The Re-invention of Michelin-starred The French Laundry Restaurant

In Yountville, Calif., Chef Thomas Keller’s award-winning, Michelin-starred The French Laundry restaurant has leapt into its next 20 years of operation with a re-invention/ renovation that spanned four years and cost some $10 million. The resulting project preserved the original, historic stone building and its 62-seat dining room. Everything else was rethought, razed to the ground, expanded and rebuilt.

The French Laundry’s new 1,980-sq.-ft. kitchen, re-opened in early 2017, is 25% larger than its predecessor and many times more contemporary. State-of-the-art equipment, immaculate white walls and countertops, and terrazzo flooring practically glisten in the light-filled space, topped by a show-stopping curved ceiling and skylight. A ribbon window connects cooks with the surrounding gardens, while giving guests a peek into the kitchen’s inner workings.

A short walk-way connects the kitchen to the Annex, home to The French Laundry’s support functions: prep kitchen, butchery, produce breakdown and offices. In its (above ground) wine cellar, the Annex has space to store up to 16,000 bottles.

Architecture firm Snøhetta helped bring to life Keller’s vision to marry the classic with the contemporary. (The Louvre Art Museum, Paris, with its iconic glass pyramid entrance created by I.M. Pei, was a key inspiration.) Envelope A+D, Berkeley, Calif., served as executive architect. Tim Harrison, Principal at Harrison, Koellner LLC, Mill Valley, Calif., provided kitchen details, including layout and equipment specifications.

Keller’s new kitchen combines aesthetics with efficiency. Some of its lesser-known attributes include its ventilation, construction and cold storage.

 As originally printed in FER Magazine

White-On-White Kitchen

Designing the kitchen details and layout took much of two years of back-and-forth, and “about 18 iterations before we reached a plan that addressed all of Keller’s needs,” recalls Harrison, who has worked with the chef for more than two decades on various restaurant projects. An open floorplan provides a single, flowing work area for the entire culinary team. Low walls allow visual connections between stations.

Anchoring the work space are two Bonnet island suites, one for pastry, the other for savory items. “The pastry suite is all electric and induction, while the other has the standard solid tops, planchas, ranges and ovens,” Harrison says. The French cooking suites were chosen, he says, for their simplicity and durability. “Keller wanted equipment that would last 20 more years,” Harrison notes.

New to The French Laundry are a wood-burning hearth, rotisserie and cheese humidor. (“The solidfuel hearth, which can burn wood or charcoal, is small by comparison to other places,” says Harrison.) Designers expanded areas for butchery, prep and dessert.

Ceilings, Swooping & Ventilated

Unique to The French Laundry, and visible through kitchen windows to guests strolling in the garden, are custom-made organically-shaped ceilings. Made of curved gypsum, fiber-reinforced panels by Kreysler & Associates, American Canyon, Calif., their daring curves are meant to evoke an unfurling linen cloth. They also hide ductwork along with electric and constructional elements. The ceiling soars to about 20 ft. at its highest point. At the top, skylights allow natural light to pour into the space. As a bonus, built-in sound baffles help dampen ambient noise.

A different overhead solution was required when it came to ventilating the kitchen’s two cooking suites, however. “A traditional hood would have been 7 ft. above the floor— really low compared to the other half of the kitchen with its 20-ft.-high peak,” Harrison says. He reached out to Halton, which had pioneered ventilated ceilings in Canada and at a few U.S. culinary schools. “Halton sent a team to California to meet with (and educate) local health inspectors and engineers. In the end, we prevailed.”

Below The ‘Floating’ Work Stations

One hallmark of Keller’s kitchen is how equipment and counters appear to float above the floor thanks to installation on high concrete curbs rather than wheeled casters. In addition to aesthetics, the design choice also makes cleaning and maintenance much easier.

The request meant curbs had to be both tall and narrow, yet still strong enough to support counters and equipment, and still wide enough for the various pipes, drains and utility lines to be laid as needed.

