Storage Wars: Coping with Small Spaces

Storage Wars -- pizzerias cope with small spaces

Photo by Josh Keown

It’s an essential component of restaurant operations, affecting everything from menu size to seating. Yet its importance often goes unrecognized — until the squeeze is on. We’re talking storage space, the bane of many pizzeria operators.“Storage is always an issue, and it does have an impact, and should, on purchasing and menu decisions,” says Jeff Mease, founder/DEO of Bloomington, Indiana-based One World Enterprises, which operates several restaurants, including Pizza X.

“The higher your sales per square foot of retail space, the bigger issue it becomes,” Mease continues.” We need more space’ has been a shrill cry that has stayed nearly constan during the 30-year history of our companies growth.”

Michael Beckner, co-owner of Brick Oven Pizza in Baltimore, can relate. The restaurant, offering more than 52 toppings and with seating for 50, occupies 1,800 square feet, 350 of which comprise storage.

To compensate, they’ve rented a room above the restaurant for extra storage and refrigeration, using it for pizza boxes, paper goods, drinks and other items. They also rent an offsite storage unit for equipment, catering supplies and holiday decorations. Beckner does outside shopping two or three times weekly and takes about two deliveries a week from suppliers.

Despite these tactics, Beckner says his space constraints sometimes prevent Brick Oven Pizza from taking advantage of vendor specials. He’s also not thrilled that his storage rental fees keep going up, making this an increasingly expensive solution.

At one time Mease rented outside storage, but not anymore. “I hate that strategy,” he says. “Not only is the space expensive, but the trips to and fro create hidden costs. There are other liabilities, like potential rodent problems, pilferage, theft, etc. When all of that is factored in, I don’t believe offsite storage makes sense for most of us.”

A better approach, Mease says, is to get organized and creative, in particular looking at how to use “airspace.” Consider Catherine Schmidt, co-owner of Dora’s Pizza in Haines City, Florida. She’s made the most of their miniscule restaurant space — just 1,300 square feet (“The storage space is small, if nonexistent,” she says) — by building in lots of overhead and under-the-counter shelving. Still, storage for the restaurant, which offers three different sizes of pizza and 28 toppings, remains challenging.

“No storage means a lot of trips traveling to the providers, and sometimes being out of merchandise,” says Schmidt, adding that with seating for just 12, they do a lot of takeout and deliveries. “The most difficult to store are the pizza boxes because you can’t order what you want; the provider wants you to order at least five packages at a time.”

Because they’re a small operation, and less important to distributors, Schmidt’s husband and co-owner Nico says he does the shopping rather than having a distributor deliver, especially since many have a minimum order, which their small space won’t easily accommodate. He utilizes club stores or mass merchants for everyday items like veggies or prosciutto, visiting a provider several days weekly for other necessities.

It’s sometimes possible to negotiate more frequent deliveries from vendors, although this will impact pricing, says Mease, explaining they buy their reusable stadium cups in bulk, paying their distributor to store and deliver them.

“We’d get better pricing buying them direct, but we have nowhere to hold them in bulk,” he says. “This is a good strategy for higher-volume operators to find a middle ground between buying direct and paying too much distributor markup on an item.”

Mease says that as their business grew to three restaurants, they moved some central processing to an offsite commissary. This entity handles prep work for various items for each restaurant; daily deliveries are made via a small refrigerator truck. The commissary rent is cheaper, he says, and also offers additional storage space and a loading dock for pallet deliveries.

Ramblin Jack’s Restaurant Group utilizes a commissary, operating this out of their first restaurant, Ramblin Jack’s in Olympia, Washington, says Managing Partner Adam Adrian. The commissary services the company’s four restaurants (three sell pizza) with doughs, sauces and various pre-prepared items. Orders are texted in the day before and delivered the next day to the restaurants, which are only several miles apart from each other.

Ramblin Jack’s, which offers wood-fired pizza, was originally a used-car dealership. The space has seating for 150 and 2,500 square feet of storage, separated into different areas, such as dry storage, a catering storage room, wood room and a cooler room, to name a few. Although Adrian says the storage configuration can hinder kitchen efficiency because of its location and sprawling nature, without it, he wouldn’t have had the flexibility to open in smaller spaces (for example, his Italia restaurant has just 150 square feet of storage).

For some spaced-squeezed operators, commissaries may be a good solution, says Mease. “If operators need more space to keep quality up to their standards, they may well want to explore the possibility. [However] I don’t believe commissaries make sense simply for bulk buying and storage. Generally, a distributor offering fair pricing should be able to do this job cheaper.”

Space-Saving Tips

When Jeff Mease needs space, he looks up. “The first place to look is floor space, but that’s obvious,” he says. “The less obvious is to look for ‘airspace’.” Some potential solutions he recommends? Consider:

  • Putting another shelf on your Metro rack. This could increase its use by a third, says Mease.
  • Purchasing a heavier dunnage rack, allowing you to stack items higher.
  • Installing hanging racks from walls or the ceiling to hold lighter items like folded boxes, cups, and lids.
  • Utilizing your corners via shelving/stands designed to fit into these spaces.
  • Creating shelving by using sheets of plywood, ripped down the middle, making 8×2-inch panels. “These can be hung with Threadall through a suspended ceiling up to the ceiling joist,” Mease says. “Painted, it looks good and can hold a great deal of weight, particularly with a 2×4-inch runner on the front and rear of the shelf.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.