Foodservice Equipment Reports
Kitchen Design

UNIT DESIGN: Coba-Cocina: Three-Part Harmony

When Greer Companies, the 18-year franchise operator of 35 Cheddar’s Casual Cafes, decided to develop its own concept, its owners went big—really big. The result: a 12,000-sq.-ft., 424-seat, multi-million dollar, knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark debut called Coba Cocina.

The new Lexington, Ky., restaurant wraps together three distinct concepts—Coba Cocina, the intricately decorated main restaurant, Cobar Cantina, a bar/lounge serving small-plate tapas; and Cocoh! Confectioner, a bakery, café and gelateria—all served by an efficient kitchen with minimal prep area and limited cold storage. 

Coba, with its jellyfish tank and multi-sensory layout and design, was created to be a multi-generational eatery, equally appealing to families and couples on dates. Coba’s affordable pricing has per-person check averages hovering at about $20 including alcohol. Coba covers 6,500 sq. ft. with seating for about 260. 

Cocoh! Confectioner is the “playful, imaginative, wonder-world corner of the restaurant,” says architect and lead designer Todd Ott, of CMW Inc., Lexington, Ky. Desserts are not included on the Coba menu “because we want guests to come over to Cocoh! and experience all parts of the restaurant.” The gelateria/patisserie covers 1,200 sq. ft. with seating for 28. “It’s more of a stand-and-chat place than a sit-and-eat place,” Ott adds. Cocoh!, which has a dedicated gelateria kitchen and its own entrance, opens at 6:30 a.m. to serve continental breakfast.

Cobar Cantina, accessed via a Hollywood-style glass staircase flanked by blue-lit, bubble-filled water walls, supplies the swanky, see-and-be-seen area of Coba. The area covers 2,760 sq. ft. with 75 seats, many of them overlooking Coba’s seating area below. 

Coba Creation

Coba’s inception took place nearly three years ago. Ott, who had handled the Greer Co.’s design of Cheddar’s for many years, was invited by father-son team Phil and Lee Greer to propose a design for a new restaurant that would feature Meso-American food, with a Central/Latin American theme.

“The owners’ defined their vision for this new restaurant in adjectives and experiences. They told me, ‘you have 30 days to come up with a concept. If you wow us, you get the job,’” Ott recalls. One Inca-Mayan-Yucatan-filled month later, Ott and his design partner Brittany Lavens succeeded in impressing the Greers with their vision. 

Coba’s deep-blue, fantastical, undersea ambiance was inspired by the Yucatan’s famous cenotes—water-filled pits connected by underground passages, lit from above by the sun. The restaurant’s focal point is a massive, cylindrical 3,000-gal., 20-ft.-high, 6-ft.-wide jellyfish aquarium.

While Coba’s kitchen layout will be used in future Coba locations, the restaurant as a whole is more of a prototype concept for future expansion. 

“The glass stairways, the bubble walls, the aquarium, lighting, illuminated bar tops, finishes, seating arrangement, sea scrolls, sculpted wall panels—all of these combined make up the brand identity of Coba Cocina,” Ott says. “This restaurant concept is envisioned to be a signature restaurant for high-end hotels, as well as gateway locations in commercial and hospitality centers. The elements define the Coba brand, as much as the food will.” 

Both Cobar and Cocoh! were designed for potential freestanding spin-off concepts.

Brought on board to round out the Coba team were Larry Kerns, director of concept development (“hospitality choreographer,” Ott says), and husband-wife team Executive Chef Alejandro Velasquez and Executive Pastry Chef Shanyn Velasquez. Doug Bruney, of Best Restaurant Equipment & Design in Columbus, Ohio, weighed in on equipment choices and procurement. 

Menu development and kitchen design took place simultaneously. “It was a back-and-forth process,” Ott says. “We worked both sides toward the middle, so to speak. The end result is a wonderfully customized operation.”

Construction began in March ’12. Coba opened for business nearly a year to the day later in March of this year. 

