Foodservice Equipment Reports

UNIT DESIGN: Cat Cora's SFO Experience

Terminal 2 at San Francisco Airport is a bustling place. And of all the busy eateries there, few see more action-per-square-foot than Chef Cat Cora’s new 78-seat tapas/cocktail/raw bar concept. The kitchen crew serves everything from breakfast and lunch to dinner and late-night snacks from a work space that’s barely a smidge over 300 sq. ft.

“The entire kitchen’s a stage,” says kitchen creator Frank Muller, principal of Muller Design in Minden, Utah. By necessity, <i>all<i/>culinary action, from prep to cooking to plating, can be viewed from most of the bar seats.

Preparing For Takeoff

As is so often the case, the project had an interesting genesis, and it didn’t start with a clean sheet of paper. There was a space, and there was an operator. The rest was tricky.

Atlanta-based airport concessions development firm Hojeij Branded Foods had an idea for a marquee-chef concept. The space was at SFO. Long story short, HBF contacted Chef Cat Cora, known for being the only woman Iron Chef in either the U.S. or Japanese editions of the televised culinary competition. Would she be interested? Yes.

The space, it turned out, was 1,952 sq. ft. HBF pretty much handed it to Cora as a blank slate. Cora chose a combination tapas/raw bar concept. “I wanted high-quality, small, quick plates that would take airport food to new levels,” Cora says.

Gary Semling, the lead architect on the project, designated all of 304 sq. ft. for the kitchen and tapped a longtime colleague, kitchen designer Muller, to figure out kitchen details. An additional 250 sq. ft. was set aside for the raw bar (seating eight) and beer bar (seating 10). The eatery’s remaining 1,398 sq. ft. were reserved for the 60-seat dining area.

Cora’s plan to Muller had no excess in it, especially when she learned how tiny the production space would be. “I knew every piece of equipment had to be efficient and had to have multiple uses,” Cora recalls.

“All the equipment needed to be ‘couldn’t live without it’ quality, the open kitchen had to stay super-clear and efficient, and sanitation—i.e. clearing tables—had to work,” Cora adds.

Touring The Cockpit—Er…Kitchen

The end result “was like a puzzle,” Muller says. “Nearly all the pieces had to be custom-made for the kitchen to work.”

Most of the kitchen can be seen at a glance. The site of all food prep, cooking and plating centers around a 92”-long by 44”-wide compact island cooking suite. There you’ll find a single-vat fryer, a 6-burner range atop a pass-through oven and a 36” broiler atop an open storage space.

In one corner, adjacent to the kitchen’s only two “walls,” sits the combi oven (one of Cora’s few “must-have” pieces of equipment, Muller reveals). Sheet pans are stowed below. On the counter to the left of the combi is the prep area with its slicer, stand mixer and sink. Below, within easy reach, is an undercounter blast chiller (Cora’s other “must-have” piece of equipment).

To the right of the combi is the 88”-long, custom-designed make table holding about a dozen ingredient pans. Below the table surface are three tiers of 3-drawer refrigerators and freezers to hold food product. A matching set of make tables plus nine cold-holding drawers anchors the opposite side of the space.

“The nine drawers with their 4”-deep pans allow a wider variety of food product to be held on each side of the kitchen,” Muller says.

“There’s room for three or four cooks in the kitchen, plus one person staffing the raw bar, and, depending on demand, either one or two staff at the cocktail bar,” Muller says. “Everything is literally within reach, so there’s no wasted steps.”

The 8-seat custom-built raw bar measures 10’ on the long side, 5’ on the short one. The oyster station occupies center stage, with an array of fresh seafood to the right and left sides. As in the kitchen, the raw bar features tiers of three-drawer refrigerators to hold enough volume and variety of food to support the menu.

More Challenges Than A Chinese Puzzle

When you’re designing a restaurant that will operate within an airport terminal, constraints become the norm. Cat Cora SFO presented designers with more twists and turns than a Chinese puzzle.

Challenges included placing food storage; dealing with long beverage-line runs; figuring out cleaning solutions; placing remote refrigeration compressors where there’s no roof available; meeting seismic requirements in a no-walls setting; and developing work-arounds to numerous airport building rules.

