Even as the labor crunch eases, costs have long been a concern for operators. Because of this, savvy operators must design smart. In doing so, they create restaurants that require fewer workers and aim to make life easier on those employees.

“It’s all about having the right labor in the right place, doing the right things at the right time,” says Juan Martinez, FCSI, principal and founder of Profitality, a Miami-based industrial engineering firm that works with restaurants to attain optimum functionality. “Labor is a cost and shows up in a P&L statement. We look at it as a resource, an enabler of service and quality and hospitality.”

Before the design process begins for a restaurant, operators need to know exactly what is necessary. So they must first define their brand, then create their menu, says Martinez. After developing the menu, they need to figure out exactly which equipment, processes and procedures they require to execute that menu.

It’s important to review the menu and analyze equipment needs so each piece of equipment has as many roles as possible, rather than standing idle for much of the time. If a menu item requires a specialized piece of equipment that nothing else uses, eliminate that menu item, Martinez suggests.

labor 00 restcharlie 009 kitchen bymickhales courtesyjzadAn important aspect of keeping labor down is to design an efficient kitchen to minimize the steps each employee takes. Employees should have their own stations and designated tasks that require the least movement.

Relying on Robots

There may not be many robots in restaurants yet, but they are coming — at least in quick-serve and fast-casual operations — and their use is increasing in the back of house.

“They’re best for the most repetitive jobs,” says Kip Serfozo, LEED AP, WELL AP, director of design, Cini-Little International, Germantown, Md. Robots can do many repetitive processes, from topping and cooking pizzas to pulling them out of the oven, to flipping burgers or dropping and lifting french fries. They can even pour sodas for takeout orders.

Robots in restaurants are not as far-off of a dream as they once were. A study in “Science Robotics” showed that robots are most likely to replace jobs in food prep and serving capacities than jobs in other sectors, such as healthcare.

Robots aren’t only about food. They can also be used for the least savory of tasks, such as floor cleaning, and can be programmed for different floor types and operate in the front of house and back.

Operators can also use robots to deliver food to tables and bus those tables, says Serfozo. These have the potential to cut labor costs significantly but have not been adopted by many restaurants yet.

In terms of design, restaurants need to find space to charge and store robots between shifts, says Serfozo.

labor riccajp atlanta restaurant high res erik meadows photography 1Work stations should be designed in triangles to ensure employees don't have to take more than one or two steps in any direction. Photos by Erik Meadows, courtesy of Ricca Design Studios

Equipment is Getting Smarter

Robotics is just the flashiest aspect of automation. Foodservice equipment is becoming more automated all the time. For example, Serfozo says he rarely sees a manual coffee machine anymore; they’re all automated and make coffee at the touch of a button. This can allow operators to employ fewer people or free up employees to offer better customer service.

To net labor savings, restaurants should invest in as much smart equipment as makes sense for their operation. Because equipment is easy to program, it requires very little employee training, and there are fewer chances for errors. This equipment is also often multifunctional, able to do several different tasks — and do them well.

Among the best equipment to consider in this arena are high-speed ovens, combi ovens and pizza ovens, all of which can be adaptable to many functions, says Ray Camillo, CEO and founder of Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting, Atlanta.

Michael Salvatore, CEC, senior director at Ruck-Shockey Associates, a foodservice and hospitality consulting firm in Truckee, Calif., is a fan of convection microwave ovens. For example, operators can use microwave ovens to steam vegetables in one simple step. Gone is blanching, shocking and retherming — the machine does it all at the press of a button, he says.

Smart equipment can do many things that take the onus off human employees. They can automatically turn on and off; they can adjust cooking temperatures, humidity and time based on sensors. And then there’s the cleaning. Many combi ovens, for example, are now self-cleaning, which can be done with the press of a button, eliminating an unpleasant task from a human’s workload. Oil filtration systems can automate the changing and polishing of fryer oil, too.

Even the dish room can be more automated. Many operations are adding mechanical pot washers, says Serfozo. This takes another chore away from humans and requires much less manpower, though the downside is that it takes up more space.

Smart equipment also allows employees to multitask, says Salvatore. Since it’s programmable, employees can place something in it, then walk away and accomplish other tasks. “All this equipment is expensive,” he says, “but you will decrease labor, increase yield, increase consistency and improve satisfaction.”

labor riccajp atlanta restaurant high res erik meadows photography 2Employees should have their own stations and designated tasks that require the least movement.

Minimize Steps

An important aspect of keeping labor down is to design an efficient kitchen to minimize the steps each employee takes. Employees should have their own stations and designated tasks that require the least movement.

To minimize movement of staff, “stations should be designed as tight, efficient work triangles,” says Serfozo. “Most triangles have cooking, food prep and food holding. This means employees shouldn’t have to take more than a step in any direction because everything is within reach, or at least 80% of what they require. Some equipment can be shared between two stations, like a wall-mounted salamander, a hot food holding station or a hand sink.”