The French Laundry has long relied on custom-built reach-in refrigerators and freezers rather than walk-ins. “We worked with a refrigerator supplier to create 102- in.-tall, single- and double-door units with custom-built shelving,” Harrison says.  “Our goals are to isolate product to prevent cross-contamination; and to use every inch—in a walk-in, by contrast, you lose all the aisle space,” Harrison says. Dedicated reach-ins include one for produce, for dairy, for meat, for fish. Employees store pre-prepped product in clear, Lexan bins. “Nothing is combined, everything is organized,” Harrison says.

Green Aspects

Guests strolling the grounds would never notice one of the restaurant’s coolest (literally) aspects. A geothermal ground-loop system and solar panels help offset heating and cooling costs. The geothermal system uses a series of deep holes and coolant running through pipes to carry the naturally cool underground temperatures to the restaurant’s remote refrigeration systems. While not new to Keller’s restaurant, the system was expanded considerably from its former scope. “Keller is always looking for energy-saving options,” notes Harrison. On the Annex roof, solar panels by NRG Energy, Houston, provides up to half the electricity demand.

The project touched on nearly every aspect of the property. “By designing and constructing a new kitchen, arrival courtyard and auxiliary building that will complement… the historic value of our beautiful French Laundry,” Keller was quoted, “we’ve cleaned the slate, begun anew and readied ourselves for the next 20 years.”

As originally printed in FER Magazine 

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Upstate New York Hotel Restaurant Combines 21st Century Amenities with Roaring 20s vibe

Hotel Saranac has been awakened, not with a kiss but with an expert, respectful restoration.

When the Roedel Cos. purchased Hotel Saranac, it was a ghostly presence at the heart of the mountain village of Saranac Lake, N.Y., looming over the tranquil lake of the same name. Ever since its opening at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the hotel had been a vital part of the local scene. It hosted countless meetings, conferences, balls and soirées—and accommodated not just one, but two Winter Olympics. For a time, it served as a hospitality college, where students trained to cater to visitors all around the Adirondacks.

But by the time the new owners stepped in, the historic hotel had gone dark except for a giant electric sign on the roof spelling out HOT SARA—all that was left of the HOTEL SARANAC name once proudly emblazoned in letters several feet tall.

The New Hampshire-based Roedel family had generations of history in Saranac Lake, so this would be a labor of love, not just another national-brand hotel to renovate and profitably manage. The various firms tasked with reviving the hotel were scattered all over New York and New England, but they had a clear directive: express the soul of Saranac Lake and the rugged Adirondacks, while honoring historic preservation. “The Adirondacks and the Saranac area are known for lakes, camping and outdoor activities,” Arons explains. “That definitely was a focal point.”

 As originally printed in FER Magazine

Adjusting To Realities

To maintain the informal vibe and maximize food production within the constraints of the infrastructure—without cutting back on seating in the dining room—designers retained the open kitchen. The display kitchen produces all of the made-to-order meals for the restaurant and bar. There’s a custom stainless chef’s counter and wait station, along with key cooking items from Vulcan (a charbroiler with convection oven, six-burner range with convection oven and a griddle with a refrigerated base and salamander), a Pitco fryer assembly, and True refrigerated prep tables and undercounter refrigeration.

Arons says the Campfire Adirondack Grill + Bar is his favorite part of the project. It “features an Adirondacks-totable locavore menu based on the North County’s game, fish, produce and even maple syrup, along with local craft beer,” he says. “Everything in this space reflects a real glamping atmosphere complemented by a great menu.”


The first-floor back-of-house is for bulk prep and food production for the restaurant, room service, banquets and catering. Yet Arons says it’s a simple setup with, at its core basically, “four pieces of equipment and an exhaust hood.” Kitchen appliances include an Alto-Shaam double-stacked combi with a smoker function, as well as a six-burner range with oven and 20-gal. kettle and 30- gal. tilt skillet, all by Vulcan. There’s also room for prep tables, walk-in refrigeration and dishwashing.

