Kim Fiorcello flips on the A/C as early as mid-April at Antonio’s Pizza in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. That’s because even on a mild spring day when temperatures hover at 70 and summer’s dripping humidity is yet to come, the dining area can become rather stuffy. And the kitchen can be downright hot, too.
It’s a challenge to keep the front of the house temperate while ensuring the kitchen crew doesn’t swelter, Fiorcello says. “It’s tough. You can’t have the door open with flies coming in, and the health department doesn’t allow that anyway. But once the door closes you need the A/C,” she says. The kitchen is the worst, though, not just because of oven heat and deep fryers, but also because standing in one place to wash dishes or the physical effort to make dough can generate body heat, she adds.
What’s a pizza restaurant to do? Keep the A/C on too high, and you become known as the place for parkas. Keep it too warm, and customers expect a place to cool off when they eat. But if you don’t have cash for state-of-the-art thermostats or cooling systems, there are other short-term steps that won’t cost as much, experts say. Here are the biggest problems with restaurant temperature and solutions so that tempers won’t rise:
Problem #1: “Temperature” vs. “air flow”. “Sometimes it’s not the temperature that restaurants have issues with,” says Chris Tripoli, president of A’la Carte Consulting Group, a restaurant consulting firm in Houston, Texas. With advancements in thermostats, restaurants can now set temperature “zones,” like the kitchen versus the dining room, he says. There are also timers to manage temperature with peak hours.
However, “what is still a concern is the direction of the air flow, not the temperature,” Tripoli explains. “A customer will say, ‘I can’t sit here! It’s too cold!’ They’re really saying that a vent overhead is blowing directly on their table.”
So, if the airflow isn’t correctly managed, you will get cold spots, even though the temperature is right. “Technically, it’s not cold, but most of the air is being dumped on them. Then the waiter adjusts the thermostat, and oh, my God! Now it’s hot!” Tripoli says.
This is the case for Antonio’s, which has been in an old shopping center since 1996. About two-thirds of the 3,400 square feet in Antonio’s is dining space. Fiorcello relies heavily on ceiling fans, but there are pockets that are still hotter.
“We expanded to the place next door, and there’s not a door in there. We have an archway from the original restaurant into the dining area, and that’s where it can get stuffy. Also, all of our venting is in the ceiling, and if a ceiling fan is close to a vent, that might bother somebody,” Fiorcello says.
Solution: Examine your ventilation layout. Which tables are under offending vents? Hire a professional to analyze how air can be redirected using ventilation diffusers. “They spread the air out along the ceiling and the wall and change the way it is flowing,” Tripoli says.
In his own office, Tripoli has diffusers that look like an inverted pyramid. “I bet they spent $100 to $200 for those, so we’re not talking about a redesign of your venting system. It’s true that big restaurants may need a couple dozen, but a smaller may just need six or eight,” he says.
Problem #2: “Expensive cool air” vs. “air hogs.” Your A/C bills may be higher because your oven exhaust hood is sucking air out of the dining room.
“The amount pulling from outside into the kitchen should be 80 to 85 percent of the amount of volume you’re taking out of the kitchen,” Tripoli says. “The exhaust fan is taking smoke and heat out of kitchen, but if you’re not creating an air curtain to replace the air, you’re taking the expensive air out of your exhaust hood.”
Solution: Do an air balance inspection. The hood must be in balance within itself, and it must be in balance with the rest of the HVAC system. If it is not, it adversely affects the air flow in the front of the house as well as the back of the house, says William C. McBride, kitchen engineer and founder of Hangman Corp. of Stafford, Texas. McBride’s firm provides complete design of commercial kitchens and bars and equipment installation.
“One simple way to know if the hood is robbing conditioned air is to stand in a doorway into the kitchen, or, in front of a pass through window. If you feel a breeze flowing from the front of the house to the back of the house, you have an energy hog in the kitchen,” McBride says.
One of the largest energy hogs is the HVAC system if it is not performing properly. To evaluate all energy burdens, hire an air balance company, he says. Evaluate exhaust hood energy management systems, walk in cooler/freezer temperature modulating systems, energy efficient equipment as old equipment is replaced, maintenance schedules for all refrigeration, air curtains at doors and the exhaust hood over the dish washer.
As for the front door sucking out air? Tripoli recommends a vestibule. “They can be made to look like they’re a designed piece of the restaurant –– like they’ve always been there. You walk into a five-foot space that fits into the wall and then leads to the bar or hostess station. It’s wonderful for temperature management.”
Heidi Lynn Russell specializes in writing about the issues that affect small business owners. She is a regular contributor to Pizza Today and lives in Wilmore, Kentucky.