Carpenters have a saying: "Measure twice, cut once." For restaurateurs, it's not as simple as using a measuring tape, but getting the right equipment for your restaurant business starts with carefully deciding what your needs are. This is a crucial step in your launch. If you sink too much money into equipment at startup, you may not have enough left to stay in business until you turn a profit. On the other hand, underestimating your needs can hamper your growth and lead to costly renovations a few years down the road.
Your menu and your concept for the restaurant will drive your purchase decisions. How many dishes do you plan to offer? What equipment will you need to create that menu and serve it in volume? How many seats do you need, and how often will you have to turn them in order to pay the bills? What market are you targeting? The answers to those questions determine how much equipment and what kind of equipment you'll need.
As the Rolling Stones observed, "You can't always get what you want." Reality will inevitably force some compromises between the kitchen you want and the kitchen you can actually have. Local building and fire codes play a role in that discussion, and so do the physical constraints, such as the size and layout – especially in older buildings – of your space. Most importantly, your budget will force you to make hard choices. Your final restaurant equipment list will reflect those choices and more.
You can think of your equipment as being divided between the kitchen, or "back of the house," and the dining room, or "front of the house." Everything involved in the production of your food can be considered the back of the house, and everything required for service can be considered the front of the house. Both are vital, and they'll need separate lists of equipment.
Your actual production equipment depends on the type of food you plan to serve and how much of it. If you don't serve breakfast, for example, you might not need a flat-top griddle. On the other hand, if your business plan calls for serving 200 breakfasts each hour, then you might need two. The same logic applies to ovens, fryers and other equipment. Most restaurants use some combination of the same basic equipment, though, so you can customize this list to fit your own needs.
Dry Storage: You'll need shelves and racks for dry goods and canned goods, pots and pans, takeout packaging and supplies such as paper towels and bathroom tissue. You'll also need a separate area where you can store cleaning and sanitizing supplies away from anything food-related.
Refrigeration: This includes everything from walk-in coolers and freezers to freestanding refrigerators and smaller undercounter units in your prep kitchen and main kitchen. Your needs are dictated largely by the volume of food you prepare. If you order weekly, for example, you should have enough refrigeration to hold a week's worth of supplies. On the line, you'll need enough to keep each station reasonably supplied during busy periods.
Prep Surfaces and Equipment: Ideally, you'll have a separate area for food prep away from your main production area, with its own work surfaces and refrigeration. Equipment in this area might include:
- Food processors
- Blenders and immersion blenders
- Chopping and slicing machines
- Mixers, either countertop or floorstanding
- Knife holders
- Knives and cutting boards, ideally color coded for use with different ingredients
- Racks, carts and storage containers to organize and move ingredients and prepared foods
Cooking Surfaces and Equipment: Your main working kitchen is where most of the cooking and baking will happen, so this is where most of your heavy equipment is located. This will usually include some combination of:
- Flat-top griddles
- Gas ranges
- Induction cooktops
- Broilers or "salamanders," often installed over a range
- Deep fryers
- Convection ovens or deck ovens
- Microwave ovens
- Hoods and venting for your major appliances, as specified in your local code
- Toasters, sandwich presses, waffle irons and other specialized small appliances as needed
Dishwashing Area: Don't economize in your "dish pit," because turning over utensils, pans and serviceware in a hurry can be the difference between a smooth day's service and several frantic, stressful hours in the weeds. Buy a dishwasher big enough to handle the volume of wares you'll generate during service, and provide enough space in the form of counters or racks for both clean and dirty items to be stacked and organized. A full three-sink system for handwashing large items and perhaps a dedicated separate machine for glassware are also nice to have. The faster you can wash your dishes, the fewer you'll need to buy, so money spent here can be partially recaptured in the front of the house.
Cleaning, Sanitation and Safety Equipment: This includes your hand-washing stations, the dispensers you'll use for your cleaning chemicals, the spray bottles you'll need for sanitizer, your nonskid floor mats, your fire extinguishers and everything else necessary to maintain a safe and sanitary workspace.
Cookware, Bakeware and Smallware: These aren't as eye catching as the big items, but they're just as important. They include all the pans and baking sheets you'll need for your menu as well as the pots, skillets, tongs, turners, spatulas, peelers and other utensils your cooks will need. Don't forget thermometers to test your foods and refrigeration units as needed to maintain food safety.
In the front of the house, it's sometimes hard to draw a line between what's decor and what's equipment, but for the purposes of this discussion, we'll focus on those things that are primarily functional.
Bar Equipment: If your establishment has a bar, it'll need its own share of equipment. This includes a hand-washing station, refrigeration for beer, wine and mixers, beverage dispensers and storage for their tanks, a glassware storage area and room for the bartenders to prepare and refrigerate their various ingredients and garnishes. If you can manage to give the bar its own dishwasher for glassware, that's a serious bonus.
Refrigeration: You'll need a cooler or two for condiments, pre-plated desserts, nonalcoholic beverages, prepared salads and anything else servers can deliver to the table without needing the kitchen's help. In a self-serve environment, you might also use refrigerated merchandising displays to drive sales and display your products.
Coffee and Tea Equipment: This depends on your clientele and your style of service, but it might include anything from a commercial grade, single-serving coffee pod system to plumbed-in drip coffee makers to an elaborate espresso-making setup. Most machines come with a tap for hot water, which you'll use to make tea. If you aren't preparing coffee and tea to order, you might also need thermal pots to keep them warm for service.
Self-Service Food Equipment: In a buffet or self-serve setting, you might need additional microwaves, heated displays, steam tables or a refrigerated salad bar for your customers to use. These will also need plenty of servicewares such as tongs, ladles, spoons and either takeout containers or plates and bowls. Self-service fountain beverage dispensers, napkin and straw dispensers and condiment dispensers fit this category as well.
Table Settings: This includes everything your guests will use to eat their meals, including the dishes, coffee cups, silverware, glasses for water, wine and beer and so on. You should think of these as "semi-consumables." They're a permanent purchase, but you will have plates dropped, glasses shattered and cutlery accidentally scraped into the garbage with your food waste.
Sound System: In almost every scenario, you'll want a way to provide music to your dining room. That might be a streaming service, a curated playlist or just a handful of your favorite CDs from home, but in any case, you'll need a playback device and some speakers. You'll also usually need to pay a licensing fee, which isn't equipment as such, but it is a cost for which you have to account.
Communications/Sales Aids: In most settings, you'll use a few visual aids to help you communicate to the diner your menu, your specials or your vision. These can be as simple as a chalkboard or as deluxe as an interactive kiosk or a professionally prepared video playing on multiple screens. The laminated "table talkers" that many chains use to promote their specials are easy to replicate, even for a small operator on a tight budget.
In the modern world, equipment for a restaurant business doesn't begin with frying pans and end with plates. You'll also need a computer system to help you run your establishment and at least a modestly equipped office where you can do that. A desk, a filing cabinet and a printer or copier would be the functional minimum.
You'll also need at least a basic accounting or bookkeeping program and some form of point of sale system, whether it is a sophisticated touchscreen system or a cash box under the counter. You can also purchase programs to manage your staffing and inventory, recipe management and customer relationships. You can even customize an off-the-shelf smartphone app to drive customer engagement.
This isn't a comprehensive list, and no one list will fit every restaurant's needs anyway. For more comprehensive checklists or for guidance in deciding what you do and don't need, industry organizations such as the National Restaurant Association can provide you with useful resources. You might also enlist the help of a restaurant consultant, your equipment vendor or an experienced mentor who is familiar with the restaurant industry in your area.