those are really good insights, phil. i would simply add that you should try to create counters that will reflect your needs...height as well as width of counters. some baristas and part-timers have more arm stretch than others. you'll start to notice fatigue when you least expect it, or after a 12 hour shift...whichever comes first!
best with it, robbie!,
the coffee hound
The difficult part of lowering the machine height is that it usually results in increased costs. Increased costs in the form of custom cabinetry to meet your specifications.
Counters are typically 36-37" in height. Plop your espresso machine on that counter with 4" legs (standard) and the top of your drip tray is anywhere between 43-46".
Our La Marzocco Linea is mounted on 1.5" rubber feet on a 36" height countertop. This works pretty well for most baristas, plus an undercounter worktop refrigerator on small casters places that worktop at roughly 32", giving our baristas an option for tamping heights.
Our brew bar and register counters are 34" in height.
My little cafe is 508 sq' and just a week away from being completed. After spending nearly analyzing local coffee shop layouts, and many, many hours, days, and weeks designing and redesigning the cafe (prior to even signing the lease), I took my drawings to a contractor that specializes in retail construction. First he complimented me on my attempt at being an architect and said he could probably build what I wanted from my drawings. Awesome!
Then he politely but strongly suggested I hire an architect explaining the time/cost savings of doing right and to code the first time. I felt sad cuz I knew that meant $$. However, it was the right thing to do so I bit the bullet. Expensive? Yes. But the electrician and plumber, and cabinetmakers were able to go in and do their jobs quickly and efficiently because they didn't have to work around my design mistakes and figure out what they were doing on the fly. That saved time and money.
There could be engineering issues preventing you from lowering you counter, or placing items where you think they would suit you best. Plumbing came into play at my shop and I had to change my plans even tough they looked right to me and the contractor.
Before making a possibly expensive mistake, I suggest you layout your equipment that requires plumbing, taking into account where the connections can be made to the main drainage system. The discuss what you you want with and architect - hopefully you have one that has coffee shop experience. You may find that your ergonomic ideas that look great on paper don't work, and you may need to rearrange your equipment. It's way more complicated than I anticipated in spite of doing lots of homework.
My refrigerators are on low profile wheels, allowing me to slide them out for cleaning - meeting health code and the counter tops are 34.5" The espresso machine is very heavy and needs reinforcement underneath. So you neede to take that into account if you have a refrigerator under that counter.
Good luck. It's exciting for sure. Better to spend your time and energy on the business of coffee rather than construction issues, in my opinion.
Legally you are required to have that workspace at 34.5" ... the other posters have correctly pointed out that the space is defined by the elements around it... including the under counter fridge which would usually stand at 30" clear... plus framing and counter and presto.... 34.5"
A thought here might be that it would be a lot easier to raise the floor... extra thick comfort pad, or rubber wash down pad will buy you almost two inches.
Marek, perhaps that's the case in your locale, but that's far from a universal requirement.
Robbie, there are some guidelines... like the countertop of your tamping surface should be about the same height of your belt buckle. Then there are the realities that the previous posters have detailed a bit.
One comment on the idea that an architect will take care of these problems for you - some might, but many will not. I've yet to meet an architect or general contractor that seemed to know much about the specific requirements of an espresso bar. I do espresso machine installs on a pretty regular basis. The protocol is pretty similar for most manufacturers - they send out a pre-install checklist with a list of detailed requirements for plumbing, electrical, and countertop. In many cases, this checklist must be completed and faxed back to the manufacturer before they'll dispatch me to deliver the machine. I've NEVER been to a site that was properly prepared prior to my arrival. Often there are serious structural impediments - like counters flush with the refrigerator top that get in the way of drain lines, lack of correct electric service or receptacle, far too much distance between the shutoff and the machine or general lack of provision for water filters, etc. Most of these bars were done by architects that specialized in restaurant design, etc. I've had water shutoffs in the ceiling that required a ladder to reach, people that expected me to cut a 3" hole in 16 gage stainless, total lack of drains, etc.
Bottom line... do your research. Understand what the requirements of your equipment will be and double check with your designer or architect. Check your workflow, check the hookups, check everything. Its your bar - you'll be the one to pay when things have to be redone.
While good intentioned, Marek's comments should be taken with consideration because the regulations change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In our own operations, we have one city location and one county location - two separate jurisdictions with similar (not not the same) rules and regulations. It's why I usually talk in generalities because what's true for me may not be true for you.
Another thing to consider is to bring the health/food department in right away into the early stages of development. Discuss your basic ideas with the inspectors and see what they are looking for and what concerns they may have. Remember, they will be the ones approving your plans so get them in early and make your journey a little smoother.
The advice regarding a competent architect is well-heeded. They can aid and smoothen your journey as well - and if you can, retain the services of an "expediter" (don't know the real term) - someone who knows the trades and can act as your project manager to make things move on-time and under budget. Done right, that person will earn his salary four fold.
Of course, architects and project managers cost more money. You may not have those resources available to you. Definitely go into your health dept and start talking to them and finding out what they need from you and then get with your zoning commission and building inspectors to figure out what you need to do and what you need to file. Some jurisdictions are notoriously difficult to work within and can easily push your project back by months and even years. That's typically something that most small operators cannot afford to do.
Thank you for all your insights and experiences. I am working with a contractor and my coffee mentor who has his own cafe in the area.
Rock Creek Coffee Co. will be located in a former event hamburger concession space at the county fairgrounds. Though the bulk of my business will be during weekend events, RCCC will be open daily as well.
I will not have an undercounter refrigerator. Cafe dimensions- 12'x38'. Kitchen area, roughly- 12'x18' with three order/service windows/counters. Espresso machine on a free standing island in the middle. Large refrigerator directly behind the machine, against the interior wall.