Restaurant kitchen equipment costs represent a large part of your budget, especially if you’re opening a new restaurant and starting your kitchen from scratch. It’s important not to underestimate how much money you’ll need to get your kitchen up and running.
There are always those underdog stories, the restaurants that opened on a shoestring budget and became runaway successes.
Tau Poco in Birmingham, AL, opened on a shoestring budget of $13,000 in 2013. Owner and chef Chris Dupont thinks of his restaurants as test cases, where the focus is on the food and how well it is received by his guests.
Dupont told Forbes, “Ultimately, you'll be graded on the food. Diners do not come back because you put in a $600,000 kitchen -- they're coming to eat the food."
Despite his restaurant’s eventual demise, Chef Dupont is right. The focus should be on the food. But only careful planning and budgeting will help you build a kitchen that will make your food shine without breaking the bank.
Here are steps you can take to keep restaurant kitchen equipment costs in check. Once you've mastered them, there are 4 other major restaurant costs to deal with, but first things first!
A Breakdown of Restaurant Kitchen Equipment Costs
In a survey conducted by RestaurantOwner.com, an organization that supports independent restaurants, the median start-up cost for restaurant and bar equipment was $95,000. Of course, cost can be higher or lower, depending on whether you lease equipment, buy it new, rent it, or buy it second hand. (More on that in a minute.)
It also depends on the kinds of equipment you’ll need to run your kitchen. To start, make a list of the most essential kitchen items you won’t be able to run your restaurant without.
Restaurant Kitchen Equipment: The Basics
Whether you’re an Italian eatery or a fast-casual serving American fare, your kitchen will need pretty much the same essentials.
There’s the obvious: a range, oven, grill and possibly a deep fryer. You’ll also need either a reach-in or walk-in cooler, a refrigerator and plenty of shelving for dry food storage.
Restaurateur News provides a comprehensive list:
For storing food, you’ll need the following:
- dunnage racks
- ingredient bins with slide covers
- drain trays
- boxes and containers
- ice caddy
For food prep, Restauranteur News recommends adding these to your list:
- towels, soaps, sanitizers
- baking sheets
- extensive variety of knives
- muffin pans
- sheet pans
- oven mitts
- foil wrap
- cutting board
- measuring spoons
- measure cups
- stock pots
- sauce pots
- fry pans
- double boiler
- ladles, tongs, strainers
- aluminum scoop
For your hot table, you’ll need
- adapter bar
- insert pans
- insert covers
- food portioners
- spoons and tongs
Grill, griddle and fry stations also have their own equipment needs:
- deep fryer
- fry basket
- fine mesh skinners
- heat lamp
- filter cone
- fryer thermometer
- grill brush
- sauce mops
- insert pans
- grill scraper
- oil dispenser
- brick holder
- seasoning dredges
- butter wheel
And, of course, for serving, you’ll need dinnerware, glassware, flatware, accessories (like those little boxes that hold the sugar and salt packets), and any specialty items, like trivets for hot dishes.
To make sure you have everything you need, walk through the process of cooking everything on your menu. Make a list of every piece of equipment you need at every step, right down to the soap to wash your hands before you begin.
Depending on the type of food you serve, there may be some more specialized equipment on your list. If you specialize in wood-fired pizza, you’ll have a specialty pizza oven, the wood to fuel it, and the paddles to move the pizza in and out of the oven.
You may have an ice cream maker for desserts, or even a small blow torch for your flans and crème brûlée.
How Do You Choose the Right Restaurant Equipment?
You have a list of what you need, now it’s time to shop. But having a list of general items will only get you so far. You need to know exactly what you need.
- What capacity should your fridge and cooler be?
- How much shelving space do you need? Will they hold large or small items?
- How many knives will you need and for what functions?
- How much baking will you do every day? Grilling? Frying?
- How often will a particular piece of equipment be used?
- What is your kitchen’s square footage?
And, most importantly, what do you have in your budget for everything?
Once you start looking at all the options out there, it will be tempting to want top-of-the-line everything. But you don’t necessarily need that.
For example, if you’re buying something that will inevitably break or get lost in the line of duty, like utensils or towels, you don’t have to spring for the very best.
Things you’ll be counting on to get you through the dinner shift, like your grill or espresso maker, you may want to invest more money in, however.
Once you know exactly what you’re looking for in every kitchen item you intend to purchase, it’s time to start doing your research. The Restaurant Manager’s Handbook suggests gathering recommendations and opinions from other chefs and kitchen workers, online reviews and commercial ratings.
It also recommends checking out test kitchens provided by gas and electric companies.
Get as much information as possible before pulling the trigger on any item. Shop around for the best price and the best payment option. Or see if you can strike a deal. Maybe if you buy a large amount from one dealer, you can get a discount.
Finally, determine what’s worth renting, leasing or buying.
Leasing, Renting or Buying: What’s the Best Route?
The answer to that question? It depends. There are certain pieces of equipment that make sense to lease, while others you should make an investment in. Let’s take a look at what you should be leasing, renting or buying.
Lease Equipment That Needs Updating
First of all, you’re only going to be able to lease big-ticket items like your refrigerator or dishwasher. Most leasing companies won’t lease anything worth less than $3,000.