The first-floor back-of-house is for bulk prep and food production for the restaurant, room service, banquets and catering. Yet Arons says it’s a simple setup with, at its core basically, “four pieces of equipment and an exhaust hood.” Kitchen appliances include an Alto-Shaam double-stacked combi with a smoker function, as well as a six-burner range with oven and 20-gal. kettle and 30- gal. tilt skillet, all by Vulcan. There’s also room for prep tables, walk-in refrigeration and dishwashing.

Additionally, on the first floor is the lobby bar, with a fabricated glass-rack wall shelf, an under-bar liquor display, back bar coolers and underbar ice chests by Krowne, and a Perlick six-head beer dispenser for a rotating selection of local craft beers. The second-floor bar, adjacent to the wood-beamed Great Hall and a seasonal outdoor dining terrace, has a similar setup, with a Krowne bottle display, underbar cocktail station and back bar cooler, a CMA undercounter dishwasher and a Perlick three-head beer dispenser.

Designers charged the second-floor banquet kitchen with preparing meals for up to 300 diners at a time, often during restaurant and room-service rush periods. To make that logistically possible with the limited space and labor available, Arons sold the owners and their F&B operations executives on the idea of a cold plating system from Alto-Shaam. “It’s the most interesting equipment used in the design of this project,” he says. “Having the ability to cook, chill and plate cold reduces labor and provides the flexibility needed to retherm just before an event with just-in-time food quality.”

Feeling The New-Old Vibe

Having successfully combined 21st century amenities with an early 20th century vibe, the revived Hotel Saranac is now affiliated with the “boutique” Curio Collection by Hilton as well as with the Historic Hotels of America list of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, substantially extending its brand impact. 

Arons returned to the hotel as a guest in the early spring of 2018 for a final run-through with the owners, managers and foodservice staff. He dined at the Campfire Adirondack Grill + Bar. At the same time, he was “just kind of drinking it in; knowing the history of the hotel and what it took to restore it.”

Not so long ago, Arons says, foodservice wouldn’t have gotten so much attention in this type of historic renovation. “The emphasis on the menu might have been less a decade ago,” he says. “The farm-to-table movement, and adapting that to the campfire theme, show a real emphasis on the guest’s experience and not just the food—but the food as part of the experience.” Some other hotel amenities, such as the spa, might also have received less space and emphasis in the remodel without the current focus on customer experiences, he believes.

Some guests might take a pass on the spa or other hotel amenities, but there’s one experiential aspect nobody can possibly miss: the new, full HOTEL SARANAC sign blazing over the town and the lake. HOT SARA has been awakened, not with a kiss but with an expert, respectful restoration.

As originally printed in FER Magazine 

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Breaking Down the Walls Between Back-of-the-house and Dining Rooms

There’s something magical about watching a talented cook prepare a vegetable stir-fry or flame-grilled burger in front of you. Red peppers and broccoli florets sizzle in the wok; the flame of the grill reaches up to surround the freshly-formed patty. Now more than ever, customers want to participate in the culinary experience. Operators and consultants responded by breaking down walls between the back-of-house and dining rooms and designing open display kitchens.

“Display kitchens allow customers to see that the food is fresh and that employees are preparing it in a safe, caring way,” says John Birchfield, FCSI, Principal at Birchfield Jacobs Foodsystems, Baltimore. Across all segments, from fine-dining establishments to quick-service restaurants to healthcare and higher education serveries, display kitchens dominate design.

Costel Coca, Design Principal at Webb Foodservice Design, Tustin, Calif., says, “On our university projects, exhibition cooking isn’t even a question anymore, it’s the baseline. We’re now starting to get a lot more K-12 projects asking for exhibition cooking—operators who traditionally relied on back-of-house kitchens. With open kitchens, students have a better connectivity to the culinary process.

”But designing open kitchens presents challenges. Consultants are faced with creating a kitchen that’s operationally efficient and visually pleasing, not just in the interest the food preparation generates, but in the ability for employees to keep it neat and clean. Planning the menu concept, specifying the right equipment, thinking through utilities and ventilation requirements and paying attention to details will lead to a winning design.

