Right in the Hearth of It All

Right in the Hearth of It All

Hearth ovens and stations designed around them provide a great sense of theater, plenty of menu flexibility and surprising energy efficiency.

Illustration Source: Foodstrategy

Display kitchens are a trend that is here to stay — and not just in glitzy restaurants. Customers enjoy seeing skilled chefs at work and like knowing where their food is coming from. Nothing offers this experience more effectively than an open kitchen, and hearth ovens are a proven way to deliver this in an onsite environment.

Some call these “pizza ovens,” but they're much more than that, lending themselves even to breakfast programs where they can be used to make frittatas, oven roasted Potatoes O'Brien Italian, sweet breakfast bread and other items. At dinner, roasted seafood or vegetables from them can be wonderful menu options, cooked fresh and served hot right in front of the customer. [Editor's Note: You can read a menu case study about how one school approached this on p. 18 of this issue.]

While some of these units are wood-fired, most used in onsite operations run on natural gas, both because of increased regulation and the operational challenges of using wood. Typically, gas-fired models employ a flame strip that simulates the look of a wood fire and are built so they look like igloos with a massive stone hearth and fire brick sides.

The bulk of stone and brick is key to the oven's most important feature, its ability to store heat. These ovens are surprisingly energy efficient and their recovery times during high volume are impressive. A well-run operation takes advantage of this “thermal inertia” by maintaining utlization during periods of low demand, scheduling bread baking and similar uses at these times.

Many ovens are round and range in size from about four feet to six or more feet in diameter, yielding 12 to 30 square feet of cooking surface. Rectangular models are also available, as are smaller ovens, for lower volume operations. The ovens' relatively large size and strong visual presence help make them a central focus of attention for café customers.

Production Times

Pizzas, flatbreads, and other entrée items can be baked in as little as two or three minutes, but some items may take five to seven minutes, depending on ingredients and density. A nine sq.ft. oven can hold 8-10 typically-sized items at a time. With experience it is possible to bake around 100 average-sized items in an hour.

Basic station components

The figure below and its associated equipment list show the key components of a Hearth Oven Station. It's important to optimize the expected work flow and it helps to consider not only how you expect production sequences to occur initially, but also how they might change in the future.

Work flow

The figure also shows a circular work flow pattern in our prototypical station. The idea is to go from raw product assembly A, to the oven B, to final cutting or prep C, to the serving area D in a circular pattern, without crossing back over the flow. You want the station to be compact, requiring the fewest steps necessary to get the finished product out.

At the same time, you'll want to maintain some clearances, especially in front of the oven. Staff will be using an oven peel to reach deep inside of it and will need space to pull the product out, and then convey the fresh product to a finishing table without creating a hazard for others around them. Try to leave about five feet in front of the oven, but certainly not less than four feet.

Typical process

(A) If a pizza were being produced, the operator would select a cooking platter and ball of dough to flatten and shape, adding ingredients, sauces, and garnishes from the cold pan rail.

(B) The assembled item is moved to the adjacent oven where it cooks quickly under high heat. When done, the item is pulled out and onto an adjacent landing table, (C). There it is cut, garnished and moved to serving dishes or containers before being merchandised at the serving counter(s) (D).

The Components

  1. STONE HEARTH OVEN

    The oven is the centerpiece of the station. Wood burning ovens have special fuel storage, cleaning, exhaust and safety considerations. Assuming the unit is natural gas-fired, a “show flames” option adds drama if the oven is positioned so the opening is visible to customers.

  2. DECORATIVE SURROUND

    The look of your oven and how it is clad is a critical part of its ambience. Round ovens are purchased unfinished. This means you'll need to have a designer develop a “look,” and a contractor build something to surround the oven. Typical finishes are tiles or bricks. A metal like copper or stainless facing is also often used, but if you want a more contemporary appearance, a colorful glazed tile or an unfinished brick or hammered copper look may be right for you.

  3. EXHAUST HOOD

    While these ovens don't usually fit under a typical hood, they need to be exhausted and to have a fire suppression system. Special hoods are available that fit on the front of the oven just over the opening to capture heat coming out of it.

  4. PREP COUNTER

    A medium volume operation will need at least a five or six-foot prep counter. A wide synthetic cutting board makes a good assembly area and a refrigerated rail behind it is an effective way to provide easy access to perishable toppings and ingredients. Refrigerated drawers or doors below are a big plus.

  5. STONE TOP COUNTER

    Be sure to take the look and feel of your concept all the way through the station. A great looking granite counter top will help exude the atmosphere you are trying to achieve and rid the area of an “institutional” feel.

  6. UNDERCOUNTER REFRIGERATORS

    Be sure to have enough refrigeration at the station. How much will depend on volume, the variety of items to be produced and how close to the station backup food supplies are. The amount of refrigeration will also depend on how you are making your product as well. (For example, with flatbread or pizza products, you will need to decide if you are you starting by rolling your own dough or are using pre-formed shells.).

  7. BUILT-IN HEATED SURFACE

    It's best to keep fresh product hot on a heated surface. These come in a variety of sizes, can sit on the countertop or, better yet, be built in for a custom look.

  8. HEAT LAMPS

    You'll want to have top and bottom heat. Nice looking pendant lamps come in a variety of configurations and colors but traditional strip-type heat lamps are also a possibility.

  9. SNEEZE GUARD

    A sneeze guard is a necessity for food safety and will be a code requirement. New regulations that went into effect last year now require side panels and very precise coverage areas.

  10. WORKTABLE

    A utility worktable is good to have and can be used for cutting, plating, garnishing and other purposes.

  11. HAND SINK

    A hand sink is another food safety necessity. It should be located in a readily accessible space but probably not in direct view of your customer. Be sure to plan for the soap and towel dispensers so these are not afterthoughts and eyesores. A hands-free, electronically activated faucet is best.

  12. OVEN TOOLS

    Working in a hearth oven requires some specialized tools. Be sure to leave room for an oven broom and an oven peel at least four to five feet. Typically these items hang on the wall near the oven and can add a bit to the ambience.


Dan Bendall ([email protected] [4]) is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International.