Rapid, high-volume growth in an F&B operation is a sure sign of success and a boon to the bottom line. But that success can come at a price if an outdated kitchen leaves cooks and servers to struggle daily filling an avalanche of orders.
One property reflective of those growing pains is Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort & Spa near Austin, Texas, and its Firewheel Cafe restaurant. The venue’s 5,536-square-foot kitchen was originally configured for buffet production, but today it’s also tasked with menus for the adjacent Shellers Barrelhouse Bar—currently the busiest F&B option at Lost Pines—and in-room dining. Those three areas combine for more than 1,200 covers on a peak day, and consequently, the Firewheel kitchen “became challenging in every facet. We didn’t have enough room to work, no room to put food in the windows, and no room to expedite that food,” says John Pivar, executive chef at Lost Pines.
Early last year, the property budgeted $1.9 million to bring the Firewheel kitchen up to date with its current needs, but chose not to expand the footprint. Instead, they employed the same strategy as they did with their menus: they started from scratch.
“We had an inefficient use of space, layout, and a resulting lack of flow,” Pivar says. “It caused us to clear out everything down to the four walls and start over. We originally thought we could just move equipment into the sequence we wanted, but then we ran into problems with where the electrical panel, plumbing, and drains were located, so we cut up the floor to move the drains, rewired the electricity, and built it out according to our new plan.”
Because the original kitchen was designed for buffet production, it was laid out “like a big U,” remembers Pivar. “We had an open window to the buffet area in the Firewheel dining room where we would place food, and our production areas were on the sides of that U, where we had a grill station, sauté station, flattop, pantry, and more, but that layout created unnecessary walking distance to get food to the window. When we made items for Shellers or room service, the walking distance and obstacles increased because food was traveling in the opposite direction to be expedited. So, our number one goal with the new kitchen was to increase efficiency and flow and reduce steps.
“Before, if you worked the pantry, for example, every dish you brought to the window was about 15 steps,” Pivar continues. “It wasn’t set it up like a traditional line, and with Shellers and room service needing plated items, the new kitchen had to be set up like a traditional line.”
Pivar worked with a company called Innovative Foodservice Design Team on the new plan, and the layout was changed from a “U” shape to parallel work stations, linear from left to right. The buffet area in Firewheel (see sidebar) was also given a makeover, and the open window from the kitchen to the buffet was walled off—no longer visible to the customer, but still al-lowing a passageway for cooks to replenish buffet stations.
Behind that wall on the kitchen side, a 32-foot-long refrigeration/freezer unit was installed—20 feet longer than the previous one—spanning nearly the length of the room from left to right.
In front of that refrigeration wall is the new cook line. “We broke it into stations that made sense,” Pivar says. “We have our fryers, a combi oven, grill, flattop, and stove next to each other, and a couple of salamanders above them. In front of that, we installed a large expo line, and each station has undercounter refrigeration and room above for mise en place, so you can separate the kitchen into three or four very functional stations.”
In front of the new expo line is a second expo line, primarily for expediting Shellers and room service orders. This keeps servers from crowding the main Firewheel line and provides extra space for plates during peak hours. “It’s not uncommon for hotel kitchens to produce for more than one restaurant, so that second expo line has been crucial to our success in pumping up the volume on orders,” says F&B Director Robert Clarke.
One stipulation Pivar had about the new equipment was to not have any custom pieces. “Then, if it breaks down over time, it can be easily replaced, he says. “Our previous kitchen had a lot of custom-made countertops and refrigeration units that couldn’t be moved around.”
More Flavor, Less Labor
Because the new kitchen solved flow, space, and efficiency issues, there was room to expand the menus at both Firewheel and Shellers by approximately 35%. “That caused us to see a spike in our customer scores,” Clarke says. “F&B variety is important at a resort like this, where our guests are staying multiple days, and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback about our larger menus.”
The improved setup also allowed Firewheel to reduce the number of cooks from nine during its busiest days, to seven. “It really improved staff morale, because they now have the environment and the tools to take care of the guest,” notes Pivar. “Our goal was to build a high-volume production kitchen to meet the demands of our business, and that’s exactly what we have now.”
Michael Costa is editorial director at Hotel F&B.
See Executive Chef John Pivar’s signature BLTG sandwich (bacon, lettuce, tomato, goat cheese), featuring from-scratch honey bacon smoked at the property, and nearby Hill Country goat cheese.
Re-imagined Firewheel Cafe buffet offers more variety, sleeker look.
By Michael Costa
Hyatt Regency Lost Pines near Austin, Texas, is a relatively new resort, opened in 2006,
but the property’s perpetually busy Firewheel Cafe had already shown signs of being outdated by 2016 (see main story)—in particular in the production capabilities of its kitchen
and its workhorse buffet area in the front of the house.
So, when the resort decided to reconfigure the kitchen to handle high-volume demand,
they also rebuilt the buffet area for easier guest access and more menu variety.
“The footprint is similar, but it’s essentially brand new,” says Executive Chef John Pivar.
“We widened the space for better customer flow and installed brand-new marble that
better reflects the décor of the restaurant. We put our induction burners underneath that
marble for a cleaner look, as well as three ice wells; we used to only have one.”
By widening the length of the back wall where the chafing dishes and carving stations
are located, Firewheel now offers nine hot items instead of five. They’re also able to hold
small batches of food for replenishing in hot boxes installed under the counter. “That allows
us to produce a lot of the buffet food in the kitchen and keep it fresh, rotating frequently,”
notes Pivar. “Our meat carvers also have more room to work, and the entire area looks
much simpler and contemporary.”—MC