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By Design

Whether big or small, on a restricted budget or a princely one, no project succeeds without proper coordination between all the stakeholders.  As foodservice designers, our first point of coordination is usually with the ownership:  What sort of facility are they developing?  How many guests are they targeting?  What will the hours of operation be?  The menu?  These questions only begin to scratch the surface, and we’ll no doubt have dozens more for the architects, engineers, and operators.

All too frequently, however, we allow interior design to become a stumbling block in our efforts to coordinate.  Aesthetic considerations can clash with equipment practicalities in open service spaces, while budgetary concerns can raise issues of who owns what items in a project’s scope.  But whatever difficulties arise, proper coordination with the project’s interior designer has a tangible and significant impact on the pleasantness and function of a foodservice space.  As you ponder how to lay out your commercial kitchen, look out for issues that can arise between our trades, and give some thought on how to turn these stumbling blocks into opportunities to build a better facility.

Kitchen Finishes

Health code requirements for surface finishes are frequently a little ambiguous, in many areas providing guidance as sparse as “smooth, non-porous, and easily cleanable” and nothing else.  In many cases this leaves interior designers wondering what the best options are for floors, walls, and ceilings, and how to balance them against their budget.

Your foodservice designer should be well equipped to discuss with you what surface materials work best in specific areas.  Options such as tile, Fiber Reinforced Plastic (FRP), or stainless-steel wall flashing have wildly divergent price points, and what works in your dish room might not be best for what works on your production line.

We are often asked how high the smooth, non-porous, and easily cleanable finish must extend on a wall and the answer is floor-to-ceiling.  The cooks I’ve worked with have yet to find a wall tall enough that they couldn’t splatter food residue up and down its entire surface.

The surface material on a kitchen floor is often decided by budget but when there is room for flexibility, this is an excellent area to coordinate with interiors.  Flooring options can be matched to a kitchen’s purpose:  vinyl installations work great for spaces that anticipate future reconfiguration, while monolithic poured floors made of polyurethane or epoxy can be better suited than tile or vinyl for heavily trafficked areas or punishing environments.

A frequent stumbling point to watch out for is your back-of-house storage spaces.  Most municipalities require these to meet the same standards for surface finishes and lighting as a food preparation space.  Over the years we have seen more than one project built out without knowing this, only to be docked for it on their health department inspection.

Smaller Back of House Considerations

There are a number of smaller considerations for back-of-house spaces that are often neglected, particularly in larger projects.  But as they say, the Devil is in the details, and remembering these (and others) can help improve quality of life in the kitchen and better preserve the space as the years go by.

Corner guards should be specified for all corners in the kitchen to protect from collisions with carts and speed racks. Cini-Little typically recommends corner guards at least four inches wide and to a height of 48” AFF.  Similar in purpose, rubber wall-mounted door stops should be provided in areas where coolers, holding cabinets, or other equipment with doors are adjacent to the walls, or you will quickly find yourself with unsightly dents or cracked wall tile.

Doors in the kitchen, and particularly between front and back-of-house spaces, should be equipped with windows to help prevent collisions between busy staff.  In heavily trafficked aisles and pathways where deliveries are received, doors should have rubber stoppers to allow them to be temporarily propped open.  In bathrooms, we recommend hands-free door pulls to allow employees to exit without cross-contaminating their recently washed hands.

The Big One:  Millwork Counters

For the sake of durability and longevity, foodservice designers usually advocate for metal framed construction on front counters in a servery.  However, budgetary considerations often make wood construction counters an attractive option.  Millwork is loosely defined as any wooden fixture fabricated in a mill, and in a front-of-house setting, this usually includes doors, molding, trim, and often furniture like custom seating.  Because of this, it is usually under the scope of the interior designer or architect.  Millwork shops often provide simple counters for functions like trash drop-offs, but when it comes to larger service counters with a lot of equipment to coordinate, many millwork fabricators will need to partner closely with the foodservice designer to get things just right.

We have seen an unfortunate number of relatively recent installations requiring renovation designs because of millwork service counters that were not properly designed and coordinated.  When working with your interior designer and millwork fabricator, keep these critical considerations in mind:

  • Support Structure:  The counter must be designed with properly sized cut outs for drop-in equipment and with adequate support for the weight of the equipment, or you can expect to quickly develop cracks in any solid surface countertops you use.
  • Solid Surface Requirements:  Different types of natural or engineered stone will require different supports within the cabinet body and will also have different sensitivity to heat and cold.  Although some engineered stones sell themselves based on their resistance to temperature, it is still advisable to provide insulated bezels for chilled or heated equipment to prevent temperature gradients from cracking your surface materials.
  • Air Flow:  Cabinet bodies will need to be designed to allow ventilation as equipment dictates.  Compressors on cooled equipment are the most common pieces to require this, but foodservice designers should be prepared to alert millwork fabricators to sensitive pieces of equipment you might not suspect of needing proper airflow, such as induction burners.
  • Moisture Control:  Millwork cabinets being made of plywood, even marine grade, makes them vulnerable to encroachment from water. This can be fluids spilled from service equipment but is often also water that works its way into vertical panels from mopping around the counters. Millwork counters should be sealed inside and out to satisfy NSF requirements, and should be mounted on curb bases to protect from spills or mopping on the floor.

Apart from these, foodservice designers should partner with and review millwork counter plans to help provide those small touches that make foodservice easier:  convenience outlets for portable equipment, glove dispensers, foot pedal activated access to trash bins, slide-out housing for refrigeration condensers, and other such considerations.

A Marriage of Talents

It is a lot of work making sure your foodservice designs mesh with architectural, engineering, and interior design plans.  But this marriage of talents is what produces exemplary foodservice spaces that not only look great but function well and stand the test of time.  By staying alert and seeking out opportunities to share expertise with all of our partners on a project, we can be sure we’ve delivered the best possible kitchen under every circumstance.

By:  Kevin Banas, Project Manager | Chicago

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