Concept To Equipment

There are as many versions of display kitchens as there are designers. But generally, consultants start by defining the menu concept, and then specify supporting equipment, organized by the most exciting, theater-like pieces upfront near customers and the prep and warewashing workhorses further back. 

Manufacturers have stepped up by building stunning, quality equipment, from color-coated ranges to refrigerators with curved edges for a less-institutional, boxy look.

“One of the biggest mistakes is designing a kitchen without knowing your menu concepts and what you want to prepare out front because that makes a big difference in getting the right equipment and the right layout,” says Carolyn Ruck, Principal at Ruck-Shockey Associates, Truckee, Calif. “And build flexibility into your program so that you can change concepts. Some operators will build big kitchens without really knowing what they want to do and then they’re limited.”

If you have only minimal space in the front-of-house, you’ll need to decide what part of your menu to focus on closest to the customer. Do you want to highlight a build-your-own pizza bar with a hearth oven or is Asian food a big draw and you’ll need a stir-fry station with customer-facing wok induction cooktops?

Reggie Daniel, FCSI, CHM, MCFE, Design Director at Atlanta/Charlotte, N.C.-based Camacho, says, each concept presents different challenges. “Burger joints, pizza places, fine-dining restaurants—they all have their quirks that you have to keep in mind when you’re putting the kitchen together. In many cases, you have to take something that’s bland and make it exciting. You want the guys who are flipping the dough up in the air and then catching it, not putting it into a press and then into a conveyor oven—otherwise you may as well do it behind a wall because there’s nothing sexy about it.”

If you have ample front-of-house space or if customers can view the entire kitchen, designers have ways of creating focus on the action stations and minimizing sightlines to the less romantic but necessary tasks.

To hide tasks, “We often use partial walls or tall equipment, such as interesting-looking storage racks holding whisks and spoons, not just sheet pans, to downplay the back area and draw guests’ eyes to where you want it to be—on the cooking equipment,” says Pamela Eaton, FCSI, LEED AP BD+C, Regional Manager at Cini-Little Int’l., Germantown, Md.

Conveniently, employees rely on the more action-packed equipment—cooking suites, electric griddles, gas-fired grills, hearth ovens—for the finishing and final assembly, which plays well into the operational flow of the kitchen. Food flows in from the back, employees bulk prep or bulk cook it and then move it to the front and into undercounter refrigerators or refrigerated drawers. (Food always flows forward and out.) Ideally, all ingredients needed for a meal period are within arm’s reach of the cooks finishing the dishes.

Also related to operational flow, Armand Iaia, FCSI, Regional Manager at Cini-Little, suggests planning a convenient location for servers to pick up hot and cold foods. The pick-up area needs all the extras, including flatware and condiments, and must be out of the customers’ circulation path. Generally, the hot-food pick-up station has heat lamps, which can block sightlines to the chefs if not planned well. Try to locate the pick-up area off to the side.

In today’s market, you’ll find manufacturers offer more elegantly-designed equipment than in the past. “Clients are paying for a stylistic look to the equipment whereas maybe 10-12 years ago, they would’ve considered the piece more of a commodity, easily replaceable—almost disposable,” Birchfield says. “But with the stylization comes cost. Be careful of how you spend your money so you’re doing it in key locations where it will really make the operation pop.”

Consultants offer a few tips when choosing display-kitchen equipment: Avoid hot equipment with high backs facing customers; they won’t be able to see the action. (Sounds obvious, but it’s missed on a lot of projects.) On cooklines, put in for interconnected equipment versus multiple brands with varying heights.

Keep equipment as low profile as possible across the kitchen; you want the focus on the chefs. For example, opt for refrigerated bases versus tall refrigerators. And consider mobile equipment, which is easier to clean around and underneath. Certain prep equipment has a place in display kitchens too; add a slicer at a deli, for instance, so employees keep productive.

As originally printed in FER Magazine

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Foodservice Industry is Making Wide Use of BIM

BIM works at its best when everyone is working in it.

