Operator’s demands speed up pace of change in kitchen equipment
Operators’ demands speed up pace of change in kitchen equipment
Equipment is getting stronger and more efficient as restaurateurs make their kitchens more sophisticated
Commercial cooking equipment is one place where the pace of advances tends to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But recently the pace of evolution has speeded up, spurred by operator concerns about initial costs, operational costs and maintenance costs.
So we’re seeing more energy-efficient equipment, sturdier, more durable equipment, more basic equipment. At the same time we’re seeing more sophisticated controls and hearing more about kitchen automation. There are still very few concepts that can be called revolutionary, but some are coming, and others are in the wings, waiting.
Right now the hottest thing is probably the combination steamer-oven. As new as that is — to American operators — even newer versions are just around the corner, again from Europe, where the combination unit was first developed.
In Japan a totally new method of heating not only has been developed but also is in regular use. It, too, is about to make its appearance in American commercial kitchens. And the tag “revolutionary” has been hung on it already.
Cleopatra’s chef at home today
Revolutionary, of course, means different things to different people. No matter what equipment is used, man is still preparing food as he has for millennia. He still cuts, slices, chops, mixes and cooks by frying, grilling, roasting, steaming, boiling. The revolution is in the mechanism or heat source that he uses to do the job.
Any professional chef and restaurateur who operated from the time of wood-fired ranges and ovens would feel just as comfortable in the era of microwave cooking. If you could reach back in time and pluck the chef off Cleopatra’s barge on the Nile and put him down in a modern commercial kitchen, that man might be frightened by the “magic” way things were getting done, but he wouldn’t be at all confused about what was being done.
And that will continue to be the way kitchen equipment develops: better ways to do the things we’ve always done. There will still be fryers, ranges, griddles, grills, broilers, ovens, steamers, mixers, slicers, cutters, refrigerators, freezers, ware washers and a host of other equipment to do the myriad jobs needed for preparing a lot of meals.
But those tools will continue to be improved, and from time to time a new –revolutionary–method of doing the job will be introduced, and it will speed everything up.
Price vs. engineering
Equipment manufacturers are often heard to complain about “price driving the market.” They complain that operators are more concerned with getting a piece of equipment at the lowest possible price than they are with such factors as efficiency, durability, low maintenance and sophistication.
Many operators, on the other hand, complain that too much of today’s equipment is “overengineered” for their uses, that they don’t need or want all of the bells and whistles. They insist they want a simple, durable, efficient piece of equipment that’s easy for their kitchen staffs to use.
What has actually happened is that a largely two-tier market has developed. At one end, as Duke Browne, vice president of marketing for Fry-master, puts it, “there are a lot of VWs and at the other end a lot of Cadillacs. In between there are only a few Chevvys and Buicks being sold.”
That’s probably oversimplifying the situation, but it is true that there is a big market, especially among chain operators, for high-production, high-tech equipment. On the other hand, the average operator seems to be more interested in a less complicated workhorse type. In between, however, there are still a lot of buyers looking for a more basic piece of equipment with a choice of options to meet the operation’s specific needs.
Operators get specific
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the deep-fat fryer market. Jerry Looney at Vulcan-Hart points out that the middle-market buyer wants to be able to get equipment where he can specify the combination of features.
“He wants to be able to choose among three sizes of tanks,” Looney says. “He wants to be able to select finishes, decide between manual and computer controls and whether it’s filter ready or not. He wants to be able to get an auto-lift basket if he needs it. And he wants the ability to buy his fryers as stand-alone units or in batteries.”
At the top end of the line, operators are looking for maximum performance and maximum sophistication. In that category they want reliable high-production capability. They’re interested in high efficiency from the energy source used. And they’re eager to get automatic features, computer controlled.
As with automobiles, the top of the line usually comes with all the options standard. Things like stainless-steel tanks for longer life, automatic basket lifts for uniform results and computer controls to reduce worker responsibility for quality are usually found in the deluxe models.
At the bottom of the line, the operator is looking for reliability, ease of use, simplicity and durability — at an affordable price. No frills. He wants manual controls not only because they’re less expensive but also because they are easier for the kitchen crew to use. And the operator also wants less sophistication, because he believes that sophistication equates with high maintenance bills.
Three tiers of equipment
It’s not only fryers, however, where the new rules apply. They apply to commercial equipment in general, cooking equipment in particular.
Every manufacturer is producing essentially three tiers of each line; however, the major sales seem to be in the top and bottom segments. At the same time, research and development dollars are going into finding new ways, better performance.
