Sitting Down with Doug Parker – Commercial Kitchen Designer
Like two sides of the same coin, we’ve found that in order to design a successful restaurant or cafe, one has to nurture a balance between the artistic vision and how that vision is technically executed.
So how do we at Studio BANAA manage those two sides of our brain when designing a restaurant or cafe? We find that the best results come from putting together a strong team, then tapping into our individual strengths. This allows us to deliver a project that’s both thoughtfully designed but also allows the chef or barista to do their magic behind the counter.
Enter Doug Parker – the engine behind our team’s technical side. As a kitchen designer and food service consultant, Doug is instrumental when it comes to deciding how our commercial kitchens are orchestrated.
With his incredible breadth of experience, Doug helps us solve the puzzle of how the multitude of kitchen equipment is laid out, providing a service to the chef and back-of-house staff while also making sure we meet the strict requirements of the local health department.
In the world of kitchen design, Doug is a second generation industry veteran with over 30 years of experience, having been involved in hundreds of projects for clients such as Apple, Ghirardelli Chocolate, Stanford University, as well as a variety of local classics such as Mister Jius and Pizzeria Delfina.
We sat down with Doug to get his thoughts on the latest trends and challenges in the food service industry. We started off by asking Doug to explain how he typically engages in a new project.
NM: Are you typically hired by architects, directly by restaurateurs, or a combination of both?
DP: It’s a combination. Now, since I’ve had so much exposure in the food end of it, I’ve worked with Cisco. There’s US foods, there’s Birate food, there’s a lot of food distributors. And I’ve been fortunate because of the turnover with food sales and they hop around so much and they take me with them.
And then also from that, we always have architects that we’re involved with. So we always get referrals from them as well. So I would say it’s 50:50.
NM: Can you run us through a standard project? What phases are you involved with and how does it typically start?
DP: Okay. The first phase begins with talking with the client chef. From those conversations, we create hand sketches and generate a floor plan and schedule of equipment. From there, we’ll do the point of connection drawings (connecting the equipment to the plumbing system), which we typically give to the engineers, but sometimes in your case, the MEP engineers do it. Once the plans are done and coordinated with the architect and MEP engineers, then it’ll be submitted to the building and health departments.
Once the plans are approved, then we usually help clients get bids on the kitchen equipment so they can make their purchases. I used to do site visits and meet with the trades, the plumber and electrician for example, to answer any questions that might come up at the site, but sometimes the clients don’t have that in their budget.
NM: What new trends are you seeing in kitchen and restaurant design, and what have you seen in your career? Has there been a significant change in the way that the kitchens and restaurants are laid out? Where do you see the industry going in the foreseeable future?
“I think with the 50% occupancy mandate you’re barely breaking even. You’re better off just doing to-go and just keeping a cook staff. You don’t need a dishwasher, you don’t need wait staff. Until it gets back to 100% you won’t see a lot of big restaurants for a while.“
DP: The trend I’ve seen earlier in my career were diners – every five years the diner concept came back. Everybody wanted to do a 50s diner, and I don’t see that anymore. Coffee houses have been big since the beginning and I see that as a huge trend. I don’t know how many of those we do. Ice cream has been pretty much the same.
In terms of cooking trends – the only thing I’ve seen with the pandemic, obviously, was everybody was choosing to order to-go. A standard restaurant that seats 80 is not really designed to be a to-go only facility. Fortunately, restaurateurs are pretty innovative and they can figure out how to get things done in the kitchen, having to get ten meals out the door in an hour or less instead of out on the table.
The food hasn’t changed except menus have gotten smaller because they don’t want to spend money on all of that inventory. Right now I’m seeing things coming back as you are, too. I’ve seen a lot of businesses choosing to move into existing restaurants that already have a kitchen, so they just have to replace some of the equipment because they don’t have the money yet, or they may be trying to save money with the pandemic the way it is. It’s such a roller coaster ride, but it’s getting better.
I think with the 50% occupancy mandate you’re barely breaking even. You’re better off just doing to-go and just keeping a cook staff. You don’t need a dishwasher, you don’t need wait staff. Until it gets back to 100% you won’t see a lot of big restaurants for a while.
“I always told my niece who cuts hair, “Well, you and I are both in a business that will never go away. People need to eat, and they got to eat their haircut.”
And then when the pandemic hit, they shut her down. They shut me down. I had to call her up and apologize.
NM: What are your thoughts on the rise of Grubhub and delivery during this time? And the cloud kitchen typology – have you designed any of those spaces? Do you think that’s going to become a new trend vs a more traditional dine-in setting?
DP: I think it’s already here. Even before the pandemic we had been designing for pickup areas for the to-go business and for the Grubhubbers and delivery services to come in. It became a new station in the restaurant. A barbecue place I worked with was turning 100 meals a night.
NM: How did you do that?
DP: I think what has to happen is Grubhub and the delivery companies need to get their services up to date. Everybody I’ve heard that’s used them complains that they just dropped the food off, they don’t care, and yet they represent the restaurant. And then everybody calls the restaurants to complain that the delivery guy was terrible. The food was cold and they’re like, “Well, they’re not part of my business!”. So I see a lot of operators having problems with it, but I hear Grubhub is trying to step that up a little bit.
NM: What’s your favorite restaurant from a design perspective? It can be one that you’ve worked on or not – what makes it successful?
DB: For me it’s the Napa Valley Wine Train, which is a moving train that goes from Napa to St. Helena and back. I designed the kitchen car for them and they gave me a railroad car that was built in 1948. I had to go up there a few times a week and we had to gut the whole thing to put the kitchen equipment in there and we made it work with a very limited space.
I also did some work for Pixar Animation, we did their first kitchen in Emeryville. It was interesting to work with a different set of mind and to work with Steve Jobs who was involved with the project. And we worked with his personal chef who used to work at Apple to design the kitchen. He was not only Steve Jobs’ personal chef but also the head chef for Apple..
NM: And how was working with Steve Jobs?
DP: He was pretty quiet and mostly let his team do all the work.
“The biggest mistake I see with a lot of clients is location, especially with smaller businesses. They don’t understand that foot traffic is the key to success.”
NM: Do you like these new coffee shop typologies that are coming around? I feel like that’s something new, right? Aside from the chains.
DP: The biggest mistake I see with a lot of clients is location, especially with smaller businesses. They don’t understand that foot traffic is the key to success for a small coffee shop, because it’s not a destination, it’s, “Hey, I got to go to work. I’m going to stop at Joe’s Coffee, get one on my way.” So that’s kind of hard to survive, and people don’t want to pay for foot traffic because you pay higher rent, but I’d rather pay higher rent and have 1000 people every 2 hours walk by my store instead of paying half of that and have 20 people walk by my store.
Thanks for reading! We hope to have more insightful conversations with the industry experts in the near future.