You think you’ve found the perfect location for your restaurant, but it’s in a Victorian mansion and there’s no way you can run ventilation ductwork up to the roof through the historic building. Or it’s on the second floor of a 31-story mixed-use building under construction, but the concrete floors have already been poured, so you’ll have to (very carefully) cut channels for drain lines (true story).

Practically any problem you might encounter when opening a restaurant can be solved with smart engineering, but that can come at an extremely high price. If you’re building a restaurant from scratch, your team—consultant, designer, architect, mechanical engineer and contractor—will make sure that it meets your specifications in addition to local codes. More often, however, restaurateurs choose the lower-cost route of leasing space and squeezing their concepts into it. Since landlords often provide retail space for general use, the space you want may not have what you need behind the walls.

“If you have a choice between a strip mall and a Victorian house, a strip mall is a lot easier,” says Wayne Stoutner, president, Duffy’s AIS, an equipment installation and service company in Rochester, N.Y. “The simpler the structure, the better. You’ll save a lot of money on installation as well as ongoing maintenance.”

In This Report:

Here, you’ll find expert advice on the things you need to look for and understand about the restaurant space you’re considering in order to make sure it can accommodate the behind-the-scenes systems that will enable it to run efficiently and safely. That includes:

Speaking in Codes

Whatever space you choose is subject first to a building code, either International Building Code, or a state or local code. That means the building itself meets certain standards of construction. Anything inside the building, like your restaurant, will be subject to a mechanical code, which regulates how utilities like gas and water plumbing and electrical wiring as well as heating and ventilation are installed.

Next, your restaurant will have to meet local fire codes. Fire codes will regulate things like occupancy capacity, number of exits and emergency lighting, and most importantly, your kitchen exhaust hood, ventilation ductwork, and fire suppression system.

Finally, the local health code will dictate some kitchen surfaces, how trash and wastewater are handled, and how you receive, store, prepare, cook and handle food.

“A smart guy would look for an existing restaurant space,” says Mark Finck, engineer, Food Service Technology Center, San Ramon, Calif., “but that’s not always feasible, so there are parameters to look for. You always look to codes first to determine what you can do with the space.”

Utilities

The big three are water, gas and electricity. It’s important to know what kind of service is provided to the building your space is in, and where utilities come into the building, Finck says.

Water

Head pressure has to be high enough to supply water to all your kitchen sinks, the dish machine and your restrooms when demanded. “Water coming to the building in a half-inch pipe is a pucker fac- tor,” Finck says. “If it’s supplied through a 1-inch pipe, you’re okay. You’ll need a primary kitchen drain somewhere with a grease trap, and a drain in the dish room at a minimum.” And you’ll need drains and standpipes in restrooms, too, as well as enough floor space to make them ADA-compliant.

Gas

Again, you’ll want to know where gas enters the building and whether you’ll have to run gas lines from there to your space. “Gas lines should have adequate pressure,” Stoutner says. “And you’ll need a meter for the space large enough to handle and record the flow for the equipment you plan to hook up.” In the space itself, though, gas lines can be run above the ceiling and dropped down to hook-ups in the kitchen or storage spaces for water heaters.

Electricity

“Electricity can be tougher than gas,” Finck says. “You’ll have to figure out how much power you’ll need, and most restaurants are short on power when it comes to lighting and kitchen appliance.” Ideally, the local utility has provided three-wire, 3-phase electrical service to the building. You’ll need to determine whether you need a 200-, 500- or 1,000-amp service panel, and a rough guess of how many circuits, outlets and light fixtures you’ll have in order to estimate the cost of wiring the space.

HVAC, Ventilation, and Refrigeration

Big considerations here are rooftop space, ceiling height in your location, and material used to construct the building.

HVAC

Do a rooftop walk to see what type of rooftop units are being used to heat and cool other spaces. See how much room is available for additional units for your restaurant space.

Kitchen Ventilation

Code requires 67 inches from floor to the lower lip of a kitchen exhaust hood. You need enough room for the hood and ductwork above that. “A 12-ft. to 16-ft. tall flat-roof building is the ideal height to work with for a restaurant space,” Stoutner says. Since it can be difficult to find the ideal scenario, find a space with enough ceiling height for the hood. If the building is wood construction, find out how much clearance between wall studs and/or roof joists there is for ductwork. If the framing is on 16-in. centers, for example, you may need to insulate the ductwork, which may be an added cost.

Steel and concrete buildings typically don’t pose the same problem. Also, on your rooftop walk make sure there is enough room for ductwork and a fan in addition to HVAC units.

Refrigeration

If you plan to install a walk-in refrigerator or freezer, flooring is very important. The floor should be as level as possible. A “floorless” walk-in is preferred because it has no lip or transom, making it less likely for employees to trip and easier to roll carts or dollies in and out. Depending on the type of flooring, however, you may have to install a walk-in with a floor.

You also have to figure out where the condensing unit will be placed. If you want it on the roof, better add that to your list of things to check on your roof-top inspection. You may be able to place it on a concrete slab outside the building next to your space. Some spaces have ceilings high enough that you can put the condensing unit on top of the walk-in. Remember that this will add heat to the kitchen space and put additional load on your HVAC system. Also make sure that wherever you put the unit, it’s accessible for cleaning and maintenance.

Safety Beyond the Walls

As you evaluate a site and the costs to develop that space into a restaurant, there are issues beyond the walls to consider – primarily concerning safety – and many of which are code items. A few include:

Parking

Most zoning codes require a certain number of parking spaces depending on occupancy, and a certain number of those have to be handicapped spaces.

Exterior Lighting

Make sure the lighting is adequate to provide safe entry and egress for both foot and vehicle traffic.

Signage

Is there enough exterior space for clear signage, and what restrictions are there on height, colors, lighting, etc.?

ADA Accessible

Is the entry to your space accessible to wheelchair patrons?

Trash

Is there a trash area, and how accessible is it to the back door of your space?

Loading Dock

How and where will you accept deliveries of food and supplies?

“Bring someone knowledgeable enough to help you evaluate each site,” Finck says. “A consultant, foodservice designer, architect or contractor all could lend valuable assistance.”

Read also: How to Open a Restaurant: Your Complete Guide