Chefs have been compared to generals, tyrants, and kings. Busy restaurant kitchens demand efficient processes. However, restaurant kitchens don’t have to be dictatorships to get the food up. Instead, putting some thought into how to make your restaurant kitchen run more efficiently can ease some of the stress on busy back-of-house (BOH) staff.
Efficient kitchens keep staff focused on the food, on the patrons, and on keeping things clean and well organized. When cooks and other kitchen staff know that management has made an effort to provide a manageable environment that supports their work, they stay motivated and engaged. Even better, they are more likely to offer great suggestions on how to continuously improve operations to eliminate extra steps and ease stress on the kitchen team.
Mind the Menu
Kitchen efficiencies flow from a menu that strives for excellence within limits. No restaurant can be all cuisines to all diners. Chefs who stay in their lane with a limited menu of dishes that share ingredients reduce prep time and make ordering ingredients more streamlined. Obviously, chefs will rotate the menu, adding and removing items with the seasons and availability of ingredients. When one item comes off, resist the temptation to add two.
Preparation follows the menu. One sometimes overlooked efficiency is to ensure that all staff is trained in prepping ingredients. On any given day, the kitchen could be down a staff member or two, because of illness or unexpected family obligations. Everyone should be willing to chip in, even staff who think they paid their dues in prep and are now above the task (and maybe that’s not the kind of person you want working in your kitchen.) All should be knowledgeable about how to peel, slice, and properly store ingredients, how much of each item to prepare, and when to do it. Shift changes should include a “handoff,” where team members communicate with one another about the status of prepped ingredients and whether any need replenishment.
Invest in equipment that streamlines prep, like an electric meat tenderizer, which automates work previously done manually. Slicers and dough rollers also speed up operations depending on the type of restaurant and the menu items on offer.
Inventory and Organization
“Who moved my cheese?” takes on an entirely new and different meaning in a restaurant kitchen. Cooks should be able to reach for and find what they need when they need it, from spoons and saucepans to radicchio and Roquefort, without having to spend precious minutes sorting through shelves or refrigerators.
Ideally, a busy kitchen will never have to tell a patron they’re out of the special. However, no one can predict exactly which night will be the one when the salmon sells out faster than expected, or that the menu planned last week featuring pork is suddenly obsolete, due to the ongoing health crisis that has afflicted all essential workers, especially those at processing plants, with devastating ferocity.
Even though unforeseeable events can affect supplies, managing inventory should be a priority. In some ways, restaurant kitchens run more efficiently by being masters of “just in time” operations, because of their expertise in ensuring freshness and preventing spoilage by maintaining just enough inventory. Yet even nonperishable ingredients and supplies will diminish over time. Plan and schedule deliveries according to known patterns of depletion and assign staff to stay alert to unexpected shortages or incomplete deliveries.
Layout and Workflow
Tiny kitchens happen—but with the right layout, the traffic pattern doesn’t have to inevitably involve collisions between cooks. However, even spacious kitchens find workers bumping into one another during peak times. Take the time to observe traffic patterns and work stations. Identify bottlenecks and the places where kitchen workers get in one another’s way. Sometimes simple adjustments like relocating a workstation, moving a stainless steel prep table, or adding another monitor that displays orders can pop the cork on that bottleneck and get the work flowing more smoothly.
Consider sinks, wash stations, fans, and storage closets. Some large commercial kitchen machines come on rollers and fold up so they can move easily and store efficiently. Place countertop equipment next to outlets to avoid tripping hazards because of power cords. Consider cleaning needs for equipment—how many times a day the meat slicer or grinder must be cleaned and sanitized, where to store backup machines to be both out of the way and readily accessible, and how tasks performed on equipment that can do more than one thing should be sequenced, to ensure food safety, sanitation, and efficiency.
Equipment maintenance schedules are part of the workflow plan. Poorly maintained machinery will break down. Stopping operations altogether because a vital piece of restaurant equipment has failed is about the least efficient thing a kitchen can do. Ensure adherence to maintenance schedules and maintain backup equipment that can come online immediately to keep the food coming.
When the front of the house doesn’t know what’s going on in back, or vice versa, efforts to create efficiencies break down. Communication between BOH workers must be clear and concise. Use checklists and signage in all of the languages used by staff to make sure everyone is (literally) on the same page about standard procedures. Hold staff meetings to be sure everyone knows about a menu change, who’s on and who’s out, and any VIPs who may have reserved a table. Spell out opening and closing procedures and invest time in training and refreshers so all staff buys in to the critically important tasks of cleaning, sanitizing, and properly storing equipment overnight. Frequent handwashing already has been a health habit, but the proper use of masks is also critical in a kitchen environment where maintaining six feet of social distance may be next to impossible.
Tech and Data
New technology continues to arrive in the restaurant world. Point-of-sale (POS) systems gather valuable data about popular (and not-so-popular) dishes, as well as peak times and average transaction value by server. Software can help manage inventory, and new systems can communicate and display orders to the kitchen, let the kitchen know when tables are ready to move to their next plate, and even manage seating. Investigate upgrades to your POS system and make sure you are maximizing the efficiencies technology can offer.