Flexibility, efficiency and conservation are the watchwords of technological innovation in the kitchen.
In an exclusive forecast developed for Foodservice Equipment & Supplies by Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy, overall equipment purchasing growth was predicted to rise just 0.5% from $8.2 billion in 2002 to $8.24 billion in 2003, and some of that growth may be attributed to price increases rather than increased spending.
The economy may be stagnating, but equipment manufacturers are not. In fact, new equipment in the works addresses the labor, food-safety and cost-control needs of foodservice operators, much of it in ways that only science-fictions fans could have imagined a decade ago. Increased concerns over foodborne illnesses, the environment and employee health are reflected in these designs, as are responses to market trends.
“There is optimism in the industry,” says Joseph Pawlak, a principal at Technomic, noting that it continues despite the effects of the Iraqi war, orange alerts and SARS. “Manufacturers are working through a difficult situation by getting close to the operator/customer to understand what their needs are.” While it may seem impossible to see the future and build equipment that adapts to it, Scott Levine, a partner in Arlington, Va.-based consultancy FoodService Advocates LLC, says new technology is affording operators that kind of flexibility. “The right kind of equipment can allow someone to change from a Mexican wrap station to a Chinese wok station two years later without a complete overhaul.”
As you plan your walking tour of The NAFEM Show, keep in mind these equipment trends.
While still new and not yet on all operators’ wish lists, induction cooktops are perhaps the most-talked-about new piece of equipment among chefs because they can be used for such a variety of tasks, according to Scott Levine of FoodService Advocates LLC. Edmund Rek, chef de cuisine at Mezza9 at the Hyatt Arlington in Arlington, Va., uses portable induction elements for tapas. Christine McCabe Tentori, chef at Chicago’s Sugar: a dessert bar, uses two portable induction cooktops “for everything from custards and crerne brulee bases to sugar work and caramels. We need more of them. They’re one of my favorite things because you can control the low temperatures and the kitchen itself doesn’t get hot, which is so important for pastry,” says McCabe Tentori. “I don’t miss gas at all.”
Induction cooktops have electric elements that heat quickly due to a reaction between the heating element and the magnet steel in cast iron, enameled steel and other cookware. As the element is electric rather than gas, there is no flame, often a safety concern in open kitchens and hot stations on buffet lines. As soon as the pan is removed, the element cools off. Energy consumption decreases, too; induction cooktops have 75% to 85% efficiency compared with 45% to 55% efficiency for radiant hotplates and gas burners, according to a San Fernando, Calif.-based manufacturer of induction equipment.
B.J. Kim, chef and owner of Shabu-Ya, a Chicago-based shabu shabu-style Japanese restaurant, installed 18 drop-in induction cooktops when the cook-it-yourself concept opened two years ago. Safety was Kim’s primary motivation, and while the initial outlay was more than for traditional gas burners, Kim says they’ve paid for themselves in energy savings and quicker preparation than conventional methods.
Food safety still makes the list of operator concerns, ranked in the top 10 of operators surveyed by Foodservice Equipment & Supplies, with noncommercial kitchens citing it more frequently than commercial kitchens.
Developments are continually under way to create safer kitchens: More cost-effective processes for assuring a safe food supply are being introduced, and those developments may change the look of the commercial kitchen, according to Mike Carpenter, president of NAFEM. “At first, all that operators are going to see is dollar signs. But as the technology becomes more viable, more operators are going to try it,” he says.
NAFEM approved new protocols, called the NAFEM Data Protocol, for smart kitchens last year. For more than four years, the association has been keeping tabs on components of smart kitchens, the warewashers, blast chillers, walk-ins and other equipment that is linked to modems to remotely monitor temperature changes, malfunctions and other operating data that can affect food safety and food quality. Chain restaurants, large B&I firms and other facilities with multiple kitchen sites across the country are especially good candidates for such remote monitoring, in part because their budgets can afford the high-tech extras.
While he advocates further exploration of smart kitchens, William Hallett, corporate vice president, Worldwide Restaurant Systems for Oakbrook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp., also believes cost and technical hurdles will hinder their growth. “The real challenge is showing how it makes a difference in the day-to-day life of the restaurant manager,” he says. “There has to be value there so the cost makes sense. I don’t think the economic model has been figured out yet.”
“It is going to be an education program,” adds Technomic’s Joseph Pawlak. “Manufacturers are going to have to answer the question, ‘Why does this benefit me as an operator?'” Pawlak thinks early adopters may see smart kitchens in their operations in the next four to five years.
Karl Alterman, the restaurateur overseeing food and beverage for the new GulfStream Hotel in Lake Worth, Fla., (including the upscale Lake Avenue Grille, CoCo’s tiki bar, a soon-to-be-built lobby bar, as well as room service and banquet operations) has examined just one piece of equipment built with smart-kitchen technology. Based on that, he agrees with Hallett. “Blast chillers put you over budget,” he says.
Indeed, the price tag for blast chillers starts at $9,000 and easily rises into the high five figures. But Steve Willoughby, product line manager for a Dallas-based equipment manufacturer, says comparing that figure to the $2,000 cost of standard refrigeration equipment is misleading, because blast chillers handle tasks that refrigerators can’t. For instance, he points to his company’s patented microprocessor controller; the equipment’s probes automatically know that they have been inserted into warm food, and start working to cool food instantly.
