Central kitchens: How a site with no guests improves your guest experience and bottom line

Published May 17, 2021

Central kitchen. Commissary. Prep kitchen. At first glance, these concepts inspire thoughts of a large institutional food service that pushes out airplane quality food for the masses. The concept isn’t new—central kitchens have been around for decades. And, until recently, they’ve only been used in large scale food service realms (airline kitchens, educational food service and cruise ships to name a few). 

But a growing trend over the last five years has seen greater adoption of central kitchens among quick-service restaurants (QSR) and table service (TS) concepts globally. In this article, we’ll review what a central kitchen is and how you can use the concept to improve your guest experience and increase your revenue.

What is a central kitchen?

A central kitchen (CK) can go by several different names—central kitchen, commissary, prep kitchen and, more recently, Kitchen as a Service (KaaS)—within a hub-and-spoke food preparation business model. Although there are small differences between each of these, the general concept is the same: A centrally located kitchen that can handle the bulk of the product prep for your sites. By removing this prep work from each of your sites and consolidating it into a single location, you stand to gain several benefits, both from a guest experience and a revenue/profit standpoint.

Benefits of a central kitchen:

There are several benefits that come with implementing a central kitchen. And they fall into three key categories: improving guest experience, increasing profits and streamlining operations.

Benefit #1: Improving guest experience

Traditionally, (without a central kitchen), each restaurant site is responsible for handling all prep work needed for their anticipated sales. Prep often takes place multiple times each week (sometimes daily) and each store has trained kitchen staff to handle the prep.

When comparing the staff from different restaurants, you may find that recipe adherence and prep product quality can vary dramatically from site to site (and even day to day within the same site)—resulting in an inconsistent product across your brand. Your guests return to your restaurant because they expect a specific product, recipe and preparation. Inconsistent product quality will lead to guest attrition.

When you add a central kitchen to your site portfolio, you can centralize all product prep—removing the prep staff from each of your sites and replacing them with a single team who prepares all product for each serviced location. This ensures the prep product at Site A will be identical to the prep product at Site B.

Benefit #2: Increasing profits

This is likely the most significant central kitchen benefit—and the one that has the most direct impact to your bottom line. I’ll start with the most obvious cost savings, labor cost. Pre-CK, each individual restaurant would have specialized kitchen staff trained on each of the prepped products. These team members at each site ensure their site has enough product to get through a day.

If your central kitchen services 10 sites, that’s 10 separate kitchen team members that must be paid for their efforts, which often include making small batches of product for each site. With a central kitchen in place, you can eliminate the prep position at each of the sites, and consolidate in the central kitchen.  

You can eliminate the single restaurant batch size and increase the batch size to cover all serviced locations. Your raw product orders at each site will be minimized, and you can leverage lower bulk pricing when buying product through the central kitchen (larger batches = more raw product needed).

Another aspect often overlooked with central kitchens is real estate cost. The most desirable restaurant locations often command the highest rent. By removing a large amount of kitchen prep work from each site, you can often shrink the square footage of your kitchen by eliminating or shrinking the area required for major appliances and prep workspace. Although this doesn’t always help for existing locations, in a time of expansion, this opens the doors on possible restaurant locations—smaller footprints, better locations, more room for guests and a wider selection of available locations.

By moving prep away from restaurant sites and into a central kitchen, you also save on training costs and labor cost at each site. Instead of hiring and training kitchen staff at each restaurant (and retraining when changes occur), you’ll only need to hire and train the staff at the central kitchen. This alone should yield very noticeable labor savings against your payroll from day one.

Another concept that’s been in the headlines over the last year is a “ghost kitchen.” Ghost kitchens go hand-in-hand with a central kitchen as the footprint/real estate requirements are often the same: A centrally located kitchen (in a low-rent area) that can prep and create items from a restaurant menu for pickup by your delivery services.

Related: 4 ways to overcome kitchen chaos and orchestrate off-premise orders seamlessly

Using a central kitchen for prep in the morning hours, and converting to a ghost kitchen once the prep is complete and the lunch/dinner window opens is an ideal use of an existing space. Additionally, if your kitchen has downtimes, you could rent out the space to other restaurants/food trucks as a place for them to prep—bringing in a new revenue stream to help offset costs.

Benefit #3 – Streamlining operations

A number of restaurant companies have already adopted the concept of a central kitchen with great results. Some of the positive wins we’ve seen that address efficiency and the social concerns of your brand include:

  • A single location for collecting food scraps for composting (great for environment-first companies)
  • Minimizing waste by having prep in a single location
  • Minimize prep setup and clean up time by only prepping in the central kitchen (versus setup and cleanup at every site)
  • Moving catering out of individual restaurants and into the central kitchen. Catering is a great revenue generator, but inevitably, a large catering order could impact the guest experience for your everyday guests by delaying other orders, etc. By driving all catering out of a central kitchen, you can minimize the impact that catering has on your restaurants—and you can focus on growing catering sales volume beyond what can be handled in a regular restaurant.
  • Central kitchens offer the chance to leverage superior restaurant technology that may be too expensive to implement across every store, like blast chillers, vacuum sealers, sous vide, Hobarts and other expensive kitchen equipment may be out of reach for individual restaurants, but would be more attainable at a single central kitchen site.
  • Expanding the central kitchen to include products and packaging for contracted retail sales (another revenue stream!) since your central kitchen is still a licensed commercial kitchen

Related: Tips to help restaurants strengthen operational adjustments they made during the pandemic

Central kitchen best practices

When implementing any new concept to a company, it’s always advisable to research what others have done and find out what works (and what didn’t). We’ve worked with a number of central kitchen clients and a few things stand out as a best practice:

  • Identify the right location for your central kitchen. A general rule of thumb is to locate the central kitchen within one hour of the sites it services. Remember, when creating prep products at a central kitchen, those products still need to be delivered to each site.
  • Know how long you’ll need the central kitchen. If you can handle all prep for all sites in four hours, then renting an entire kitchen full-time may not make the most financial sense. Look at options for shared kitchens and Kaas (Kitchen as a Service) or determine if you’ll be able to rent your space out to other restaurants during unused times.
  • Understand what products make sense to prep centrally and which make sense to prep in-store. Ideally, you’d want to prep as much as possible in the central kitchen—but there are items that may make sense to prep in-store (items with extremely short shelf-life, items requiring special handling etc.)
  • Use software that can automatically consolidate individual site sales mix forecasts into a single prep forecast. Software can eliminate the guesswork of what’s needed at each site, and minimize the amount of time someone spends trying to figure out how much product needs to be prepped. Back-of-house software has made great advancements in recent years to account for the central kitchen concept and minimize the level of effort needed by central kitchen staff to determine product prep needs.
  • Be aware of new technologies that can help retain product quality and freshness. Sous vide batch cooking in sealed packages, for example, allows for precise pre-cooking and easy-to-transport products that can be quickly reheated and prepared in the restaurant.

These are just some of the best practices and insights to think about when you’re considering a central kitchen model for your restaurant brand. Applying these best practices can help you improve not only your guest experience, but your efficiency and bottom line, helping your sites excel and keeping your guests coming back for more. 

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