Keeping employee steps to a minimum is “all about the time it takes people to do things,” Martinez says. “If the walk-in is 20 feet away from the prep station, can we design it so it’s 10 feet away instead? Every minute adds up; every step counts.”

Martinez calls this “process mapping” — what are the steps it takes people to do things, and where are those things? “You are trying to minimize that time through adjacencies from one station to the other and technology,” he says.

Optimize Vertical Space

Using vertical space is one of the easiest ways to minimize employee steps.

Izzy Kharasch, president of Hospitality Works, Bannockburn, Ill., likes wire shelving mounted to the wall, especially if it has a grid underneath that can be used for hanging utensils or other items. Operators can use these shelves to store packaging, utensils, dry goods or saucepans, he says.

Stack as much equipment as you can above the makeline, says Salvatore, to give yourself two or three pieces of equipment accessible within reach. You could have a traditional saute setup with an oven with a range on top and a salamander above them, attached to the wall, with saute pans or warming plates on top. Underneath, at waist height, there can be a refrigerator with drawers that can house two full sheet pans used to hold food that’s prepped and ready to fire in the convection oven above, he adds.

Ramping Labor Up and Down

A large part of the equation of saving labor is having the correct number of people working at any given time. Restaurant kitchens should be designed to be able to scale labor up and down based on how busy the operation is, says Salvatore. Having fewer internal walls and less fixed equipment helps with this so the kitchen can be more flexible with new menus or employee needs. Putting equipment onto casters aids this, as does utilizing countertop equipment, which is lighter to move, he points out. And instead of one long 10-foot workstation, operators can break it up to two 5-foot stations or three 4-foot stations, Serfozo adds, so one or more can be closed during slower dayparts.

Instead of segmenting your kitchen into separate rooms, keep it open so employees can walk around, share tasks and move equipment, says Serfozo. “This allows restaurants to be more creative with menus and ghost kitchens.”

Front of House: The Bar

Bars are an important part of the front of the house, with markups on alcohol being much higher than food. However, says Kharasch, its footprint is becoming smaller as restaurants look to reduce labor.

To this end, restaurants are designing bars to hold premade or partially premade cocktails, which can enhance speed of service. In many instances, operators serve the premade cocktails out of a tap.

Serfozo is also a fan of having tight work triangles at the bar, as at the cookline, to keep steps to a minimum. “We want it to almost be a cockpit,” he says. Bars can have a number of these triangles along their length so bartenders can move around.

Separate small service bars work great, says Camillo, so servers can pour wine by the glass and save labor for the bartenders, allowing them to focus on the show of making cocktails.

Camillo points to the R+D Kitchen in Santa Monica, Calif., where there’s a thick block of acrylic cut to the height of a 6-ounce pour to show servers the level to fill to. “It’s married to the exact wine glass,” he says, adding that other operations could copy this with a simple pencil mark on the wall.

Another plus of these stations is they allow waitstaff to serve wine more quickly, increasing check averages. Beer taps can also be added, “and now you’ve taken out two of the three main categories and leave your bartenders with just the mixology,” says Camillo. 

labor riccajp atlanta restaurant high res erik meadows photography 3Eliminating internal walls can make kitchens more flexible, Image courtesy of Ricca Design Studios

SNAPSHOT: Restaurant Employment in 2023

It’s too early to make a call about the health of restaurant industry employment for 2023, but January (the most recent month for data as of press time) kicked the industry off to a solid start.

Eating and drinking places added a net 98,600 jobs in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It was the top job-creating sector in the overall economy, which added more than 500,000 jobs in January.

January marked the 25th consecutive month of employment gains in the restaurant industry, per the National Restaurant Association, representing a total increase of more than 2.4 million jobs during that time period. 

BLS incorporated its annual benchmark revisions in January as well. This resulted in significant upward revisions for eating and drinking place employment levels in 2021 and 2022. As a result, eating and drinking places are much closer to returning to their pre-pandemic staffing levels.

As of January 2023, eating and drinking places were 166,000 jobs (or 1.3%) less than their February 2020 employment peak.

The National Restaurant Association notes that the extent to which staffing levels are rebounding continues to vary significantly by segment. 

The full-service segment suffered the most job losses during the initial months of the pandemic — and still has the longest path to recovery. As of December 2022, full-service restaurant staffing levels were 311,000 jobs (or 6%) less than pre-pandemic readings in February 2020.

Job losses in the limited-service segments were somewhat less severe during the initial months of the pandemic as these operations were more likely to retain staff to support their existing off-premises business. As of December 2022, employment at snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars — including coffee, doughnut and ice cream shops — was 120,000 jobs (or 15%) greater than February 2020 readings.

Staffing levels in the quick-service and fast-casual segments were about 4,000 jobs (or 0.1%) more than pre-pandemic levels. Headcounts at bars and taverns were 19,000 jobs (or 4%) greater than the pre-pandemic peak.