Meeting the challenges of labor in the kitchen with equipment and design

Consultants point to smart equipment choices and design tricks to ease labor woes and meet customer demands.

Keep chefs happy and engaged by reducing heat in the kitchen, consultants say. Photo by Pylyp Sukhenko on Unsplash.

Foodservice operators continue to face challenges on the labor front. Turnover rates are an ongoing issue as employees jump from job to job, looking for better pay or improved schedules. And even though operators add jobs to meet customer demand, it’s hard to fill them. Many positions remain open, or operators hire inexperienced, first-time employees.

“You can’t get away from worrying about labor, because it’s in your face every day,” says Laura Lentz, design principal, Culinary Advisors. “I’m seeing operators with shifts down 20% and sometimes as much as 40%. Things are slowly improving, but the problems aren’t going away. However, there are things that can be done as far as equipment and design that can mitigate some problems and help operators not have to worry so much about labor and shortages.”

Equipment Choices Make a Difference

The type of equipment sourced in a kitchen can make a big impact on labor. Lentz along with Jay Bandy, president of Goliath Consulting Group, and Karen Malody, owner of Culinary Options, recommend the following equipment choices.

  • Combi ovens not only give operators the ability to do a variety of types of cooking in one piece of equipment, but they also open up the opportunity for quick reheating and preprogramming. “Being able to touch a button to cook an item with preset recipes allows an operator to use more line cooks and fewer trained chefs,” Lentz says. “It’s as much about the skills of people available in the workforce as it is saving on labor costs.”
  • Blast chillers provide the ability to prepare food ahead of time as well as shorten the time waiting for soups, sauces and other items to cool.
  • Food processors make for greater efficiency in the prep area. “In the same vein as preprogrammed recipes, this equipment allows operators to employ people who might not be experienced in the kitchen and don’t have the knife skills of a trained chef,” says Bandy.
  • Fryers with smart controls improve the cookline for fry cooks by making it easier to set cook times and produce consistent product. “An added benefit is [that they keep] the oil clean and filtered, saving operators thousands in oil costs over the course of a year,” Bandy says.

Designing With Labor in Mind

For new builds or operators looking to remodel, design consultants offer a few big-picture ideas to help ease the labor issues in the back-of-house.

Reduce heat in the kitchen. Creating a comfortable work environment can go a long way in improving employee retention. Make sure to include makeup air units as part of your kitchen ventilation systems to condition the air and alleviate humidity. Also consider electric rather than gas-powered equipment, as electric appliances put out less heat. This is also true for combi ovens as compared to their convection oven counterparts: less heat means happier chefs.

“Being able to touch a button to cook an item with preset recipes allows an operator to use more line cooks and fewer trained chefs.”
—Laura Lentz, Design Principal at Culinary Advisors

Design for efficiency. Look at travel patterns and ways to minimize steps, with everything from refrigeration and general storage to where garbage is placed. More efficient work spaces help improve productivity and lessen labor loads.

Source equipment that can perform multiple tasks. Reducing the amount of equipment needed saves on utilities and budget costs, and it also allows for a more streamlined space that could be covered with one chef rather than multiple employees.

When looking to improve labor issues in the kitchen, the important thing is to keep an open mind. Research the options available and you’ll find time-saving features that not only make training easy, but keep kitchen staff satisfied at work and less likely to jump ship.


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