Fierce competition and phyllo-thin profit margins are keeping both independent and chain restaurateurs on their toes.
In today's climate, "there's a much more stringent set of rules in terms of profitability in the restaurant industry," says Tony Spata, director of energy management for Columbus, Ohio-based restaurant design specialist WD Partners. "Profit margins are typically very small, and the cost of operation can be volatile."
Spata, who spent 23 years as a corporate engineer for McDonald's Corp., says restaurateurs are at the discretion of the current prices of natural gas, electricity, ingredients, and labor.
The challenge is not any easier for the Building Teams designing and constructing facilities for the somewhat fickle restaurant market. Dining areas, bars, bathrooms, and other public spaces must be attractive and comfortable for patrons, yet easy to maintain and efficient to satisfy table-turn rates.
Maintenance and efficiency are also crucial in kitchens, which Spata likens to "miniature factories" with a per-square-foot energy consumption rate comparable to those of industrial facilities. He says a "tremendous amount" of energy is required to power the appliances and to exhaust, cool, and light the space.
Food waste also drives operation costs up. "In the retail business, if the latest style does not sell at full price, you can discount the product," says Spata. "But if a restaurant doesn't sell its expected number of meals for that day or week, the food perishes and there's no way to recoup that loss."
Durability is also important in kitchens, according to Chett Walsh, director of project services with Shawmut Design and Construction, Boston. Walsh says it's commonplace in many casual-dining facilities for kitchen crews to use a power hose to clean the back-of-the-house space at the end of the day. "Many restaurants are almost 24-hour operations today," says Walsh. "Cleaning may not start until 2 a.m., and the morning crew starts at 7 a.m., so they have to clean quickly." Walls, floors, and doors must be able to withstand the abuse. Waterproof switches and electrical outlets, and gas appliances with quick-disconnects, are a must.
Restaurant chains, which make up more than 80% of the $440 billion food service market, are looking to squeeze every penny out of their construction and operating budgets. For fast-casual or high-end destination restaurants, that may mean downsizing kitchen space to make room for a few more tables, a larger bar area (where profit margins are greatest), or a private dining room. A fast-food company may trim total footprint (thereby lowering the rent) or update the interior with fresh finishes that are less expensive, easier to maintain, and more durable.
Restaurant chains such as Red Lobster are looking to squeeze every penny out of their construction and operating budgets. That may mean downsizing kitchen space to make room for a few more tables or a larger bar area (where profit margins are greatest), or a private dining room.
Take the case of Red Lobster, which commissioned Strategic Resource Engineering, the operations engineering group of WD Partners, to design the chain's new "Coastal Home" prototype. SRE trimmed the kitchen footprint by 17% — thereby adding roughly 46 seats to the dining room — by replacing the traditional linear galley kitchen design, which requires a lot of crisscrossing movement, into a more compact, T-shape configuration. Grilling takes place on one side of the base of the T and food preparation is done on the other side. Entrees are passed forward and then assembled by expediters at the top of the T.
The configuration works because "the food moves, not the people," according to SRE's Lee Peterson. The prototype also costs about $190,000 less than for the format it replaces and offers lower operating expenses.
More restaurateurs are taking life cycle cost analysis into account when evaluating construction materials and building systems, such as HVAC equipment and kitchen appliances, says Chris Collins, director of architecture and engineering with WD Partners. "Certain clients may want a 15-year building, while others want a 25-year facility," he says. "If a company plans to renovate the exterior design in 15 years, there's no reason to spend an additional $15,000 on a 50-year roof."
Collins says all materials and systems should be evaluated based on both life cycle and first costs. The rising price of steel, for instance, has many restaurant chains switching to stick-and-brick construction, he says. Others are replacing traditional materials and finishes with synthetic replications, such as wood veneer, thin brick, and EIFS, to control first costs.
WD's Spata says chains that wish to minimize long-term energy costs may be willing to pay more up front for energy-efficient equipment and fixtures, such as ceramic metal halide lamps.
Remote-cooled refrigerators and ice machines also can cut HVAC load by moving the condenser portion of the refrigeration unit (which rejects heat from the refrigerator) to the building's exterior. "Without remote cooling, restaurants are essentially paying twice to pull that heat out — once, out of the refrigeration unit, and then again out of the kitchen with the HVAC unit," says Spata.
Other examples where life cycle costing may be beneficial, according to Spata:
Optimum wall/window insulation Compare the cost of bumping up R values with the energy saved over the life of the building.
Variable-volume hood exhaust and make-up air supply controls Added first cost compared to operational savings (i.e., utility reduction) realized by the ability to reduce energy expended heating and cooling outside air to offset exhaust.
Automatic dimmers for interior lights near windows Lights are on only when necessary to maintain prescribed illumination levels and reduce energy usage.
The growing popularity of wood- and charcoal- grilled food is another trend, says Brian Stys, VP of Shawmut's restaurant and retail group. "People like barbeque; it's comfort food," he says. "More restaurants are trying to cook with wood-burning grills," especially using mesquite and other unique wood flavors.
But grilling has mechanical engineers fuming. In terms of HVAC design, the problem becomes how to ventilate the extraordinary amount of smoke produced by burning wood and charcoal, which do not burn with the efficiency of natural gas.
The popularity of open kitchens and wood or charcoal grill cooking are trends that wreak havoc on Building Teams.
Stys says separate exhaust systems for the gas- and wood/charcoal-burning appliances (including dual hoods and stacks) are required under the National Fire Protection Association's Standard 96 (Chapter 14), the code that governs commercial cooking operations in most jurisdictions. In some cases, the design may even call for an electrostatic precipitator, or "smoke eater," to filter the smoky air. "Some of these units can be the size of a small car," he says.
Other requirements for solid fuel cooking under NFPA 96, according to Spata, include:
Significantly greater exhaust capacity (in cubic feet per minute).
Spark arresters (in addition to grease filters) at the hood serving the appliance.
Wall terminations are not permitted All exhaust ducts must exit the building envelope through the roof.
A water hose must be provided to cool or quench the solid fuel.
The growth of open kitchens, where patrons can peer in on the culinary action, is another trend that complicates mechanical design, says Spata: "With an open kitchen, airflow management goes from important to critical."
The introduction of supply air must be carefully evaluated to assist removal of cooking vapors and to prevent crosscurrents that can displace smoke and odors from under the exhaust hoods, he says. Moreover, separate, dedicated HVAC equipment should be specified for both front- and back-of-the-house areas.