Deep-fat fryers are a good example of that continual advancement. Where the energy efficiency of a fryer was once considered set at the 40-percent-to-50-percent range, today’s high-performance, high-tech units squeeze as much as 75 percent or more efficiency from the energy they use.
Catalytic and infrared heating developments have made a big contribution, but better insulation, innovative tank design and more quickly reacting controls have all had an effect upon performance.
The problem is that each increment of improvement in efficiency comes at a greater cost. To push efficiencies beyond the mid-70 percent range with today’s technologies could cost more than the market would justify.
Saving oil costs
“The focus is more today on saving oil costs,” according to Frymaster’s Browne. “The focus on energy efficiency is lessening, because we don’t have an energy crisis, as we did a few years ago. If you reduce energy use by 10 percent on a typical $400 or even a $700 annual energy bill for a fryer, you’ve saved only $40 to $70. But if you save that much in oil usage, typically $2,000 to $3,000 a year in a high-production operation, you’ve saved the operator $200 to $300. So that’s where most of the focus is today.”
But new energy-efficient techniques still are being sought. One of the new ones is a heating method from Japan: low-frequency electromechanical induction. It’s a totally different electric heating concept that may be adopted for other kitchen equipment in the near future.
New technology from Japan
Mike Williams of SpecFab Services, which will be introducing a new line of fryers with this induction heating concept later this year, says the technology has been in use in Japan for some time. “Not only do the tank heating tubes never approach the flash point of the oil, but a laminar circulation is set up, which keeps the cold zone really cool,” he explains. “Oil misting at the surface of the fry tank is reduced to almost nil. In Japan these units are often used without hoods.”
Steve Yamazaki, director of new-product development for the company, says that, based upon Japanese uses, it was possible for the new induction heating to be used for pasta cookers and steam generators. The new heating draws substantially lower energy consumption, yet faster recovery times, he emphasizes. A 10KW induction fryer has the same throughput as a standard 16KW electric fryer, so that induction heating promises to be competitive with gas in many sections of the country.
What’s hot in refrigeration
In refrigeration, a big expense in any commercial kitchen, evolution has produced a piece of equipment with a far longer life, according to Bob Castle, sales engineer for Victory. Operators will soon be using refrigerators with the new non-ozone-layer-depleting refrigerants, because all manufacturers are switching.
Over the past two decades, the compressors that operate both refrigerators and freezers have been getting smaller and more efficient. Two ways that efficiency pays off is a lower electric bill and less heat buildup in the kitchen, Castle notes. And if replacement is necessary, it is often a matter of minutes, not hours.
Insulation is constantly being improved as well. A big jump was taken when foamed-in-place plastic replaced glass fiber insulation. Even that has improved in insulation — R-value — with minimal thickness refrigerator walls providing the same insulation that it would have taken 12 inches or more to accomplish a generation ago.
There are new compressor designs in the offing, too. The pulseless “scroll” compressor, which is now being tested, not only is highly efficient but also places less stress on the refrigeration system. Look for it in the next four to five years.
Big advances in ice machines
Allied to refrigerators are ice machines. Once the Peck’s bad boy of the commercial kitchen, today’s machines provide greatly improved reliability and durability. They also offer reductions in four vital areas: energy use, floor space, heat output and moving parts.
Why are fewer moving parts important? Because it means less to go wrong and less maintenance, according to Frank Lamphere, general manager of the Henry Vogt tube ice division.
“If you reduce the number of parts, you can afford to use better-grade parts without hiking the cost of the equipment,” Vogt says. “With fewer parts that have longer life, your machine life will be vastly increased.
“One of our major concerns as an industry is the rating of an ice machine. Too many manufacturers use 50-degree water and 70-degree ambient temperature to rate their machines. In fact, the average situation in a commercial kitchen is 70-degree water and a 90-degree air temperature. Even though every maker supplies a chart, showing the performance at different conditions, the rating number is often based on the lower, unrealistic conditions.
“That’s about to change,” Lamphere emphasizes. “The American Refrigeration Institute is now testing and rating equipment using the American Society of Heating and Refrigeration Engineers’ new standards for ice makers. And those standards specify 70-degree water and 90 degree air temperature!”
There’s an increasing interest in combination or dual-purpose equipment on the part of operators who want to keep equipment cost and space requirements down. In refrigeration this is a driving force behind the “switchable” refrigerator-freezers. Flip the switch and the box becomes one or the other to meet immediate needs.
Ice machines, of course, have had a dual option (cube or crushed) for years.
Another such flexible approach is the combination oven-steamer. By being able to switch from convection oven to convection steamer or to moist baking, the operator gains versatility.
Why, then, was such a versatile piece of equipment accepted so relatively slowly in this country when it has been in use for years in Europe?
