Menu drives all. A bold statement?

Karen Malody Culinary OptionsKaren Malody, Owner, Culinary OptionsSimply put: Completing the concept and menu work prior to the design phase means the designers can achieve optimal functionality in their ensuing work. Dealers, manufacturers’ representatives and foodservice consultants all play a critical role in helping the operator to achieve initial clarity by offering intelligent and needed suggestions that influence the choices they make. No matter what role each of us plays in the total foodservice scenario, consultative engagements with our clients and customer relationships are key. Selling becomes less important than insightful contribution.

Design and Spatial Planning

The kitchen is there to serve the menu. If we don’t know and understand the menu, then we can’t optimally design a kitchen. Yet many kitchens in existence, for varying reasons, have been designed without knowledge of the menu specifics. And kitchens designed without taking this first step can be the cause of higher fiscal hurdles the operator must scale to reach profitability. Or, perhaps more sadly, many newly designed kitchens undergo expensive remodels when previously absent operators or chefs are chosen and want to impose their own design ideas to align with their menus and methods of cooking. Though there are ways to avoid this phenomenon, the project owner too often does not pursue them. When the kitchen doesn’t match the menu, achieving the operational goals — timing, throughput, consistency and cost control — becomes even more challenging in a fiercely low-net-profit business.

Spatial planning plays a critical role in profitable operations. The ratio of front to back of house, determined through the details enumerated here, leads to efficiency. Without a firm grasp of the menu and each item the culinary staff will prepare, one cannot determine flow in the kitchen other than through educated guesswork.

Sensible Equipment Choices

Minimizing the equipment necessary to get the job done will have a more positive effect on the bottom line than any other factor in any operation. Determining what that minimization looks like without knowing what menu items staff will prepare and the optimal cooking methodologies required for each item makes this a challenge. This is also where keen menu development efforts can assure the highest degree of equipment cross-utilization.

In a kitchen that functions at a high level, every piece of equipment — from the flattop to the reach-in to the combi oven — pulls its weight and helps produce more than one menu item. Too many times I have entered a kitchen only to see tilting skillets storing bar towels while this piece of equipment consumes precious real estate under the hood! Another all-too-common scenario is reach-in refrigeration sitting under a pricey hood that could have been avoided had the menu requirements been more strategically calculated. Multifunctional is not so if not used in as many ways possible. A combi oven is an expensive steamer.

Kitchens can get cluttered — and fast. We, as consultative experts, must contribute to the operator’s understanding of how each piece of equipment in the kitchen can work cross functionally. Operators often do not have the awareness or knowledge of the latest equipment and tabletop innovations available in our industry. They may not go to The NAFEM Show or to the National Restaurant Association Show or even local foodservice exhibits. The dealer and manufacturer’s rep must be helpful experts in collaboration with the consultant (if there is a consultant involved at all). Kitchen equipment, like our computers, and brains even, rarely begins to approach its designed production capacity.

Ingredient Inventory and Storage

The journey of every ingredient once it arrives is a time and motion study. When the owner, operator and/or consultant designs and engineers a menu, the project team gains a clearer understanding of spatial needs and relationships, storage space requirements and equipment requisites. Movement in the kitchen, to become ideally efficient, must begin with a thought process that starts long before the ingredient lands in the chef’s hands. When a chef has to take too many steps to accomplish a task, that becomes time this person is not cooking, leading to higher labor costs. Fewer steps mean fewer people can get the job done each day.

Upon studying an existing kitchen in combination with the menu contents, a consultative person has an opportunity to offer highly valuable recommendations for altering or simplifying a challenged facility. We can also assist clients by helping them calculate peak period usage of various items, especially those that are cross-utilized between the menu or bar.

An articulated menu facilitates accurate calculations because not until the food presentations are determined can the operator possibly know how many of each tabletop items will be necessary. Additionally, menu drives the specific needs for dry, cold and freezer space. These areas are often over- or under-sized due to lack of calculation of ingredient identification.

Smallwares and Tabletop Decisions

The previous point about equipment needing to be suitable for multiple applications also applies to smallwares and tabletop. How many menu items can the operation serve on a single plate? Cross-utilization of dishware is every bit as important as cross-utilizing ingredients in the kitchen’s inventory. Consider storage space in both the prep area and on the line for such equipment. Add to that calculation the growing need for to-go packaging on hot lines.

Without strategic research and development around tabletop, how can an operator possibly know what their portion sizes need to be to drive the value perception they seek? These factors also help shape menu selling prices, brand perception and profitable food costs. How many times does an operator realize mere days or weeks before opening they have forgotten to allocate a budget for smallwares? Or have not made a conclusive choice of tabletop items, glassware and cutlery? It is too late to design in critical storage for these items or to insightfully address service implications. Such functionality aspects are forced to be cobbled together at the last minute.


A concept’s specific culinary needs and cooking techniques serve as the basis for design. If the kitchen layout — and consideration of smart equipment — does not take into consideration this dynamic, it will impair the line production, back-of-house prep and service flow. Operators will pay higher costs for added labor. In addition, a kitchen that’s functional and easy to maintain will help strengthen morale. If it plays chaotically, the staff becomes frustrated, and more than likely at crush times, they will make mistakes, and eventually come to seek a way to move on. All of these dynamics drive labor up. And morale and profit down.


Profit derives from cost controls that make sense and, as a result, work. A few critical factors here include:

  • Minimizing waste via cross-utilization of ingredients and equipment
  • Receiving, storing, rotating and checking all invoices religiously
  • Establishing par levels for all products based on sales
  • Monitoring labor requirements with a fine-toothed comb
  • Accurately determining equipment, smallwares and tabletop needs
  • Consistently creating food that matches the concept and customer vision

Vision Attainment

Let’s review the four primary qualities that make a consultative salesperson (or consultant, for that matter):

  • Their calls are highly interactive.
  • They ask more questions — and listen to the answers.
  • They convert listening to insights for their prospects and customers.
  • They provide customized versus generic solutions.

In consultative and needs-based engagements, the salesperson or consultant learns about customer needs before talking product or design. This represents an important shift from just taking a customer’s order or simply applying a one-size-fits-all design proposition.

When collaborating and consulting with optimal effectiveness, it becomes critical that we all grasp and enhance the operator’s vision.

We can never underestimate the power of understanding the operator or owner position.