The Evolution of Centralized Production Kitchens
Many years ago, kitchens were divided into several specialized sections. Whether it was a small restaurant or a large multi-unit kitchen, the positions were pretty much universal. As technology advanced, these kitchens started to amalgamate. Sections such as the entremetier station became part of the saucier, and the stillroom joined the garde manger team, to name a few. Today in many large kitchens, there are three production areas that have stood the test of time: the Saucier, Garde Manger (cold kitchen), and the Pastry shop.
Most people in the business are familiar with these areas, and many will describe them as departments where bulk production occurs. In many cases, they play a major supporting role in banquets and a minor role in individual restaurants. The chefs of these areas would generally make the decision to prepare an item only if they felt the volume was large enough, and it was almost impossible to convince them to take on more work. In many cases, it was the right decision.
But is there a better way to look at it?
Hey, Could You…?
There was a time when I was working in a large resort property where ten food & beverage outlets and six production areas were mainly taking care of banquets and the largest main dining room. As a cook, you would not dare to make eye contact with the Chef de Parties in the production areas, let alone ask them for something outside of the regimented duties, especially since I was only a 1st cook, at the time.
For us outliers that worked as “line cooks”, we seemed to be more of a nuisance to the production department. We lived in our own world and were more likely to help one another. At the end of the day, there are differences in the makeup and personalities of a production cook and a line cook.
There was one day that I remember like it was yesterday. It was a day that changed my thinking and approach to how to better utilize and maximize the production areas. What led to this was a very underwhelming situation, to say the least.
While walking past one of the restaurant prep areas, a cook was dicing red onions. In a moment, I blurted out, “Hey, while you’re there could you dice 3 for me?”
Without hesitation, the cook replied, “Absolutely.”
I stopped in my tracks, thanked her, and retrieved a container for the onions. Upon my return, I looked at her prep list and noticed that they needed chopped parsley, so I told her I needed some as well and asked how much she needed.
That was the moment when I realized that the idea of the production areas could be expanded. Instead of looking for the one single item that met the volume criteria, what if every item produced throughout the property was compiled? It was the way to go, but I was in no position to suggest such a thing, nor would I know where to start.
Among the cooks, we continued to help each other when we could, but unfortunately, that concept did not flourish into any profound change, at that time. Looking back, it was likely due to the territorial nature of kitchens, or the inability of some people to believe that anyone else was worthy of preparing food for their restaurant.
All Good Things Take Time
It was several years later that I was able to test the idea. I had joined a new property that did massive volume, and the quality was very good but inconsistent. The problem was that every day was a mad scramble, and the only production area was a pastry department that cut premade cakes and a few other things. I had never seen an operation that large that did not have the three main production areas.
For a couple of months, I tried to improve the system that was in place with less than stellar results. It was like trying to plug leaks in a boat and running out of fingers. I knew there was a better way, but how do you operate, create production areas, and not increase staff?
That was another profound moment that I will never forget. I was angry and annoyed that I hadn’t been able to make the impact that I knew was possible. After tossing and turning in bed for a few hours, I decided to get up and develop a plan. Armed with a stack of sticky notes, I sat on my couch at 1:00 am and, like connecting dots, the plan started to come together. It was a plan that would completely transform the operation, create structure, reduce the chaos, and save millions of dollars while maintaining and stabilizing the great quality the customers had come to expect.
How it All Came Together
Not to oversimplify what we had accomplished because it wasn’t simple. Everything needed to be assessed, compiled, and restructured. From determining and organizing what every area was producing, how much was prepped, how much time was spent on prep, and how much time was spent on directly serving customers.
We started with the largest volume restaurant. If we could improve efficiency there, the hours could be used to start to create the production areas.
I asked the restaurant chef to write down the major prep items, how long it would take to produce, and how long the food would last. At the end of the week, I compiled the list and found that by reorganizing the way prep was completed and creating more of a team approach, we could move three full-time people to production. You can only imagine his surprise when I told him we were reducing his staff by three and reminded him that he supplied me with the information that led to that conclusion. After the initial shock, I reassured him that we needed to make many changes before that would happen.
That was the start of what led to the creation of the production departments. It was an initiative that was so successful, that after returning to the property a decade later, it was still talked about as the biggest reason for success. It was a team effort, and fortunately, the team embraced the change.
The point of this story is that no matter the situation or size of the operation, by looking at the work differently, valuable time can be saved, and with wages increasing, climbing food costs, and a labor shortage, different is the only way to succeed.
In the next edition of CORE Profit Strategies, we will review the challenges, resistance to, and benefits of production kitchens.