with this).

In both of the aforementioned scenarios, almost always the product will be more consistent since the human element, which allows room for error, is taken out of the process.  Let’s not forget the labor advantages of such technology applications.

Another aspect of efficiency is minimizing the space the back of the house occupies. Some may argue a smaller back of the house creates less flexibility and that ultimately inhibits menu innovation. But if you include in the design the optimum operating parameters, including processes, procedures, platforms, people, place and products, a small back of the house can deliver greater flexibility to meet the ever-changing needs of the customers across multiple dayparts, which nowadays include the consumer grazing periods.

When it comes to front of the house flexibility, it is important to address how party sizes change throughout the day. For example there may be big parties for brunch but smaller parties for breakfast. Most of the dining room design conversations I have with operators typically includes a discussion around total seat count, which I have always said is less meaningful than the total number of parties that the restaurant can accommodate, especially during peak hours. For many operators, this is a lesser-known design paradigm.

So what can be done in terms of front-of-house design? What type of seating should an operation use? What is the right mix of tables, booths and banquettes, including communal tables, along with all the other seating options and where should these be located? Designers must consider all of these factors when developing the right front-of-house design.

Concepts can apply the Industrial Engineering technique of capacity analysis to make sure they end up with the right efficiency and flexibility of the seating in the front-of-the-house. Front–of-the-house design for a concept where a staff member seats customers differs greatly from those concepts where the guests seat themselves. So be careful where you locate the large, most comfortable tables, if you don’t want a party of one or two to sit at a table sized for four or more.  Consider that booths by a window are the most coveted.

In the end, there are many different ways to add flexibility to a restaurant design. One thing is for sure: having flexibility is a must to be able to deliver on the guests’ ever–changing needs. The trick is to make sure that you design the right level of flexibility. How much can you afford to have? Or perhaps the better question is how much flexibility can you afford not to have in the design?

Related Articles