In a busy restaurant kitchen, efficiency is everything. As restaurant groups grow and one concept turns into five—and additional business opportunities come into the mix—time and space are both precious commodities. That’s when the addition of a commissary kitchen can start to make sense for production.
As the founder of Seattle’s Skillet Street Food and Huxley Wallace Collective, chef Josh Henderson oversees full-service restaurants, food trucks, and a catering operation. He relies on a commissary kitchen to streamline prep and make everything run smoothly.
We talked to Henderson about production, operations, and staffing to learn some best practices for using a commissary kitchen.
Here are 8 ways to make it work for you.
1. Use the space as much as you can.
“Look at it like a manufacturing facility—every hour of the day you should be at maximum capacity,” says Henderson.
That’s impossible to do in a restaurant or a commissary, but if you’re resourceful you can find a way to combine the two. Henderson’s first commissary was part of a building that also had a cafe. If you can create a restaurant and a commissary out of the same space, the spaces begin to make sense from a financial and efficiency standpoint.
If you’re just starting out and low on cash, find someone to rent your commissary space to while you’re not using it, such as a baker who can make bread at night.
“In most restaurants, your occupancy cost or rent needs to occupy a certain percentage,” Henderson explains. “Most people like to stay in the 5-7% range of your revenue. If you can do that as well as have a commissary and make even more revenue? You’re doing really well.”
2. Prep everything before service.
Many restaurants are open all day today, thanks to the rise of the all-day-cafe trend of recent years. Bartenders might be prepping ingredients in the afternoon, while people were sitting in front of them trying to order drinks. That doesn’t work. All-day restaurants, in particular, need to streamline operations so that service can run smoothly without prep work happening in front of guests. Commissary kitchen spaces allow prep to be happening off-site (and out of sight) even while the restaurant is operating.
3. Give your staff more tools for innovation.
At Huxley Wallace, Henderson aims to use his commissary kitchen as a lab for baking and to generally expand the ability of what he’s able to do at the restaurants. It’s all about taking the products to the next level.
A commissary kitchen can give a team of chefs and bartenders a venue for creativity, a workshop space to try out new dishes, drinks, and garnishes. A dedicated R&D environment—outfitted with the latest tools of the trade—and help your staff reach their potential for innovation.
4. Set yourself up to grow your business.
A commissary space can help you achieve economies of scale when you have several restaurants. For example, you can make all your barrel-aged cocktails for all your locations in a single space maximized for efficiency.
You can also launch a totally new revenue stream from a commissary space. Henderson has used his commissary kitchen to grow his catering business. He employes a chef who is dedicated solely to running the commissary and catering, as well as Skillet Street Food.
5. Control quality across concepts.
A commissary kitchen doesn’t always save you money. In fact, Henderson says it may be slightly more expensive for him to operate this way. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. He says it gives him more control over quality. It also allows his team to be less stressed at work and more efficient.
“I know the quality will be better,” says Henderson. “It’s also better for company morale, and it keeps us all sane,” he says. When you’re not working around the six giant tubs of potato chips you need for Friday night service during the busiest prep hours of the week, it just makes for a more pleasant atmosphere, he says. “Things should be a little easier than that.”
6. Organize your ordering and delivery systems.
Producing food and drinks in a different location adds a new layer of operational complexity with orders and deliveries. It’s important to consider issues that might come up along the way (for example, if you’re delivering food, you may need refrigeration in your vehicles.) Henderson has a system in place that ensures products are delivered from the commissary to the restaurants daily.
7. Give yourself more space for storage.
For Henderson, one of the biggest advantages of a commissary kitchen is the extra space, especially for cold storage.
“It’s not always the prep time. The question is, where do you put everything that you’ve prepped? That’s the other efficiency of a commissary: it allows you to store things until you need them. If you can deliver things to a restaurant already prepped, and all they’re doing is unwrapping it and it’s ready to go, then that’s better efficiency.”
If you’re outgrowing your space and literally can’t close the doors of your walk-in during August, it may be time to start considering a commissary.
8. Know what to expect from your business model.
We asked Henderson if there are any big differences between operating a commissary for food trucks and using one just for restaurants. What changes, he explained, is the cadence and frequency of your prep. While restaurants are fairly consistent—you’re making a certain amount of everything every day—street food and catering get massive hits, when you’ll be producing 1,000 burgers in a day for an event.
To set yourself up for success, understand the specific needs of your business model and create a space that supports those needs. Know if and when you’ll need space for extra people or extra storage, and prepare accordingly.