Sometimes it all comes down to exhaust. Last year, restaurateur Sofia Spinoza contracted with a kitchen designer to install a $10,000 hood and exhaust system for her restaurant, Cat’s Alley, in Watsonville, California. The designer took the measurements and ordered the hood, but when it arrived, there was a little problem — it did not fit.
Spinoza’s restaurant had 8-foot ceilings and the hood had a 2-foot depth, which left it only six feet above the floor — okay for short chefs, but nowhere near enough clearance for city building inspectors.
Undeterred by something as inconvenient as building codes, the designer did the equivalent of jamming a square peg into a round hood. He cut eight inches off the hood, “which was illegal,” says Spinoza. “He also tore the wall without even telling me, and he even wanted to make a hole in the roof so it would fit.” Spinoza was forced to dump the hood and the designer, and pay a lawyer in the process.
Spinoza is not the first restaurateur (nor will she be the last) to run into major problems buying, installing, and maintaining an exhaust system. Restaurateurs need all kinds of equipment, and the type of equipment they purchase will vary widely depending on what they are cooking and serving. You can’t, after all, have a steakhouse without a good charbroiler; same goes for a Chinese restaurant and a line of woks.
But ask kitchen designers, suppliers and the restaurant owners themselves to name the most expensive and critical piece of equipment that all restaurateurs need regardless of the menu, and they will likely point to an exhaust system. “Every restaurant needs one, it’s consistent regardless of the cuisine,” says Charlie Fusari, a vice president at Economy Restaurant Fixtures in San Francisco. When such systems go haywire, restaurant owners risk literally burning their bottom line.
No Small Investment
Bill Lee, 53, started out in the restaurant business at 14 as a dishwasher. In the past 39 years, he has started seven restaurants. He was lucky and smart enough to sell his very first restaurant, Billy Quons in Carmel, California, a hot spot that attracted the likes of Clint Eastwood, Merv Griffin, and Gene Hackman, for a nice $600,000 profit. Today, he owns Bahama Billy’s Island Steakhouse in Carmel.
“You don’t have time to hear about all the mistakes I’ve made in my 39 years,” he jokes, and Lee has had plenty of trouble with exhaust systems. They can be tricky for a number of reasons, he says. If the system isn’t strong enough, the kitchen and dining room can become as hazy as a hot Los Angeles day. Lee had to keep the front door of one of his restaurants open to keep patrons from smelling and seeing smoke. “It was an open kitchen,” he says, “and we didn’t have $10,000 to redesign the exhaust system.”
These systems, which can cost anywhere $1,000 to $1,500 per linear foot (and the average is 10 to 12 feet), must not only funnel smoky, greasy air out, but bring an equal amount of fresh, clean air in. “It’s extremely important to have the air balanced,” says Lee. Otherwise, like any good vacuum, when the bad air is sucked out, fresh air will come rushing in, most often from the dining room, causing all sorts of ghostly problems like slamming doors and floating curtains.
Proper venting sounds simple enough, but often it isn’t. Many times stoves and exhaust hoods are not adjacent to an outside area to properly vent the exhaust. Recently, Bill Locklar, president of Monterey Bay Restaurant and Equipment in central California, installed a duct system in a Persian restaurant. Most of the suppliers weren’t even willing to quote the job because it was too technical, he says. In a maze that would stymy any rate, the duct system went out 10 feet from the back of the hood, then another 30 feet, made a right turn for another 30 feet and then 40 feet straight up, for a total of 110 feet, or the equivalent of seven-story building. The cost of the system for a 10-foot hood was $40,000. Often, as in this case, the cost of the exhaust system is dictated by the complexity of the duct run, not by the hood and mechanical parts themselves.
Find the Right Professionals
So how do you avoid astronomical costs and mistakes when purchasing an exhaust system? If you are thinking of building a restaurant from scratch, make sure a duct system can be easily installed. Even before you go to an architect or kitchen designer (more on that later), find a contractor who has already installed many restaurant duct systems (at least 15) and have them survey your potential restaurant location to give you an estimate for how easy or difficult it will be to install an exhaust system.
Next, hire a reputable architect who clearly understands the dangers and importance of exhaust systems. Look for an architect who has a good track record in the restaurant business and comes with solid references. Because most architects don’t specialize in kitchens, they will often farm out this work to a kitchen designer. That’s why it’s important to ask an architect what kitchen designer they use and then interview that designer separately. It is also possible to find a kitchen designer that will handle designing the entire restaurant.
Before agreeing to work with any kitchen designer, make sure they have designed restaurants you like and are familiar with. They should also have a minimum of five years of experience and completed at least 15 projects,” says Jeff Melton of J.M. Design and Associates, who has designed 250 restaurants, everything from McDonald’s to high-end French eateries. You also want to make sure the architect and kitchen designer work well together and have completed successful projects in the past.
Once the plans are complete, the architect/kitchen designer will send off the plans to an engineering firm that will calculate how much power your system will need and ensure the air is properly balanced.
What Type of Hood?
As with many types of restaurant equipment, the hood itself and its inner mechanisms, such as fans and pulleys, don’t necessarily vary widely between manufacturers. In fact, the inner guts of different brands may even be made by the same company.
There are two different types of hoods. A Type 2 nongrease hood is for restaurants that are only producing water vapor during the cooking process. A Type 1 grease hood is for all the others. Restaurant supplier Locklar believes restaurateurs should only buy the more powerful and efficient Type 1 UL hoods as opposed to the NFPA (National Fire and Protection Association) hoods. Some of the best brands, he says, are AVtech, Gaylord, Delfeld, and Captive Air.
Once a Type 1 exhaust system is up and running, it must be regularly cleaned by a company that specializes in duct cleaning. Depending on the volume of the grease produced, this can be once a month or once every three months. Also, restaurateurs need to be ever watchful to make sure the system is working properly. If doors began to slam, the dining room becomes hazy, the kitchen staff starts complaining about heat, or even the quality of the food takes a nosedive, it may be time to call in an air-balancing expert who can recalibrate your system. Your kitchen supplier should be able to help you find such an expert.
Always keep in mind that (to turn a famous quote of Oliver Wendell Holmes on its head) “most of the achievements and pleasures of life are in fresh air.”