At its best, value engineering is a collaborative, systematic part of the restaurant design process aimed at choosing the best equipment for the lowest cost over its lifecycle. However, value engineering gets a bad rap when it becomes about scaling down to the cheapest model when the budget gets out of whack—often at the expense of quality or design intent. 

The key is to not be reactive, especially when pressure to cut costs is coming from other people or departments involved in a design project. Choosing a cheaper option just to save money is shortsighted and can end up costing you more down the line. 

Instead, you’ll want to work with an expert to study the design plan and evaluate equipment choices against the specific needs and functions of your operation. Only that way will you know whether a top-of-the-line model is the best choice or if a less expensive option is a perfectly fine fit. 

“The biggest thing is always having a conversation between the product consultant and the customer, and keeping an open mind,” says Scott Ebbert, CFSP, national accounts sales manager for Central Restaurant Products. “One brand isn’t always superior. Sometimes it’s just a name.” 

When Is the Right Time for Value Engineering? 

Dick Eisenbarth, CEO and president of foodservice consulting firm Cini-Little, has said that the best time to do value engineering is in the design development stage of the process—not in the bidding phase, which comes later.  

During the restaurant design development stage, you’ve got the general concept down on paper and approved, and you’re working out and documenting all of the elements from the fittings to the finishes with your architect, engineers (construction and HVAC) and consultant/designer. It’s before the rough-ins are done, before they’re pouring the floor where drains will be installed and before the electrician is wiring for outlets. Swapping out equipment selections after that can result in costly changes to the construction. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t make changes at other points in the process, but it’s definitely harder, so make sure you consult an expert. “If a customer comes to me and says my building is done, there are still always opportunities to value engineer that won’t cost anything extra,” says Ebbert“We know what works and what doesn’t, based on our relationships with the factories we work with. And we can [find solutions] once we find out what the customer’s needs are.” 

Where to Look for Savings 

While every build is unique, there are certain areas that lend themselves to value engineering. “We usually start with refrigeration and stainless equipment,” says Ebbert. Both equipment categories are common to every commercial kitchen, and both almost always have some opportunity for adjustments, so they’re a good place to look first.  

With refrigeration, at the mid-level there are few differences between the brands, he says, so there’s a value engineering opportunity there.  

One caveat: Don’t necessarily go for the cheap choice with walk-in freezers and coolers, especially when it comes to doors and finishes. Certain “extras” such as kick plates or a good quality air cushion are often worth the price for this piece of equipment that often takes a beating in busy kitchens and safeguards one of your most valuable assets in a restaurant—your food inventory.  

With stainless tables, for example, Ebbert warns operators not to specify custom fabrication when it’s unnecessary. “I see people coming in with plans showing a wall that’s 10 ft. 7 in., and the architect will make a table that’s 10 ft. 7 in. But you’re paying 20% or more for that 7 inches.” In that case, a standard stainless table may do the trick. 

Another area to look for savings is cooking equipment, but it’s critical to weigh such decisions against the real needs of the restaurant with the help of a product consultant, designer or architect with first-hand knowledge of commercial kitchens. If you are specifying a fryer, for example, it’s important to know if you’ll be frying all of your appetizers or just a couple of items to know whether you require a topoftheline model with all the bells and whistles or whether an economy line will do. 

It’s also important to think about ownership costs—which is another consideration in value engineering. “Certain equipment is more efficient,” says Ebbert, citing a fryer with a filtration system, for example. “The fryer may cost you $7,000 but it’s going to save you 40% of your oil costs.” With the cost of oil per pound, you may find that in as little as a year and a half, you’ve made up for any difference in price. “There is sometimes value in the long run to spending more money.” 

It’s also worth doing the math on energy efficiency when looking for value engineering opportunities. In the case of dishwashers, for example, you might choose ventless features to avoid certain HVAC expenses, but with efficient models you can also typically apply for money back in rebates offered by your local energy company which can lower your ownership costs. Hood systems also are a good place to look for opportunities to value engineer. Certain energyefficient models may be more expensive to purchase, but use significantly less CFM (cubic feet of air per minute) to do the same work. Lower CFM means they’re pulling out less exhaust (while still delivering the desired results)—with that, less AC and heating are sucked out as well, which means you’re putting less AC and heating into the building in the first place. That kind of efficiency can result in significant savings in utility costs depending on what part of the country you’re in. 

Where You Shouldn’t Skimp 

“In my opinion, never skimp on the dining room. That’s where the customer sees you,” says Ebbert, referring to the furnishings and decor in the front of house.  

“That’s the first impression the customer has. If the customer sits down and the booth is terrible, they’re not going to have a good experience and they’re not going to come back as often.” But if the seating is comfortable, it’s going to be a relaxing atmosphere and a good vibe; it’s a positive experience and your guests will likely tell other people.  

Even when it’s done properly, value engineering is not a substitute for setting a realistic and adequate budget at the beginning of any restaurant design project. You must do the research upfront on startup costs associated with opening a restaurant and talk to experts such as foodservice consultants, other operators and product consultants at equipment dealers like Central Restaurant Products. 

But best laid plans aren’t always perfect. So if the restaurant design of your dreams doesn’t match up with your budget, value engineering can help put you on track.