When you’re in the market for something like that, ask yourself whether or not you’ll need to replace it frequently. Items that need constant updating, like ice makers, are worth leasing because you can upgrade every time your lease comes up.
BFS recommends leasing for tax advantages, too. The money you spend on leases is considered a rent expense, and eligible for tax incentives.
The downside of leasing is you generally have to have a good amount of money up front, and then you have to factor the monthly payments into your expenses. They usually have a high APR, too.
If it’s not something you’ll be updating on a regular basis consider skipping the lease and buying it outright.
Buy Equipment You Consider an Investment
Equipment that will last you a long time and probably won’t see any upgrades anytime soon is worth buying.
The question is, should you buy new or used?
You can get just about anything for your kitchen used, as long as it’s in good working condition. According to Restaurant Business, a six-burner range can cost $1500 new. But the canny restaurant owner can find it for between $750 and $900 online or through private sales or auctions.
Pieces like plating smokers, coolers, refrigerators, pizza ovens and commercial mixers are all good candidates for buying used. The trick is to inspect them thoroughly. Don’t take anything sight unseen.
Of course, there are some things you should definitely buy new. For example, you’re better off buying new chef’s knives. Used ones can have microscopic scratches or gaps in the blade, causing them to catch on food and rust more quickly.
Two things to consider when buying anything, new or used, are the cost of repairs and how long it will take for a piece of equipment to pay for itself.
Look up the kinds of repairs a piece of equipment generally needs and how much it costs. Then, factor that into the price.
Consider how much use you’ll get out of it. If it’s a big-ticket item, but you’ll use it every day, chances are it will pay for itself in a short amount of time.
Pro Tip: If you are going to buy new, look for energy-efficient appliances. According to Energy Star, restaurants use seven times more energy than your average commercial building.
Appliance certified by Energy Star include commercial hot food holding cabinets, solid and glass door refrigerators and freezers, fryers, steam cookers, ice machines, ovens (convection and combination ovens), griddles and dishwashers. They are 10 to 70 percent more energy-efficient than un-certified models.
Rent Equipment You Need Short-Term
Renting is a great option for two situations.
First, if you’re planning a seasonal or limited-time offering, buying the equipment to make it may not make sense. Even a lease, which usually requires a minimum 36-month commitment, will be too long-term.
Second, if you’re experimenting with new menu items that require special equipment, rent it first. If your new dishes take off, then you can look into buying or leasing the equipment.
Your grand opening may include a specialty cotton candy dessert, or you may want to experiment with a waffle station at brunch. In those cases, it’s probably better to rent the cotton candy maker and the waffle iron.
Restaurant Kitchen Layout and Design
The final piece to minimizing restaurant kitchen equipment costs lies in your kitchen’s layout and design.
Creating an efficient workspace will reduce the time it takes to get food plated and into the dining room, but it will also cut unnecessary equipment costs.
Draw a map of your kitchen and think about where you’re going to place all of your larger pieces of equipment. Your ice makers and coolers, for example, should be placed away from your grill, oven, or range. Putting them near a heat source means they’ll have to work harder to keep things cool on the inside, driving up electricity costs and putting unnecessary wear on them.
The Restaurant Manager’s Handbook has some other suggestions:
- Break separate food prep activities into their own stations with their own tools. It will be easier to keep track of equipment and reduce time searching for that one paring knife or skillet.
- Keep final prep and plating close to the door that leads to the dining room. Moving full plates of food through a busy kitchen is just asking for a collision, broken plates and all.
- If health and safety codes allow it, place all of your heating elements on one ventilation system to reduce costs.
- Keep dishwashing areas away from food prep areas. The steam involved with commercial dishwashers could reduce visibility and wilt delicate foods.
- Take advantage of natural lighting by placing stations below skylights or windows. It will reduce your lighting costs.
Of course, there will always be tweaks and adjustments to your kitchen as you work out the kinks every new restaurant finds. Ask your staff what could be improved and what’s working well.
Finally, keep a thorough inventory of everything in your kitchen. Appoint one person per station to be the point person for their equipment inventory. They will be responsible for reporting missing items and requesting new ones.
Doing so will help you understand where equipment costs are arising and how you can troubleshoot them.
The Bottom Line
There’s a lot to think about when you’re shopping for kitchen equipment and considering your restaurant kitchen costs. Mapping out every stage of the buying process and keeping a close eye on kitchen equipment costs will help you reign in your spending.
Go into the buying process knowing exactly what you need. Do your research and don’t get sucked into fancy selling tactics. Learn to be a savvy consumer when it comes to kitchen equipment to keep your focus on the food and not on the rising costs.
There are a lot of different costs involved in setting up or running a restaurant. We did the research (so you don't have to) and assembled everything you need to know about restaurant costs in one place. Check out the Ultimate Guide to Restaurant Costs to learn about all 5 major restaurant costs including: Labor, Food, Ultilities, Equipment and POS systems.
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Laurie is a writer with family in the restaurant industry. She lives near Boston with her husband and two boys and has been published in HomeandGarden.com, The Economist, and more.