Oven-steamers finally take off
Brad Blackburn at PMI, parent of both Hobart and Vulcan-Hart, says the reason is that combination oven-steamers were initially sold wrong. “They were sold as a replacement for a convection oven and a steamer,” he explains. “But it didn’t take long for operators to realize that if you were using it for one thing, you couldn’t use it for the other.
“As a backup and extension to your present equipment, it can’t be beat. If you need another oven, it’s there. If your steamer is overloaded, you’ve got another steamer.
“As operators have begun to see the real potential of its versatility, sales have finally begun to take off.”
What’s the state of art in ovens? Well, there are a lot of different types of ovens, so there are a lot of different approaches. One of the new developments is a convection deck oven, improving the traditional mainstay of the pizza industry by applying proven forced convection technology to a high performance deck oven.
Remember that concept: back to the basics? One manufacturer is returning to the use of fire brick in pizza ovens. Why? Because the composition deck materials used since asbestos was banned have not been able to supply the even heating characteristics as well as old-fashioned brick.
Conveyor ovens gain share
Conveyor ovens are taking a larger share of market, not only in pizza operations, but in a wide variety of commercial kitchens. There are new machines with as many as three separate, individually variable conveyors running through the same heating chamber, so a wide variety of product can be produced one time with the same piece of equipment. Another example of dual purpose.
The commercial kitchen range has always been a multiple-purpose piece of equipment. It’s almost standard for the range to contain an oven, and cheese melters, warming cabinets, salamanders and grills are frequent options.
Manufacturers are still improving that standard, however. With some regularity new gas high-efficiency gas burners, new electric elements and new controls are announced and put into production. Today’s gas range may look much the same as yesterday’s, but the technology has advanced and so has the durability.
For one thing, makers constantly watch maintenance reports. Where grates tended to become brittle and break when heavy pots were shifted around, today’s grates have been strengthened, even on the less rugged “restaurant” lines to withstand such abuse.
Repair records fortify equipment
Oven doors were once considered sturdy if their hinges could adequately handle 50-pound loads. Then manufacturers discovered semitrained kitchen personnel were dropping heavy pans from heights as much as a foot on to swing-down oven doors. Today those hinges may be beefed up to as much as 200 pounds capacity or more. Look for continuing improvements of this type.
State of the art these days in microwave is “scanning” models. A wand is scanned over a food package that contains coded cooking instructions, and they are instantly programmed into the microwave’s computer controls, insuring uniform results every time. The unit is on the market, and food manufacturers are exploring its potential.
“It’s just about as foolproof as anything could be in a kitchen,” says Hugh Bennett, vice president of marketing and sales for Microwave Products of America. “With today’s labor shortage, operators are looking for ways of avoiding human error.”
Speed is the key
Speed is the key in lots of operations, particularly those that cook on a griddle. State of the art is the “duplex” griddle, which cooks the top of the food at the same time with an overhead heating unit.
Up to now there have been all-electric griddles with overhead electric contact “plattens,” gas griddles with electric contact plattens and gas griddles with radiant plattens. Now a manufacturer is introducing a gas griddle with an overhead gas contact platten.
What’s down the road for griddles? Karl Johnson, senior project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute, says an inductive coupled bimetallic griddle is in the future.
“This is actually molecularly controlled,” Johnson says. “There’s no normal control loop. The griddle plate itself is the sensor and the temperature controller. We’re talking about holding the temperature at plus or minus 10 degrees automatically.”
It has a warmup time of only five to seven minutes, compared with the average 15 to 20 minutes for an electric griddle. The efficiency is 80 percent with a full load, in the high 70s at part loading. It pulls power to only what’s cooking.
“And best of all, it allows modular design. We see the griddle plates actually being removed and sent to warewashing.
A key issue: saving water
Water conservation as well as energy conservation is a major concern in many sections of the country, especially in the West and Southwest. Ware washers are being developed that use far less water, and research continues, particularly into batch washing systems.
A few years ago, cool water (chemical rinse) ware washing was the watchword during the energy crisis. Today the concentration is again on the sanitizing feature of water temperature at 180 degrees. Booster heaters to bring tap water temperatures up to the higher temperature quickly are the big news in ware washing. Some are built into the washers; some are stand alone units.
Hood and ventilators
A big cost for operators is the kitchen hood and ventilating system. Equipment manufacturers continue to search for methods of reducing heat and grease fume generation. Local fire codes get tougher every time a major foodservice kitchen fire occurs.
Fire suppression systems have trended from dry to wet chemical technology, with improved heat sensors. Filters have been improved, but cleaning and maintenance are still the operator’s best insurance against kitchen and hood fires. According to specialists, such as Bill Garvey of Kidde-Fenwall, that won’t change much in the near future. Care is still the best fire prevention method.