Mention the word “Revit” to a room full of foodservice facility designers and the resulting groans are likely to be louder than a pond full of croaking Kermits. By our own estimation (a wild guess but probably not inaccurate), about 80% of designers still use AutoCAD to produce drawings from which commercial kitchens are built.

Some of you are asking, “You got a problem with that?” We don’t, but you might. Here’s why.

“AutoCAD just produces lines that represent an object,” according to Brick Brunton, Senior Designer, Smith & Greene, Kent, Wash. “A CAD block or object has no intelligence, no information embedded in it. Revit is a database-driven program, so objects or families are imbued with information and can be manipulated easily depending on how much information is available.”

“The difference is that a Revit family is a smart symbol,” says Suzanne Painter-Supplee, LEED AP+ID&C, Principal, SEE Solutions, Phoenix. “A designer could use 18-in. pipes to show a roller table at the end of a dish machine and AutoCAD would have no problem with it. But that doesn’t give an operator any helpful information when it comes to specifying and purchasing an actual roller table, including load type, steel or aluminum roller material, roller diameter and spacing, high or low roller sets, etc. With Revit, that information is part of the family parameters.”

 As originally printed in FER Magazine

Why Does It Matter?

When all of the information about a building project—from the specs of the foodservice equipment to the materials used for the walls, ceiling and floor—are included in the architectural and design drawings, that information can be used in a multitude of ways. It becomes, in essence, part of building information management (BIM).

Designing to BIM standards is now required in several countries around the world.Using Revit or Revit-compatible software to design buildings and foodservice kitchens, is coming—like it or not—and that wave is already washing up on shore.

What’s The Benefit?

A lot of people think the only reason to use Revit is to generate 3D renderings of how a project might look. And those who are firmly ensconced in the AutoCAD world will tell you that Auto-CAD can give you 3D drawings, too. Maybe not as pretty as a color rendering, but just as effective in practical terms. That’s not true.

The real incentive to switch to smart Revit families from “dumb” AutoCAD objects now if you haven’t already, though, is what those smart families can do for you, including saving you money. In AutoCAD, lines on a drawing might signify a dish machine, for example, and give its dimensions. But those lines don’t specify what type of dish machine, what electrical service it requires, the incoming water temperature and pressure it needs to operate efficiently, whether or not incoming water needs to be treated, or whether the machine has a built-in booster or needs one.

A piece of software can’t do all those things either, but by building that information—all of it—into a Revit family, when a designer drops that object into a drawing, all the information you need to get bids, etc., becomes part of the drawing. The drawing becomes your master plan for the entire kitchen.

Immediate benefits to using database-driven design are that changes to the design can be accomplished far more quickly and accurately, saving time and money.

“In Revit, once you bring families in, you can see how things are going to flow,” says Ted Doyals, FCSI, Principal, Ricca Design Studios, Edge cliff Village, Texas. “That 3D rendering can show you if an equipment layout might impede workflow, especially for people who have a difficult time envisioning space in 2D. And we can change it on the fly. We can resolve issues in one meeting that used to take two or three, weeks apart.”

For example, if you look at a design and realize that you need to move the steamer to the other end of the cook line away from the fryer bank, the change can be made in minutes, and the program will recognize that drain and utility locations also may have to change. That saves design time and money and prevents construction change orders down the road. All the ramifications of making a design change are immediately obvious, and changes get adopted throughout all project files simultaneously.

The parameters that define an object or family in Revit can contain other information as well, including helpful documents such as the operating manual for that piece of equipment, maintenance schedules, warranty information, service life and more. Imagine what you can do with that information at your fingertips after a facility is built. 

What’s Stopping You?

If Revit and Revit-compatible programs save time and save money in design, construction, and potentially a host of other areas, why haven’t more operators and design consultants adopted it?

“Those who are used to AutoCAD have a more difficult time with Revit,” agrees Doyals, “but the effort to learn Revit is worth it.”

