In the past, restaurant customers may have preferred food to magically appear out from behind closed doors, with no indication whatsoever about how the sausage is made—figuratively or literally. After years of hearing Big Food and fast food horror stories that’ll turn your stomach, however, the prototypical modern diner seems to want transparency rather than mystery.
For maximum transparency, restaurants ranging from fast-casual superstar Chipotle, to indie eateries favored by foodies, to massive fast-food chains like Domino’s are all turning to the open kitchen.
The open kitchen trend seems to have been born in big cities such as New York, where chefs cooked within view of diners largely due to space constraints. Getting in the habit of watching chefs do their thing on TV has obviously boosted the fascination with what goes on in restaurant kitchens. As diners grew obsessed with celebrity chefs and the creative ways fresh and exotic ingredients were being combined, consumers increasingly came to view the flames and steam and clattering in the kitchen as part of the “show” of dining out.
The open kitchen trend trickled down to the growing fast casual market, most obviously with the wildly successful Chipotle chain. The “Chipotle Experience,” as it’s called, is deeply rooted in transparency, with all the ingredients of burritos, bowls, tacos, and salads “laid out in front of you so you can choose the perfect combination to make your perfect meal.” All of the chopping and assembling of food takes place in full view of customers (behind glass), purposefully so. Here’s part of Chipotle’s explanation for why the open kitchen design is so important:
The sounds, the smells, and the sights of cooking can really help you work up an appetite. Unfortunately in a lot of restaurants the “cooking” they do is more like putting together a science experiment. To that end, each Chipotle is designed with a kitchen that’s open to the entire restaurant.
Last year, QSR Magazine named “Transparency” one of the biggest quick service restaurant trends, anticipating that more restaurants will “follow the trend of open kitchens as a sign to customers that they have nothing to hide.” By now, the open kitchen has spread to smaller cities such as Milwaukee. “I do think Milwaukee is catching up to a more national trend,” said one chef in the city earlier this summer. “Thanks to celebrity chefs and good food, the dining public wants to see what’s going on. Also chefs, me included, are proud of what we do and like to showcase our habitat.”
Of course, open kitchens have been around in varying forms at restaurants for decades, from cramped diners where cooks ding bells and holler “Order up!” to Subway franchises, where bread bakes and staffers assemble sandwiches right in front of customers. It’s just that now, the open kitchen is being embraced not simply for practical reasons but as a way to entertain and make diners comfortable.
The latest example is the newly introduced makeover of Domino’s. The chain’s makeover focuses on a “Pizza Theater,” featuring a comfortable lobby where customers can hang out and watch dough being tossed and custom-order pizzas being made by hand. That’s fairly typical scenery at many pizzerias, but somewhat unusual for Domino’s, where customers tend to order food to be delivered. If they are picking up, they expect to be in and out of the store in seconds. A dozen or so of the new concept stores have already been built in the U.S., and designers hope they prove successful in selling a new selection of salads, cookies, and other snacks to the growing legions of pick-up customers.
Another major chain giving an open-kitchen redesign a shot is T.G.I. Friday’s. A Friday’s in Nashville that was destroyed in a flood two years ago has just reopened with a new design featuring a kitchen that’s 25% smaller than usual, placed front and center within view of customers. “We’ve completely redesigned the kitchen so guests can see how we cook their favorite dishes,” T.G.I. Friday’s COO Ricky Richardson said via statement. The design was also chosen because it’s expected to reduce energy use, and it should be relatively easy to employ if and when older locations are converted.