Food warming and delivery are kitchen concerns, too. Manufacturers of warming equipment are searching for more efficient methods to hold food without no quality deterioration.
For pass-through warming — where the food waits for server pickup, infrared warmers have the bulk of the business. Mike Auld, vice president of sales and marketing for Merco Products, says: “The industry is searching for more efficient energy generators. Our objective is to keep food at a safe 140 degrees while warming the ambient air a minimum amount. At the same time, a major concern is keeping energy use low.”
Temperature and humidity controls
In holding foods for longer periods, particularly bakery goods, such as rolls, bread and pastry, the move is to enclosed cabinetry with humidified air. “The trend is to more sophisticated temperature control with both the air temperature and the humidity controlled individually,” remarks Paul Haviland, director of market services for Winston Products. “Electronic sensors keep the holding conditions at an optimum level of heat and humidity for specific products. And insulation is important to maintain even temperature distribution within the cabinet.”
Delivery is critical, not only to the fast-food operations, but to every level from white tablecloth down. John Cini, president of Cini-Little, an international foodservice consulting firm, remembers when a light panel notified servers when their orders were ready for pickup. That was in the ’50s. Today, high tech has taken over.
There are beepers, operated from the kitchen, as well as silent, vibrating pagers, to let serving personnel know when to pick up orders. There are electronic order “pads,” which automatically transfer the order to the POS register and to the kitchen.
Robots from Nolan Bushnell
For drive-thru fast-food operations and for those that would like to have drive-thrus, at least one manufacturer is making a conveyor that takes the money from the customer and moves the food and beverage from the kitchen to the customer’s vehicle at speeds of 10 seconds per 20 feet, all without spilling a thing.
The real face of the future in delivery, however, is Nolan Bushnell’s new server at Bots Inc. A robot trundles from the kitchen to the customer’s table, with the food in a cabinet in its torso. Bushnell, of Chuck E. Cheese fame has already produced an entertainment robot for fast-food operations and is about to unveil the rolling server.
What is the face of the future for foodservice equipment? Automation is mentioned frequently. But what kind of automation, how much and for what type operation?
Cini on automation
The answer, according to Cini, seems to be for the fast-food operations where labor is the most critical problem. “What goes around comes around,” he comments, chuckling.
“When I was with Marriott in the mid-’60s, we worked with AMF to develop a fully automated Hot Shoppe Junior. Everything was automated. The hamburgers were extruded onto the grill, moved and flipped, mated with cheese, placed on a bun and into a box. The fries were loaded, fried, drained, salted and placed in bags, all without human handling.
“The process started with entering the order into the POS terminal. It ended with the food conveyed directly to the customer.”
What happened? Cini considered. “We were way ahead of the available technology. We replaced minimum-wage personnel with highly paid technicians who had to keep the equipment running. It just wasn’t cost effective then.”
More equipment from Europe
Johnson of EPRI sees more of the multiple-use equipment making its way from Europe to the United States. He sees new and innovative heating technology developing in the near term, things like microwave deep-fat fryers and radio frequency heating in a wide range of equipment. He sees continued work on cutting heat emission of equipment to reduce ventilating costs. “There’s billions of dollars spent on removing excess heat in commercial kitchens,” he notes.
Cini sees more modular equipment, more equipment built by sophisticated methods that produce greater uniformity and durability. “Computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing will be the name of the game. There’ll be more automation in making the equipment, which should make it better and less costly to produce.
“But we also find a drive to simplicity throughout the world. Operators want equipment that can be operated by people who have no technical training or aptitudes. We find that especially in less-developed countries, but it’s happening here, too, as the labor pool shifts to the technologically disadvantaged.”
Efficiency and long life
Bettie Ferlin of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., who evaluates commercial kitchen equipment at the firm’s test center, says the “emphasis is on improving efficiency and upgrading the performance and life of equipment.”
John Varga of Southern California Gas Co. notes that in the next few weeks a new combination oven-steamer-microwave will be announced, carrying the multi-use concept even further. “The unit will also be a hybrid,” he explains, “using gas for the oven and steamer and the electric microwave. That’s a trend that will probably continue — combining the best of both energy sources.”
Varga also mentions a new, “smokeless” broiler, developed to meet the increasingly tough air pollution regulations in many sections of the country, especially Southern California.
Although equipment is an area that moves by evolution rather than revolution, a lot of advances are occurring right now, advances that are in sight or just around the corner. The equipment in use today may not look much like what will be available five years or so down the road.