When Sutcliffe Catering changed from a vended service to traditional catering at a Tesco site in Northampton, one of the biggest challenges was preventing the new kitchen's cooking smells from wafting through Tesco's warehouse and offices.
"The cost of running ducting through the building and on to the roof would have made the whole project prohibitive," explains Martin Fidler, general manager, design services, for Sutcliffe's parent company, Granada Food Services.
To overcome the problem, Sutcliffe chose a special extraction system from Kitchen Ventilation Services (KVS)that enables air from the kitchen to be discharged from lower down in the building, without smells.
The extracted air first goes through three levels of filtration in the KVS Ecology Unit, removing as much as 99% of airborne particulates. Then it goes through an odour control system to neutralise any remaining cooking smells. Says Fidler: "If you stand outside near the discharge louvres, which are between the ground and first floors, all you can smell is a faint aroma of pine."
The site houses Tesco's bonded warehouse and offices, with some 320 people working in as many as three shifts. Until August last year, staff feeding was achieved through a battery of vending machines, with hostess service. Cook-chill meals were brought in from another Sutcliffe site at Welwyn Garden City and on-site preparation was restricted to salads.
Only a tiny preparation area was needed for the vended service. To make the new kitchen, this was expanded by around 40% by taking some space from a neighbouring office. But space was still tight and the kitchen has been designed by Martin Fidler and Quantum Design to make the best use of every available inch.
In the main kitchen area, there is an island preparation counter in the centre. Around it is cooking equipment along one wall, refrigeration along a second wall, preparation sinks on a third and dishwashing on the fourth.
First in the run of cooking appliances are two Rational combi ovens - a 10-grid and a six-grid, stacked one on top of the other. Electric rather than gas models were chosen because they are smaller. "I particularly like the Rational combis because they don't need a water softener, which we haven't got room for here," says Fidler. "They have a system which flushes out the generator every day and that gets rid of a lot of the scale."
Catering manager Jane McNulty is also a fan of the combis. "They are brilliant," she says. "We tend to keep one on roast and one on steam for vegetables. I think they are particularly good for roasting because they keep the moisture in the meat and there's a probe that buzzes when meats are cooked."
A narrow worktop separates the ovens from two Garland twin-basket fryers, and another strip of worktop separates the fryers from a range. Fidler says he believes it is essential to have work benches alongside fryers and hobs so that chefs have somewhere to put cooking pans.
"These benches are only 300mm wide, but they're big enough for a gastronorm container," he adds. "I also always try to put a bench at the end of island cooking suites because it can prevent burns. If someone slips and tries to save themselves, they grab a bench, not a gas flame."
The Garland fryers are mainly used for chips, which are always popular with staff. The neighbouring Garland range has six gas burners, heavily used for custard, gravy and anything that needs long, slow cooking. However, McNulty says the oven in the range is under-used because the chefs prefer the combis.
Above the range is an eye-level Garland grill, mainly used for bacon at breakfast and for dishes such as gammon steaks.
Last in the line of cooking appliances is a small Falcon electric bratt pan. Fidler is a great believer in bratt pans because of their versatility. "This one is only small, but it's much more useful than putting in another range."
McNulty agrees. "We could do with two because our chefs fight over who uses this one! The lunch shift tends not to get the advantage of it for their early cooking because the breakfast chef uses it for eggs. If you're clever, you can fry 20 eggs at a time in it.
"It's much safer than frying pans on the hob because there are no handles sticking out. And if there's ever a problem, all you have to do is shut the lid. It's also very good for sealing meat and, if we've got time, we also use it for casseroles. Then on Fridays we always use it for deep-fried fish."
Refrigeration is all made by Foster and supplied by Consort. It includes a double upright freezer, two double upright fridges, and additional undercounter units. Fidler says they were chosen because they work well in high ambient temperatures.
Preparation equipment includes a Metcalfe potato peeler, which McNulty says is efficient and peels cleanly. A Robot Coupe R301 Ultra is used for a variety of tasks, including cheese grating and preparing carrots and cabbage for coleslaw.
There is also a Hobart counter-top mixer, which is heavily used. "We have the attachments for pastry, whisking and a dough hook, and we use the lot," says McNulty. "It's very good for everything from pastry and sponges to mashed potato. The only problem is that it's not big enough, especially in the period leading up to Christmas. If we're doing mashed potato, we have to do it in two loads."
The slicer is left over from the old vending preparation area, but is now only used once a week for roast meats. McNulty says: "We used to sell a lot of salads, so the slicer was frequently used on ham and cold meat."
Another leftover from the vending operation is a Snappy Sealer from Seal Packaging. McNulty says it is not something most caterers would think of as a priority, but having always had it she feels it is a useful item. "It is much more hygienic to wrap things like rolls and bread and butter," she points out.
Similarly the microwave oven, a Panasonic 1700, has been retained from the vending operation. "We don't use it a great deal now, but it is good and reliable," says McNulty.
In some Sutcliffe staff feeding sites customers make their own toast, but here toast is made in the kitchen using a Dualit six-slot toaster. McNulty says her customers prefer this approach - and it saves having toast crumbs everywhere. She adds that the toaster gets "hammered" but so far only two elements have gone, and spares are kept on site and can easily be fitted.
Fidler points out that a rotary toaster could have been installed, but would have cost about £500 more and would have needed much more space.
The dishwashing area has an IMC waste disposal unit plus a Hobart hood dishwasher, using Gibson chemicals and dosing equipment. Fidler explains that he specified the AUX dishwasher instead of the standard AMX model because it has a booster to help with heavy soiling. "This means it can cope with utensils," says Fidler. "Because space is limited, there isn't room for separate pot-washing sinks."
However, he did manage to fit in two sink bowls next to the dishwasher. "I always like to do this so there is a back-up if the dishwasher breaks down."
Storage space is also tight, and to make the most of it, Hupfer racking has been installed in the combined office and dry storage room. Fidler says it holds a lot because it links together with corner hooks and because the height of each shelf is individually adjustable. Also, the bottom shelf can be removed, allowing the floor to be washed without the need to remove all the shelving.
Installation of the new kitchen took six weeks. During this time a smoking area at the other end of the dining room was converted into a temporary preparation facility for food for the vending machines. Meanwhile, the kitchen was screened off so work there could be done without dirt contaminating the dining room.
Building contractor John Blagbrough Contracts had to demolish a wall to expand the kitchen area. The project also required the installation of a suspended ceiling to house extract equipment - around half a ton of it, hung on straps.
The floor is a "computer" floor made of metal squares, supported on "stilts", leaving a small gap for under floor pipework. As a result, special small-bore waste pipes have had to be used.
Fabrication throughout the kitchen is by EMH Fabrications.
During the six-week installation, McNulty continued to provide a vended service and a new team of chefs was recruited. She says: "We finished vended service at 4pm on a Saturday. On Sunday we cleaned up, organised the stores and did some preparation. Then we 'went live' for breakfast on Monday morning."
The proof of the new kitchen's success is shown by the huge increase in sales. Having done about 120 vended meals a day, the site now does as many as 120 breakfasts, 40 lunches, 80 evening meals and 90 meals for the night shift.