No Walls, No Right Angles

The first challenge was the kitchen’s openness. Its lack of walls meant everything—even ugly things—would be visible, and the lack of walls also meant a shortage of places to organize things. The bulk of equipment had to be undercounter or countertop, and along the walls. (See floorplan.) The island cooking suite served as the anchor around which the rest of the kitchen was designed. And the lack of right angles of the roughly triangular space meant that everything had to be custom-made.

“The only walls in the entire space were the 15’-high vertical structure around the combi oven,” Muller says. The freestanding "wall" serves a dual purpose: On the kitchen side, the structure conceals vent pipes for plumbing and electrical chases. And on cocktail bar side, the structure holds inset shelves for the alcohol display. “These were the only walls the bar designers had to work with,” Muller says.

Muller kept only essential equipment within the kitchen space and placed other things—including refrigeration and bar supplies—remotely.

“We ended up hanging refrigeration compressors outside the windows, just above the baggage handling area, in order to get the heat and noise out of the kitchen and of course to free up space,” Muller explains.

What’s more, beer and soda lines had to be run more than 140’ to reach the restaurant’s support area located one floor below.

“We had to snake the lines through the building to reach the bar,” Muller says. “For the people doing the installation, it was a matter of opening walls and figuring out how to route the lines from point A to B.”

Hood Issues

Under California’s strict seismic regulations, any freestanding piece of equipment must be bolted to walls or floor. But things got interesting when it came to the hood above the island cooking suite.

“The ceiling is 16’ high—but the support structure actually extends past that to a height of about 25’,” Muller says. “We had to engineer the hood so it wouldn’t sway back and forth, which meant extra bracing had to be installed by engineers.”

Smoky effluent was an issue, too. “Because the restaurant is located next to the airplanes, the airport wanted us to install a rooftop scrubbing system, but there was no room on the roof,” Muller says. "Instead we installed a UV hood system with a variable speed fan. If [the airport] had not accepted the UV hood, this restaurant could not have been built.”

Meanwhile, Below Decks…

Warewashing and the ice machine reside in a 229-sq.-ft. room one level below the restaurant, on the main floor, along with an additional 318 sq. ft. of walk-ins and beer/wine coolers. The support area came with its own challenges.

“We weren’t allowed to install a floor sink to capture cooler condensate,” Muller recalls. "Our work-around was to build a little trough on the wall of the cooler, and then use two submersible pumps to pump water through tubes up to the ceiling, across the walkway and back down. That was the only way to get rid of condensate water.”

Back upstairs, soiled dishes awaiting transport to the warewasher are kept scrupulously out of sight of guests. “We created a beverage station with bus carts hidden below, behind stainless steel doors,” Muller says. One person has a near full-time job of ferrying soiled dishes down to the dishroom and returning with clean ones.

Within the kitchen space, all counters and the island cooking suite have 6” bases sealed to the floor, preventing food and debris from being pushed underneath. A mop and bucket are used to clean floors.

Challenges, Solutions

Just recently opened, the restaurant is still on its shakedown run, so to speak, so sales and profitability results over the long run remain to be seen. But one thing’s for sure. Cat Cora’s SFO meets a lot of tricky challenges with a lot of imaginative solutions.


MENU/SEGMENT: Tapas/raw bar/cocktails

LOCATION: San Francisco Airport Terminal 2, Gate 55

KITCHEN SIZE: 304 sq. ft.

TOTAL FOOTPRINT: 1,952 sq. ft., with seating for 78


PROJECT ARCHITECTS: Gary Semling, Stantec, Petaluma, Calif.

DESIGN ARCHITECT: Kent Goodwin, Stantec, Vancouver, B.C.

KITCHEN DESIGNER: Frank Muller, Muller Design, Minden, Nev.

KITCHEN EQUIPMENT CONTRACTOR: L.D. Smith, Duray J.F. Duncan Industries, Downey, Calif.

OWNERS: Cat Cora Productions, Santa Barbara, Calif., and Hojeij Branded Foods, Atlanta


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