Red Spoon Diaries: Inside the Betty Crocker Kitchens

Most of us recognize the red spoon that brands Betty Crocker. Having grown up in Minneapolis, the location of General Mills parent company to Betty Crocker I had even toured the kitchens.

You can guess the reaction from my extended family, still living in Minneapolis, when our office was asked to work with the architectural firm designing the new General Mills headquarters on the replacements for those same kitchens. After the euphoria of that pleasant recognition from my family, we faced some unusual challenges, and both the process and the results might provide you with some new design ideas and certainly some new applications for familiar design concepts.

Development issues
The management at General Mills was very clear on its philosophy for the new company campus, which was to include approximately 20 kitchens to replace the six old kitchens. Having just purchased Pillsbury, a significant rival that is also home-based in Minneapolis, the company philosophy was shifting from "behind closed doors" private spaces to "focal point" heart and hearth of the company.

In order to ensure success with the more than 30 home economists in the different working groups, I traveled to Minneapolis for an intense two days, during which we surveyed and discussed priorities and how the spaces were to be used. These interviews were based on a much-revised version of our "home consultation survey," which was sent in advance. The interviews were taped so we could replay the information as we worked with the space.

You know the old adage "Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth?" Imagine 30 people who had worked in a fair amount of secrecy and competition gathering to talk about plans for new work spaces where they would work together with no walls or doors. Luckily, these were professionals who were excited about the opportunity. While there was some level of anxiety, they offered excellent and specific input. I finished each day taking dimensions and photos of existing storage, workspace, carts and equipment.

The space planned for the kitchens included an atrium 30' high, with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides and a glass-walled walkway on the third wall where employees could wander by to look in on the Betty Crocker world. In addition, the space was to include a commissary, conference room, library, a media kitchen, offices for the home economists and even a green room for guests appearing in Betty Crocker tapings.

In keeping with the company philosophy of an open space, no tall elements would separate the kitchens. They wanted the space to look warm and inviting like your kitchen at home, not a laboratory. Because the kitchens would be viewed from the walkway above, the challenge was to create beautiful kitchens that mirrored or at least complemented each other, yet functioned to the specific needs of five very different working groups.

While there is no typical day in the life of a Betty Crocker home economist, one might include developing recipes from the General Mills product line. Often the day begins with a trip to the commissary to pick up staple pantry items, followed by experimenting and repeating recipes to perfection, then showing the creation to the rest of the group and finishing off with a taste test. Because of this routine, oversized rolling carts and a place to store the carts needed to be an essential part of every kitchen design. The rolling carts would also be used to transport items to a conference room or media room where they might be photographed or videoed.

For the end-of-the-day testing, each kitchen needed a dining counter with at least four stools.
The five main groups to be accommodated included meals and snacks, baking, food trends and innovations, food stylists, and a last group that included editors and publication and licensing specials. Each group had very different needs, but one constant surfaced among the groups quantity quantity in the number of appliances, countertop surfaces and storage.

At a minimum, each kitchen needed a full refrigerator and full freezer, and duplicate sinks and appliances, including one professional "flash" dishwasher. Beyond these concepts, the needs for each group varied greatly.

For example, meals and snacks required multiple cooking surfaces and microwaves.
In the baking group, multiple ovens were needed, both gas and electric. Those working with pre-made dough required a lot of freezer space, while those working from scratch needed more refrigeration.

Food trends and innovations had a variety of needs and an overriding need for flexibility as their focus changed.

Publications and licensing needed to be close to the library for reference materials.
Food styling needed to be close to the media kitchen for photo shoots and video conferencing.

Surprisingly, the home economists didn't want every kitchen to have cutting edge and top-of-the-line appliances. They did their research and found that 36.9% of their consumers use gas cooktops and 53.2% used electric, and of the electric users, more used coil than glass top. Therefore, they wanted the ratio of gas to electric cooking surfaces in the Betty Crocker kitchens to reflect their consumers', not their own, personal needs. While this newly designed area was not your typical family kitchen, the same careful process of collecting information on use and priorities and applying the results within the parameters worked well.

Design Solutions
During the conceptual design phase, an alphabet of kitchen shapes evolved for the space like a puzzle, with island clusters of kitchens shaped like a Z, X, H and L. However, we found there was often too much space dedicated to walk aisles and not enough work space in each kitchen. We also realized it would be impossible to offer all of the requested multiple appliances in each kitchen, and undercounter refrigeration would not be adequate.

The plan that worked best was a combination of two L-shaped kitchens that together formed a U-shape in the inner space and galley kitchens in the atrium space. This layout allowed flexibility in shared cooktops and ovens when needed. In the end, 19 kitchen spaces were created, including the conference room kitchen and media kitchen with a back-up kitchen.

Because of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the atrium, tall elements were simply not part of the program. We proposed a 54" height to provide privacy from one kitchen to another, while maintaining a sense of openness and viewing of natural light from the atrium windows.

Because there are no wall cabinets, this 54" height allows 18" of storage above the standard 36"-high counters, and we increased the counter depth to 36" to allow for full use of the work surface. Tilt-up doors allowed the counter in front of the cabinets to function fully.

In the inner area, ovens were placed at the 54" height, and tall pantries, refrigerators and freezers were placed along the wall. However, in the atrium, there were no walls for the tall elements. While residential undercounter refrigeration was an option, the home economists didn't feel the storage would be adequate. The solution was commercial 54"-high refrigeration and freezer units found through a local restaurant supply retailer. This provided the home economists with refrigeration at point of use, yet maintained the openness and natural light.

The Meals and Snacks group was assigned to the interior kitchens because it required large amounts of refrigeration and access to a variety of microwaves. The Baking Group found a home in the atrium kitchens because it required multiple ovens; the design worked well to place four ovens below the 54" counter. The microwaves included a combination of compact and full-sized and speed-cook models. Food Trends and Innovations was placed in the atrium, and was the one area that included state-of-the-art appliances and top-of-the-line features.

The Comfort Zone
The ergonomics that we consider in planning a home kitchen apply here to a greater degree, since the home economist will perform those tasks related to cooking for eight hours every day. Space was provided for any worker to choose to sit while performing repetitive tasks such as shelling pounds of nuts or bags of individually wrapped caramels, and the location of storage brought on by the 54" maximum height significantly reduced the need to bend or stretch.

Extra deep counters on islands provided space to spread ingredients and roll doughs. The extra-long counter works well for display and for tastings, and stools double as a seated work area. The non-glare counter surfaces are designed to reduce fatigue.
Standing all day called for a softer floor; we chose linoleum, which is both resilient and comfortable to stand on.

Waste and recycling on castors allowed for point-of-use placement, as did microwaves on carts. The main passage aisle included 42"-high islands that housed the rolling carts and provided further display space.

Central exhaust with overhead venting helped to maintain the air quality in the inner kitchens, and telescoping downdraft ventilation located in the atrium was supplemented by the central system to avoid the spread of cooking odors.

The list goes on. The experience provided us with incredible learning opportunities, and I hope it has offered you a few, as well. To view the kitchens online, go to what else