Fire Safety in Open-Concept Kitchens
As a new generation of restaurant-goers takes a heightened interest in its food—where it comes from, how it’s prepared—the open-concept kitchen has become a popular way for full-service restaurants to showcase the freshness of their ingredients and the skill of their chefs. But while diners may get a thrill from the occasional burst of flame from the wok or griddle, open-concept design raises new concerns when it comes to fire safety and containment in commercial kitchens.
With no walls to contain a fire to the kitchen, fire safety measures are doubly important. They protect not only your back-end staff, but your front-end staff and guests as well—not to mention your investment.
Here are some things to bear in mind when opening up your kitchen to your customers.
Hoods, Vents, and the Fire Suppression System
Any modern commercial kitchen should be equipped with a UL300-listed fire suppression system. These systems are better able to control the high-temperature, intense fires that are fueled by the vegetable oils that have become standard in today’s healthier cooking.
The suppression system works in concert with the hood and vent system. In an open kitchen, keeping both of these systems properly serviced serves a triple purpose.
First and foremost, it keeps them in working order so that any flames that get out of control can be subdued quickly, before they reach into other exposed areas of the restaurant. Where a traditional kitchen has four walls that can help contain a fire, an open-concept kitchen has no barriers to keep a kitchen fire from becoming a building fire. Clear, working vents and a well-serviced suppression system can go a long way toward keeping accidents from becoming incidents. The hood and vent system should cover all heat-producing equipment and should always vent to the outside.
Second, proper ventilation can help to ensure that the aroma of cooking doesn’t become overwhelming inside the restaurant, overpowering the flavors of individual dishes. Removing excess grease from kitchen equipment and vents ensures that smells of burning oil or heated remnants never interfere with the ambiance of your establishment. Nothing clears out a room like a waft of something burning. When the kitchen and dining area are one, you need a little extra help to make sure the only thing wafting towards your patrons is the aroma of something delicious.
Third, keeping things shiny and spotlessly clean is a must for any open kitchen. No diner wants to see grease build-up where his or her food is being prepared. In an open-concept kitchen, the equipment becomes part of the decor and must be maintained as meticulously as the front of house.
The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) has issued a Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations, NFPA 96, which is available online at no cost. The most recent version was published in 2014 and will remain in effect until a new edition is published in 2017. If you’re thinking about building an open kitchen or remodeling your restaurant to an open-concept design, this is a great opportunity to incorporate the most advanced safety features into your new facility.
There are two types of fire extinguisher that should be on hand and ready for action in your commercial kitchen, whether it is open or closed.
1) The first is a Class K fire extinguisher for grease fires, which burn with greater intensity than fires fueled by other materials. Class K extinguishers are specially designed to suppress grease and oil fires without splashing fuel and spreading the fire further. This is a particularly important feature when such a splash could take out your dining area as well. At least one Class K extinguisher should be mounted within 10 feet of any cooking equipment. Additionally, in an open-concept kitchen, it is not a bad idea to have one mounted in the dining area near the cooking area as well.
2) Second, Class ABC extinguishers should be easily accessible throughout the entire restaurant, including the kitchen, for all other types of fires. They should have clear, written instructions for use posted nearby.
All staff—kitchen and front-end—should be trained in the use of both classes of fire extinguisher, and extinguishers should be tested regularly. Though most restaurant fires start in the kitchen, in an open-concept space, it is important to remember that even a fire that starts in the dining area—perhaps with a candle or faulty light fixture—can become a disaster if it is allowed to spill into the fuel-rich kitchen. With no walls to bar the spread of flames, it is essential that equipment be available and staff be trained to stop fires in their tracks.
Even when a fire is confined to the kitchen, light bulbs can become a source of injury to staff and any patrons seated nearby. In the event of even a small fire, as temperatures rise beyond normal, the air inside a light bulb can expand. This can cause the bulb to explode, sending fragments flying at high velocity. Covering light bulbs near cooking equipment with explosion-resistant covers is a simple and effective way to reduce the risk of injury.
Here is another area where fire safety and open-concept aesthetics see eye-to-eye. Keeping trash cans covered not only keeps unsightly garbage out of sight of diners, it limits access to additional fuel should a fire occur. Many of the contents of a typical kitchen trash can are highly flammable. Keeping this garbage in a fire-resistant, lidded container provides less fodder for the flames and a better environment for your patrons.
Of course, all employees working in any capacity in the kitchen—from the head chef to the garçon de cuisine—should be trained in the safe operation of all cooking equipment. More than this, though, regular and systematic training in fire safety and prevention and in the use of all fire safety equipment and procedures should be provided to every employee, whether they work in the kitchen or the dining room. This is especially true in an open-concept restaurant, where the distinction between those two areas is blurred.
Generally speaking, the likelihood of a fire in an open-concept kitchen is no greater than in a traditional kitchen. However, the potential for injury and property damage is greatly increased, making a comprehensive and well-enforced fire safety program all the more important if you want to stay ahead of the game—and ahead of the flame.
The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.