Coba’s Kitchen

The kitchen at Coba covers about 2,100 sq. ft., roughly 20% of the total restaurant. Part of the space savings came from incorporating prep areas into workstations to reflect the just-in-time, freshest possible foodservice.

“Chef Velasquez’ menu required a kitchen that could work with a just-in-time delivery model,” Ott says. “Deliveries arrive daily, and products are broken down along the cookline. The shelves hold basic ingredients for sauces, salsas, rubs—nearly everything is made on site.” 

“It’s tight quarters for sure,” agrees Executive Chef Velasquez. “On the other hand, you don’t have to move far to get what you need when you’re going 100 mph during weekend rush times.”

Creating the just-in-time style kitchen envisioned by Velasquez, with its minimal prep space, required a leap of faith for Ott. “I was a little nervous at first,” he says. "This kitchen is totally counter-intuitive to everything I've designed before. But the design works."

“Since prep work takes place throughout, stations have more flat working surfaces than typical cooklines,” Ott adds. “The most frequently used piece of prep equipment is the knife.”

Coba’s kitchen consists of four main areas. On display to Coba guests is the rotating tortilla griddle (each tortilla gets heat-stamped with a ‘Coba’ brand), chip warmer and tortilla warmer. Behind that is the expo station, with its pass-through window and cold prep table. The cooking area holds a hot food prep table, a pizza prep table, hot-holding oven and plenty of undercounter refrigeration along one side as well as charbroiler, griddle, oven-range, cheesemelter, fryers and more undercounter refrigeration along the other side. 

A second, shorter cookline is used for more hot prep, including baked goods, stocks and any food that requires a longer cooking period. Double-stacked ovens anchor the line, along with stockpot ranges, an oven-range, smoker and a smaller fryer.

Judicious oven use improves food quality and saves time, too. “Our steaks and salmon are seared on iron skillets for 30 seconds per side, then finished in the oven,” Velasquez says. “It saves labor and locks in juices. No flipping needed.” 

Cold storage for the restaurant takes place in the 250-sq.-ft. walk-in, attached to the exterior of the building to save space. Basic cold prep work it handled with a floor mixer for doughs and sauces, a food processor and a salad spinner next to a produce sink.

The last action area is the 350-sq.-ft. gelato kitchen serving Cocoh! Confectioner. Behind the scene, three Italian-made pieces—a pasteurizer, gelato freezer and blast freezer—handle the bulk of gelato-making, supplemented by a freezer and refrigerator. Guests can choose their sweet finales from curved Italian pastry and gelato cases out front.

Cobar’s Kitchen Tweaks

Two months into operations, the popularity of Cobar’s tapas menu has already required additional kitchen equipment. 

“The typical drinks-to-food ratio at bars is usually heavy on alcohol, light on food,” Ott says. “But with Cobar, the tapas items have been in such high demand that the kitchen staff has been hard-pressed to keep up.”

In May, the team converted a mezzanine-level storage area into a Cobar support kitchen to better meet demand. The support kitchen includes reach-in cold storage, a small electric chafing table and plating counters for the tapas production.

Front-of-House Magic

Coba, Cocoh! and Cobar’s attention-to-detail interior design elements have made the restaurant a Lexington destination. Undersea cave-themed elements include sparkling blue ceiling panels, wavy, scale-like “fish panel” walls, Mayan-themed glyphs on the exterior and ornate, hand-hammered front-door pulls. 

Unique aspects include “gel” floor tiles and split-table group-seating alcoves. The 24-in.-round gel tiles, dubbed “splashless puddles” by Coba staff, are made of two-sided polycarbonate disks filled with a mix of colored water and oil that move and blend as people step on them. The special tiles, made by MotionTile, are inset into the porcelain-tile floor and are strategically located in Cocoh! and in front of bathroom sinks.

Groups can sit in alcoves uniquely furnished with long tables that are split down the center. Waiters can traverse the split, serving patrons on both sides from the center, Ott says. The alcoves present a semi-private dining experience. 

A Look Ahead

Greer’s long-term plans for Coba Cocina are to expand to target cities in the eastern United States, however expansion plans are currently in development.

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