As restaurants continue to deal with staffing challenges, employee wellness is getting a well-deserved spotlight. There are plenty of factors that play into this (fair wages, health benefits, PTO, etc.), but one that can’t be dismissed is the physical environment that staff must work within, day in and day out.
“Design through ergonomics and wellness plays a huge role in employee satisfaction,” says Allison Cooke, principal at CORE Architecture + Design. “[When you open a restaurant], you’ve got to do a floor plan anyway, so it makes sense to look at the factors that contribute to that, starting with an efficient layout.”
As Cooke points out, a good restaurant design starts with a well thought-out layout – one where the bartender, for example, doesn’t have to take three steps to get ice, when it could really require one step. But there are other factors to consider as well, whether opening a restaurant from scratch or already operating one.
These are the design strategies experts recommend for creating a better work environment.
When mapping out a restaurant, it’s crucial to visualize the actual tasks staff will carry out. “The biggest thing you can do, and even with an extremely limited budget, is to really examine the workflow and how employees are moving through the space,” says Cooke.
Even with an existing restaurant, there are often layout changes that can be made. The goal is to create organized work spaces that require as minimal steps as possible to complete what needs to get done and to mitigate moments of frustration and safety hazards in someone’s everyday task load.
“Look at where the server’s going most frequently – are there blind corners they’re going to turn? If a bus person’s dropping dishes, are they going to run into someone expediting food from the kitchen?,” says Cooke. “Those points of frustration can often be solved with a proper floor plan.”
Kitchens are hot. It's an unavoidable fact. But your kitchen staff shouldn’t feel like they need to hang out in the walk-in freezer to prevent totally getting roasted. Avoiding miserable conditions comes largely down to ventilation.
“Along the cook line, you can introduce conditioned make-up air – it’s an added cost, but if you don’t do it, that first summer, people are going to complain immediately,” says Cooke.
Make-up air is additional air that’s used to replace air being sucked up from the hood. This air is often blown down onto cooks working the line from a slim box that sits in front of the hood. It can be fresh air pulled from outside, at that current temperature, or the air can be air-conditioned at a set temperature.
“Going the extra mile so that when it’s 100 degrees outside, the air that’s coming down on the cook line isn’t also 100 degrees, will make comfort levels so much better,” says Cooke.
Staff shouldn’t have to rely on smoke breaks in the back alley to get a few minutes of peace. By creating a break room, you give employees a space to destress and re-energize.
“A lot of jurisdictions are starting to require, at a minimum, a locker so employees have a safe space to put their personal items,” says Linda Callahan, director of foodservice consulting firm Next Step Design. “If you have to take up space for lockers anyway, we encourage clients to turn it into a break room, and we see some clients going a step farther to create larger spaces that allow for dining – a place for shift meal or family meal.”
This gives staff a breather from the nonstop of dealing with customers. Staff rarely want to mingle with guests while eating a meal. The same goes for using the restroom. When possible, designate a staff-only bathroom.
Natural light can make a world of difference in an environment. But windows are expensive. They’re also challenging to clean.
“Kitchens are very greasy spaces, so depending on where that window light is located, it can add more labor onto staff because [windows] get greasy and stained very quickly,” says Callahan. “If we can add natural light, we definitely recommend it, but we talk about it in a way that focuses on placement.”
Position windows away from cooking equipment to avoid extra upkeep, says Callahan. One option is skylights, which can bring in light from overhead. Transom windows above prep stations are another option and a considerably affordable one.
“A transom window is a slimmer window that’s up higher on the wall, so you still have space for your countertop and a portion of wall for your tools and equipment,” says Cooke. “You’re going to spend more money than having no windows, but they’re not as expensive as windows that actually open up and introduce fresh air.”
If your kitchen, or budget, doesn’t allow for windows, consider how else you can add natural light. “We often look at if we can add glass in the expo area, so there’s at least some window light coming into the kitchen from the street,” says Callahan.
Sun beating directly into the front of house may not seem like a huge deal. But if you're among the waitstaff spending all afternoon running around in the glaring light, it’s going to take a toll.
“We’re always thinking about visual fatigue, and employees’ sightlines,” says Cooke. “With larger windows, you want to consider what shading devices you need to mitigate glare and add more controllability.”
There’s also acoustical fatigue. Kitchens and restaurants are naturally loud, and when not designed with acoustics in mind, the noise can also wear on staff. “Creating well designed acoustical solutions is dependent on the space and configuration, but it’s important to look at, especially in more lively spaces,” says Cooke.
This often starts by assessing the ceiling. “With an exposed ceiling, there's a spray-on acoustical solution, and then there are acoustical large format panels that can be pinned to the underside of a structure, or you could do a dropped acoustical system,” says Cooke.
Elements like upholstery and drapery placed throughout a restaurant can help dampen sound, too.
Anti-fatigue mats are the norm for making standing all day feel more bearable. These aren’t typically something you’d pick out with your designer. But discussing their placement is important.
“During the design phase we locate any drains or troughs with the plumbing engineers – the goal is to make sure the slope of the floor will allow those mats to be placed so there aren’t any weird tripping hazards or too large of a slope,” says Callahan.
Small details, like conveniently placed storage spaces, can make a big difference in making employees’ jobs a little easier. This also includes your tech stack. What solutions can you add to make the workflow more efficient?
“A lot of our clients use Toast’s [POS] system, and the staff love it because of the handheld device – they're not having to constantly go back and forth to the POS,” says Cooke.
There are endless technology options to explore, but when it comes to design, a good starting point is to look at the accessibility of your POS system. Consider also surveying staff to identify primary pain points. There are likely technology solutions that can address more than a few of them.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to email@example.com.
[Photo courtesy Rene Asmussen]