May 1, 2012 |


By Alyson McNutt English

Performance kitchens put staff center stage


For Brixx, a southeastern-U.S.-based chain of brick-oven restaurants, having a performance kitchen was just a natural extension of the restaurant’s branding strategy. “Making the pizza in the brick oven is all part of the show,” says Eric Horsley, Brixx managing partner and lead design strategist. “Guests are fascinated by the inner workings, and it’s just fun for them to watch and get to see how their meal comes together.”

For Casa Nonna, a restaurant with locations in New York and Los Angeles, the open kitchen and pizza bar are also a draw for customers. “Our display kitchen energizes the dining room and adds a sense of show to the overall experience,” says Keith Treyball, president of ESquared Hospitality, which owns Casa Nonna.

Because of the activity and interest they add, seats near performance kitchens are hot properties. “The pizza bar area has some of the best seats in the house,” Treyball says. “These seats offer a mesmerizing view: flames of the pizza oven, an unobstructed view of ladling tomato sauce or careful application of mozzarella … it’s a promise of a show all night long.”

Kids and families especially love to be near the kitchen action at Brixx, Horsley says. Sometimes at his restaurants, diners at one of the highly coveted tables right next to the kitchen will score an impromptu appetizer from the chef, just as a treat for sitting there. Why? Other than being a customer-loyalty-inspiring gesture, “we want dining at Brixx to be more of an interactive experience,” he explains.

Because performance kitchens are more “interactive,” there are different expectations of employees. “The interaction with guests sitting at the pizza bar can require the same social skills you find in a bartender,” Treyball says. “It demands a certain level of performance — you are on stage.”

And while you don’t necessarily hire different people than you would for a closed kitchen, it is important to make sure prospective employees clearly understand the performance expectations. “When we’re hiring kitchen staff, we always tell them, ‘hey, you guys are part of the show, you’re on display,'” Horsley says.

While you hire the same types of employees you would in any setting — those with good experience, good work ethic and good attitudes — you still have to emphasize certain aspects of training that are more critical in performance kitchens.

Proper uniform guidelines, sanitation and cleanliness standards and careful work habits are important in every restaurant, whether you can see what’s happening in the kitchen or not. But since people unfamiliar with the inner-workings of a restaurant will see your kitchen on display, Horsley says employees need to keep in mind how everything they do will look to diners. “We remind employees that how you talk, what you say, how you act…it’s all being watched, all the time,” he says.

Finally, it’s important to emphasize proper communication, not just with guests, but also with co-workers. “You really want to stress the importance of speaking clearly and communicating in a positive fashion,” Horsley says. Because while inside jokes, loud voices and even expressions of frustration are common in closed kitchens, that’s not the side of your restaurant you want guests to remember when they leave.

One of the most critical roles in the performance kitchen show is manager: running a performance kitchen comes with challenges beyond the norm. “You really need someone who is comfortable managing and who understands that a performance kitchen might need a little more hands-on style,” Horsley says.

Understanding both what your employees need to get done and how everything is perceived by customers can be tricky, but a good manager will balance these needs and find solutions he or she can make work. “The last thing you want is to spend capital on a performance kitchen and then have it work against you just because your manager wasn’t up to the job,” he says.

But by and large, employees wholly embrace the starring roles they’re playing in the performance kitchen experience. “They love that they get to know the guests, that they’re out there interacting with the customers,” Horsley says. “They take a lot of pride in that.” Customers, as well, appreciate it, he says, and this interaction fosters a sense of loyalty and community that you don’t get with traditional restaurant settings.

Performance Kitchen Design

Customers love them, employees take pride in them and they give your restaurant tons of personality. But performance kitchens need to be designed well to offer the biggest bang for your buck. Some tips for staging a five-star performance kitchen:

  • Lighting. Cooks needs ample light to prepare food, but what works in the kitchen isn’t always good for dining ambiance. To solve this lighting dilemma, Brixx restaurants install work lights near the counter-level so these harsher lights stay focused only on the work surface.
  • Noise. Kitchens are noisy, and performance kitchens can bring that not-so-pleasant noise out into the dining area. To counteract this, Casa Nonna uses special acoustic tiles to absorb loud noises common to commercial kitchens.
  • Finishes. “Open kitchens require finer finishes,” says Keith Treyball, president of ESquared Hospitality, which owns Casa Nonna. So instead of typical kitchen subway tiles, his Casa Nonna restaurants have savoy mosaic tiles wrapping the pizza bar and the stainless steel hoods are enclosed in an antique copper cover. While these types of changes aren’t cheap, the owners say they’re worth it because they increase the value of the performance kitchen to customers.
  • Seating. Don’t assume you’ll lose seating to add a performance kitchen: Treyball says when Casa Nonna added theirs, they knocked down walls and actually ended up with a net positive seating capacity. Eric Horsley, managing partner and lead design strategist at Brixx, says it probably does lose some potential seating capacity with their design, but because of the importance of the performance kitchen to the overall restaurant experience, it’s worth it. After all, even if there are fewer seats, you have added those highly coveted “best seats in the house.”

Alyson McNutt English is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in home, health, family, and green topics. She is based in Huntsville, Alabama.