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How much space does my store need for foodservice?

When assessing your space, look at it in tiers, much like you view other aspects of your business.

Steven Petusevsky

August 9, 2016

5 Min Read
How much space does my store need for foodservice?

The first question independent natural products retailers often ask when considering adding prepared foodservice is: How much space will we need to do this? In reality, however, that’s a lot like asking a dentist for a quick diagnosis for a toothache over the phone. You really need to drill down a few important factors in order to determine your space needs.

First thing’s first

The term foodservice covers a wide spectrum of items and possibilities. As the lines blur between quick-service restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores, prepared foods take on many different meanings now, and there are more options to contemplate than just a few years ago. That said, the first serious consideration for retailers like you is what kind of foodservice you want to offer. This all-important initial decision affects space and so much more: the square footage you’ll need for actually preparing the food and for merchandising space, as well as the cost of equipment, labor, goods, insurance and every other imaginable budget line, including marketing.

So think long and hard about how much foodservice you’d like add and how to fit it all into your single store or handful of locations:

  • How much physical space can you dedicate to this endeavor?

  • What’s your buildout budget for equipment, refrigeration and (if needed) ventilation?

  • What are your financial expectations for your foodservice operation?

  • Will offering prepared food increase your customer base enough to warrant the impending deluge of operations?

  • Do you have skilled staff who, ideally, you would like to create your menu offerings in-house? Or would it make more sense to outsource production and simply resell these items?

Category management

Let’s look at the various food categories available and how comprehensive a program you’d need to be able to knock out each. In my opinion, the best baseline foodservice you might consider implementing would include very simple offerings such as soups and sandwiches. You can also add composed salad dishes like potato, coleslaw, pasta and green salads. You can even climb up a level and offer salads that feature grains, marinated vegetables, goat cheese, dried fruit and other more interesting, alluring ingredients. All of these “cold kitchen” items can be produced in a very simple kitchen with no ventilation or cooking equipment.

Once you start cooking foods and applying heat to your kitchen, your space needs and equipment expenses will increase significantly. But before you procure equipment and incur design costs, also consider “incubator kitchens,” which have become more available and popular in recent years. These small kitchens, usually shared by caterers and food truck owners, provide a professional kitchen space in which to prepare menu items for retail. In today’s market, you can either rent one for your production or hire a small, independent contractor to produce foods for you in an incubator kitchen. This way, everything can be done off-site. Going this route usually ensures consistency, but the margins are much less and you’ll likely have less control over ingredient quality and integrity. You also can’t make “made in-house” claims.

Back to space

Let’s add one more layer to the subject of space needs. So far, we’ve discussed offering items that are chilled or mostly assembled versus prepared in ovens, steamers, grills, fryers and other cooking equipment. If you decide to offer cooked foods—your own turkey breast, for example, you’ll need ovens. So in that case, not only do your space requirements go up, but your costs skyrocket, since most cooking equipment must be installed under a very expensive ventilation hood system. These can cost $1,000 per running foot.

This is why, if you want to get your feet wet in foodservice, I believe smaller, well run and less complicated are always better goals than going bigger and tackling items that are more difficult to pull off. Never create something you can’t execute—and execute excellently—24/7.

Even if you craft chilled food in-house, you’ll need ample refrigeration: a large walk-in cooler in the food-prep area for all of your raw materials and backup finished product, plus enough linear footage for refrigeration on the retail floor so shoppers will see your completed creations. If this is the direction you decide to go, you’ll also need plenty of table workspace to compose salads, sandwiches or platters. And as for merchandising cases to display your menu, you can either purchase these used or have them custom made—yet again a huge spectrum to ponder.

Case closed

When assessing your space, look at it in tiers, much like you view other aspects of your business.

Tier A: Keep it simple. Offer outsourced soups and just make great sandwiches in-house. You can do this least expensively and within 200 square feet. This route requires no ventilation or costly equipment, but you need plenty of refrigeration and table space.

Tier B: Bring it up a notch. Add a few nicer sandwiches and salads. Maybe offer a few more green salads and side salads. You can accomplish this with pretty much the same Tier A footprint and expenses.

Tier C: Commit to cooking. Investments include expensive ventilation and cooking equipment, and you must have skilled employees on your team who can operate it all. Equipment investment alone can run several hundred thousand dollars and require at least 800 square feet for a small independent store

As long as you’ve considered all the possibilities—and you have a vision—you’ll be prepped for the project at hand and can make it a reality. Most importantly, you should be able to make it a success.  

Chef Steven Petusevsky is the author of The Whole Foods Market Cookbook – a Guide to Natural Foods with 350 Recipes (Clarkson Potter, 2002). He works as a culinary resource for several companies, can often be found squeezing fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables in produce sections and will travel long distances for the perfect meal.

About the Author(s)

Steven Petusevsky

Culinary Innovation

Chef Steven Petusevsky is nationally known as a pioneer in the pairing of health and exceptional taste. His culinary studies have taken him across the globe in search of innovative and authentic cooking techniques. Robust earthy flavors and vibrant cuisines capture the influence and unique reinterpretations of the ethnic dishes he is famous for creating.

Chef Steve was the National Director of Creative Food Development for Whole Foods Market from 1990 to 2002. He wrote the book on natural foods, quite literally. He is the author of The Whole Foods Market Cookbook – A Guide to Natural Foods with 350 Recipes published by Clarkson Potter in fall 2002.

Since 2002, he has worked as an outside resource and industry consultant to innovate or create food service programs for major retail and restaurant chains and institutions including Google, Lettuce Entertain You Group, UCLA, UMASS, Roundy’s, Mariano’s and Lucky’s Markets, among others. His passion and expertise in “plant forward” and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine remains the central focus of his work.

Petusevsky is a celebrated food journalist. His monthly column entitled Inspired Vegetarian for Cooking Light Magazine ran for more than four years and he continues to write special features for the magazine. His weekly syndicated column Vegetarian Today, written for The Chicago Tribune news service, was published in hundreds of newspapers across the nation for more than a decade. His work has also been featured in Health, Fine Cooking, the LA Times Syndicate, Food & Wine and Restaurant Hospitality.

His recently published books, The Diabetes Vegetarian Cookbook and Sizzle and Smoke: Diabetes Friendly Recipes for Charcoal, Gas and Stovetop Grills were published by the American Diabetes Association in 2013 and early 2014.

Petusevsky is currently a member of the Menus of Change Advisory Board for the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and co-chair of the CIA’s Appetites & Innovation initiative, a national leadership collaborative created for the purpose of advancing culinary excellence, health and wellness, sustainability and cultures of innovation in retail foodservice.

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