Ronald Kooser, executive vice president in the Cleveland office of foodservice consultancy Cini-Little International Inc., agrees. “You almost have to have a blast chiller in any job today,” he says. In addition to food-safety assurance, Kooser says blast chillers help lower food costs by allowing operators to use leftovers and reduce food waste.
Most foodservice operators know that transferring hot foods directly into a standard refrigerator can be dangerous because bacteria will have time to grow while the food cools; and the temperature of the refrigerator itself also may rise because of the addition of the hot food. Blast chilling cools foods more quickly, dropping temperatures from 140F to 40F within 90 minutes, while automated systems communicate back to a central office so managers at remote locations can learn if a power outage or other interruption in service (such as a door being propped open too long) has compromised food safety. A connected printer often provides documentation for HACCP record keeping, with such costs included in the price of many systems.
The automatic element reduces training and labor costs and that savings, in addition to documented food-safety procedures, should make them more of a fixture in foodservice kitchens. Healthcare, schools, casinos and other institutions that feed those with compromised immune systems are also likely to lead the way with smart technology. NAFEM’s Carpenter predicts that blast chillers may help hospitals and other institutions plan meals differently so that patients can eat when they’re hungry, rather than on a set feeding schedule.
“More foodservice consultants are putting in blast chillers,” Willoughby notes. “Now that the technology is there to prevent foodborne illness, they feel it is their responsibility to do that. And $9,000 is not that much when you think that the average foodborne illness costs $75,000.”
Warewashing and Sanitation Equipment
The new kitchens that Alterman of the GulfStream Hotel oversees were difficult to ventilate for the high-temperature hose systems necessary for warewashing and kitchen cleaning. His answer has been chemical sanitizing rinses.
“When it comes to dishwashing, a lot of people will tell you nothing beats high-temperature water,” he says. “But you get such heat in the kitchen, with a low-temp chemical rinse you can kill bacteria and not have to have an additional vent to vent out the steam.”
Some consultants are wary of chemical systems and low-temp washing because there is room for error. Should an employee forget to replace the chemical detergent, bacteria will not be killed as it would with a hot-water system. Still, they say, the systems remain a viable option for low-volume set-ups, such as under the counter in bars and coffee shops.
Levine sees ultraviolet hoods, not for warewashing but for cleaning grease that accumulates in and above range filters and ducts, and as the next big thing in the back of the house. “Water-wash hoods are being phased out. There is such hassle and headache installing them and you have this big, ugly drainpipe that everyone can see if you have an island display kitchen. UV has been very popular in Europe; it is comparable in price to water-wash and in the long run, there is less upkeep because it has fewer moving parts.” Instead of using hot water to cleanse out grease and food particles, a UV bulb inside the exhaust hood–replaced every six months–breaks down the grease, while using less water than traditional water-washing hoods.
Mezza9’s Rek names a blixer–a hybrid food processor/blender used to make labor-efficient, cost-efficient soups and purees–as one of his favorite kitchen tools. According to FE&S data, mixers were named as one of the most likely pieces of equipment to be purchased in 2003, with 21.5% of those surveyed in the market for a new mixer. B&I operators, in particular, are planning the most mixer purchases, according to Technomic data, with 20% planning a purchase in 2003.
Given a mixer’s versatility, Brian Kadel, product-line manager of food machines for a Troy, Ohio-based equipment manufacturer, is not surprised. Like Rek, many operators have long wanted more powerful mixers, but Kadel says better ergonomics, simplified on/off controls and more precise timers have been incorporated into new designs as a result of operator requests.
On the ergonomic/employee safety side, new mixers include lifts to raise and lower bowls–holding 60 quarts or more–so workers are subjected to less stooping and straining to lift the machines. Bowls and arms that flip out afford easier cleaning behind the bowl for improved sanitation and easier installation.
Ice Machines and Dispensers
Levine sees ergonomics as an “ongoing trend” in ice transport systems as well as in back-of-the-house cooking and mixing tools. “You need something to take ice everywhere you need to go, but not require people to double-handle ice, and not have people climbing ladders to dump ice into bins. It is a matter of sanitation and workplace safety,” he says.
Because many operators have soda fountains provided by a vendor, but not an ice machine, they struggle with two systems that fit together in a clunky way, if at all. Levine predicts that undercounter ice systems will proliferate as operators look for ways to avoid constantly refilling ice dispensers from remote machines. Colleges and universities, with high ice-capacity needs, in particular, will look for undercounter machines to handle volume.
Indeed, 29% of respondents to the FE&S study reported ice machines on their 2003 “to buy” list. Technomic research found 24% of B&I operators and 22% of hotels plan to purchase ice machines this year, and consultant Kooser says as institutions–from casinos to schools–add more smaller eating areas, the need for mobile ice machines and dispensers will increase.
Foodservice Equipment Spending
(2002 to 2003, by operator segment)
Segment Higher Lower Net
Healthcare 37% 7% +30
Full-Service Restaurants 36% 25% +11
B&I 33% 23% +10
Hotels 33% 25% +8
Limited-Service Restaurants 34% 28% +6
Education 31% 33% -2
Source: Technomic Inc.
About one-third of foodservice operators surveyed expect
to spent more on equipment in 2003 than in 2002.
OPERATOR WISH LISTS
Microwave ovens and pots and pans are among the equipment foodservice operators rank their most-likely buys for 2003. But these categories are those with the highest rates of predicted growth between 2002 and 2003.
1. Blast chillers
3. Custom-fabricated pieces
5. Air-Curtain Refrigeration
8. Prep Tables
10. Thermometers and Sensors