Like anything else in our high-tech world (or even operators’ kitchens), put garbage in and you’ll get garbage out. That means making sure that whatever content you use, whether you get it directly from a manufacturer or from a content creator, is current, accurate and complete.

“We build our own families if a manufacturer doesn’t have them,” Doyals says. “And we build the ones manufacturers provide to our own specs. We have a quality-control system to verify the information, and we add internal parameters for our own purposes, like tracking cost data per square foot. Once a family is in our library, if it’s wrong, mistakes get carried forward from project to project, so we’re meticulous about checking.” Most facilities design firms, however, do not have resources available to a firm the size of Ricca to check content, and it’s becoming more imperative that the content manufacturers and Revit design services create is accurate from the start.

Ultimately, incorrect or missing information—whether it’s an AutoCAD object or Revit family—costs everyone involved in a project, including manufacturers. First, consultants and end-users are much more likely to order equipment from a supplier who has the most complete and up-to-date information, not from those who make life difficult by supplying out-of-date information and symbols. Manufacturers incur additional costs when incorrect symbols and information lead to incorrect specifications, equipment that is shipped in error, installed in error and ultimately returned. Labor delays, delays in the schedule, late openings, lost sales—equipment change-orders that result from incorrect specification information are costly affairs with domino-like ramifications.

Pay Me Now Or…

The consequences of not adopting Revit or using resources, designers and family content creators who do, are the same as not adapting to other technological changes like smart equipment or social media. If you don’t adapt, there are plenty of competitors willing to take your market share. Fortunately, the more sophisticated Revit and Revit-compatible programs become, and the more industry groups like FCSI and NAFEM do to help set standards, the easier it gets to create, update and cross-check equipment families and manufacturers’ libraries. With more and more manufacturers, consultants, designers and operators able to get on the same page using the same standards every day, the more valuable the information in Revitbased designs becomes.

What can you do to speed a process that’s inevitably going to dominate foodservice design? Start designing your future facilities and remodels using Revit or Revit-compatible programs. Tell consultants you work with that you want them to do the same. And insist that the manufacturers you normally buy from create libraries if they don’t have them, and update and ensure they’re complete if they do.

As originally printed in FER Magazine 

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Friendly’s Kitchen Designed for Efficiency

New England Chain Rolls Out Upgrade Prototype

Gray-on-white cone graphics. LED lighting.  Settee seating.  Online ordering. Friendly’s has come a long way from its staid New England origins. 

Friendly’s new prototype, opened in Marlborough, Mass., marks a great leap forward for the iconic ice-cream-and burger chain that dates back to 1935. The prototype easily handles fullservice dining, drive-thru and carry-out service from its compact kitchen.  The Friendly’s of the future also features high-efficiency cooking equipment, LED lighting throughout, fiber-cement panels for the exterior build, and an updated interior décor.

The Marlborough store design proved itself out of the gate, “meeting and exceeding sales projections despite being the first business in the new shopping development to open,” says David Panella, V.P. of Domestic Development for the Wilbraham, Mass.-based chain.  The results were so solid that Friendly’s immediately began work on renovating two existing stores with the new cooking platform.

 As originally printed in FER Magazine

Sundae Travelers

The inspiration behind Friendly’s contemporary new direction comes from a most unlikely spot: Boston’s Logan Airport, Terminal A. 

People love our burgers and ice cream, but for the airport setting, we needed to be able to serve everything faster,” Panella recalls.  Designers fitted Friendly’s Logan Airport outlet, opened in April 2015, with the speediest cooking equipment available, including a Marshall Air chain broiler and Ovention ovens.  The footprint was super-small compared to typical friendly’s kitchens.

The Logan Airport project sparked ideas.  “We began thinking about station cooking, with a grill cook, a fry cook and an assembly person.  And we started exploring speed-cooking equipment, which led to smaller hood sizes and a 25% less expensive equipment package,” Panella says.  The addition of a kitchen display order system, which allowed orders to be divided between stations, tied everything together.

