MacEwen believes in matching a kitchen to a menu while leaving room for flexibility and change. He also places a high value on mutual trust and collaboration.
FE&S: Explain how you collaborate with foodservice consultants, dealers and/or equipment manufacturers.
DM: I am usually hired on by the owner to map out the concept and will oftentimes bring in a kitchen consultant to design the kitchen and specify the equipment. When developing the initial design of the restaurant or operation, I focus on flow first — figuring out where the dirty dishes will go, where the food will come out, how many steps cooks need to take, etcetera.
Obviously, function is super important, but with open kitchens, aesthetics are just as important. You have to think about what the diner will see, and not see, as well as the color temperature of the light, the look of the equipment and the overall mood as it relates to the design of the front of the house. You also have to think about how noisy the back of the house might be, and while we like to allow for energy in a space, you have to make sure that noise and activity does not adversely affect the diner's experience.
FE&S: What does your analysis of flow look like?
DM: We meet with the operator or chef right away to determine what they need to happen at the back of the house and make recommendations as far as adjacencies or other unique designs. For example, if there is a grab-and-go concept that wants a more full-service kitchen, we will figure out how to position those two activities together so that perhaps in off-peak times one person can handle both positions. We're seeing more catering facilities and other operators open up windows or mini pop-up retail spaces meant to drive sales during the morning or other off-peak times.
FE&S: What other patterns are you seeing among your restaurant clients?
DM: We're seeing more customization of components, particularly with Doc B's Fresh Kitchen, one of our chain clients. They want entire hot lines created as one massive unit that we must ensure not only functions and performs, but also has that aesthetic component. In many cases, hot lines, salad bars and other customized lines are an important visual for the restaurant.
We're also seeing kitchens get smaller. I find that too much space in a kitchen translates to less performance and a loss of energy. You lose that choreography that should happen in a kitchen, which adds some excitement to an open space. So, it's up to us to really drill down [to] what the cooks are doing and how much space they need without bumping into each other.
Another thing we're seeing more of is not completely open kitchens, but more of a glimpse or peek with some gray zones between an open and closed space. There might be more of a peek into a vignette where someone is rolling pastries or doing other prep work in the back. You might even see a dishmachine exposed. [This approach is] OK and is a little deconstructed, but it adds more energy to the restaurant. We just have to make sure everything is clean and looks good.
FE&S: When does your involvement start?
DM: Most of our clients come to us before they have a menu, but often continue to tweak the menu so we have to be ready to adapt. We encourage the kitchen consultant to push back and let us know if they think the kitchen should be more L-shaped or more square; we work together to find the best solution that works with the rest of the space. For us, it's all about collaboration and not just accepting what comes to the table.
FE&S: What has proved exciting with recent projects?
DM: We built a semi-open kitchen and expansive catering production kitchen out of the Michael Jordan's Restaurant in Oak Brook, Ill., that offers an example of those adjacencies I was talking about: We were able to create a morning grab-and-go space next to the pastry station of the main kitchen. This means front-of-the-house staff don't have to walk through the whole kitchen just to replenish or receive orders.
A common fallacy in the industry seems to be that a restaurant has to be open all day long to be successful, but we're finding that costs [much] more in labor, and there are ways to introduce design and efficiencies that allow restaurants to capitalize on other dayparts without overextending themselves.
We recently added a second restaurant within six months at Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago based on the success of its first concept. The project started out small but went very high-end and it has been rewarding to see it doing so well.