Friendly’s Golden Triangle

The biggest piece of the puzzle was how the compact kitchen and fountain area could each serve three directions at once.  The solution was a “service core consisting of kitchen, fountain and drive-thru,” Panella says.  “We designed a triangle of efficiency and built the building around it.”

First challenge: a friendlier fountain area capable of supporting the three service areas.  “In the past, ice cream would be separate from the rail.  Workers would scoop, then turn around to add toppings,” Panella explains.  The Marlborough prototype puts the fountain on full display at the entrance.  “Our new Randell cabinets have a landing spot for scooped ice cream, so workers never have to turn around.”  

Facing front are twin ice cream cabinets—one dedicated to dine-in customers, one for walk-ups and drive-thru customers.  The shared back line—where employees make Fribbles, Friendly’s signature milkshakes—comes equipped with mixers, additional ice cream storage and bar sinks.  “Now that it’s all in one spot, workers rarely turn their backs on guests and speed of service for ice cream is way up,” Panella says. Next, the kitchen.  Designers organized the layout so product flows to the right, then a left turn into a pass-thru window for the server pick-up or a right turn toward the drive-thru area.

The team settled on four pieces of high-efficiency cooking equipment: a Taylor clamshell griddle, Proluxe panini presses, Henny Penny fryer and a Marshall Air fry warmer.  The more efficient equipment meant the griddle could shrink to 3 ft.  Compared with the 8 ft.  Expanse of older stores.  Overall, the new kitchen covers 235 sq. ft. Compared with 295 sq. ft. Of the previous prototype.

“Our enhanced equipment package costs 25% less than the previous package,” Panella says.  “And the tighter layout means workers save on steps. In slow periods, they also can share labor between stations—the drive-thru person can slide over and take an ice cream order and vice versa.” 

Not Plain Vanilla

The front-of-house and building envelope also earned a makeover.

The FOH’s new décor, called Summit, echoes the ice cream array with reds, yellows and turquoise accents.  High ceilings and natural light give the interior a warm, inviting look.  Chair backs have cut-outs in the shape of the cone graphic as a handle.

The décor includes some cool, cost-saving tweaks to floor and wall coverings.  Carpeting plank tiles made by Milliken cover the dining room floor.  “We’ve used carpet tiles before but the plank look works better for our new design,” Panella says.  As with carpet tiles, managers can replace the planks as needed in high-traffic areas or if one gets damaged.

Designers did the wall coverings in wood-look vinyl as a half-wall around the perimeter.  “Vinyl gives us cleanability and durability without the scratching or staining that wood suffers,” says Panella, himself a veteran of many childimposed FOH clean-ups.

Lighting, inside and out, is all LED, done in partnership with Capitol Light.  “The food production areas use flat-panel LEDs—they’re easy to clean, there are no bulbs to change, they’re brighter,” Panella says.  “But most of all, they’re strong.  You can jab them with a mop handle and they don’t break.  That’s what sold us.” 

The FOH also relies on LEDs for ceiling-mounted pendants as well as emergency and exit lighting.  “Our biggest improvement, however, was our exterior,” Panella says. “We added LED lights under the eaves so light washes down to illuminate the building at night.” 

The company plans to retrofit existing restaurants with LED.  “The payback in energy savings is about two to three years,” Panella says.

 As originally printed in FER Magazine 

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How a Commercial Laundry Facility Was Transformed Into a ‘Magic Bar’ of Chicago’s Past

Chicago Magic Lounge:

Everywhere you Look, There’s Something to Delight the Eye.

The Chicago Magic Lounge building, located in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood at 5050 N. Clark Street, is easily overlooked by the uninitiated. Its unremarkable brick exterior sports no signage except for a plain white rectangle with an open circle in the center.

Old magic show flyers peeling from the brickwork cover the doorway. The door opens into a 77-sq.-ft. laundry room lined with what appears to be working washers and dryers. Then a secret door swings open. Guests step into a richly appointed space, called David’s Bar, and the adjacent Magician’s Library, with its two chairs and a flickering fireplace. Their guide for the evening welcomes everyone to the Lounge. When he selects a particular book from the shelf, another secret entrance reveals itself, granting access to the heart of the building. The inner sanctum includes the 118-seat Harry Blackstone Cabaret, the 43-seat 654 Club, plus a full kitchen and a service bar with a walk-in beer cooler and storage.

“Everything in this 7,200-sq.-ft. building is original to us, from the plumbing, AC, gas lines, grease traps, walls, and even our second floor,” says co-owner and visionary for the project Joey Cranford, an actor, director and marketer who is now well-versed in building construction and kitchen and bar equipment. The theater reinvents the “magic bar” of Chicago’s past. Shows include magic performances at the bar, table-side and on stage, showcasing the talents of about 40 local professionals and touring acts.

Four months into operations, the new venture is going gangbusters. “On Fridays and Saturdays, our two bars pour a combined 600 drinks per night, and the kitchen cranks out about 180 food orders,” Cranford says. “With each show, once everyone is seated, it’s instant rush. The kitchen and bar light up at once.”

 As originally printed in FER Magazine

Sleight Of Plan

Planning for the Chicago Magic Lounge building began in 2016. Cranford and co-owner Donald Clark, Jr., a Chicago businessman and entertainment producer, tapped theater designers David Burns and John Morris, Morris Architects Planners (the design firm behind Chicago’s well-known Steppenwolf and Lookingglass theaters) for the overall vision and layout. 

Lo Destro Construction, led by Nick Santarelli, handled general contracting. Alpha Design worked on the kitchen and bar drawings. In June ’17, workers began gutting the interior of a 1940s commercial laundry facility for its eventual “presto, change-o” into theater. Eight fast and furious months later, the Chicago Magic Lounge opened for business.

Tight construction schedules required crews install core foodservice elements—plumbing, ventilation—early in the process, before the team finalized the kitchen design. And for someone new to foodservice, like Cranford, some of the elements contained surprises.

Case in point: the grease trap. “On the day of its installation, contractors dug a giant hole in the ground,” Cranford recalls. “When the unit was delivered, it stood as much as 6-ft. tall, the size of one of our two-door reach-ins. Everyone was freaked out by the size. Our plumbers had never seen one that big and wondered what on earth we would be cooking. At that point we said, ‘we don’t actually know yet.’ Our architect reassured me that this mammoth was indeed what code required, and so it was installed.”

Cocktails & Card Tricks

Getting the space right, for performers, bartenders, and cook staff, was a priority for Cranford and his team.

“If we’re going to ask our bartenders to make the very best cocktails, we need to give them the best tools,” Cranford adds.

For Chicago Magic Lounge bartenders, the real magic can be found in the Tobin Ellis Cocktail Station by Perlick. “It’s the Rolls-Royce of bars,” Cranford says. “You can reach everything with only one or two steps. Bartenders dream about this system.”

Highlights of the high-volume cockpit include two low-temperature refrigerated drawers, an insulated bottle well, a three-compartment ice bin to hold various types of ice, a rounded, concave speed rail so bartenders can stand closer to their work counter and guests and a prep sink fitted with a glass rinser, tool caddy and foot-operated faucets.

Parlor Tricks


The design team’s attention to detail shows throughout the Chicago Magic Lounge—but only by those paying attention—in elements such as flooring, bathrooms and décor.


Flooring becomes increasingly fancy after each secret door. In the laundry room, the flooring is nondescript black and white linoleum tiles. The area by David’s Bar and the Library features a terrazzo floor done in a 3D cube pattern, with each color offset by black dividing lines. And in the heart of the building, the terrazzo floor’s “cube” pattern continues—but now is offset by gold dividing lines.

And throughout, the Chicago Magic Lounge serves as a love letter to the art of close-up prestidigitation. Authentic posters of famous magic acts, menus and signage from Chicago magic bars, and playing-card wallpapers fill the space. Everywhere you look, there’s something to delight the eye.

  As originally printed in FER Magazine

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