Attendees at this month’s NAFEM Show in Orlando will be confronted with the usual mind-boggling array of restaurant equipment, everything from mammoth, industrial-strength dishwashers down to pocket-sized meat thermometers. The single unifying factor—maximized performance that justifies the expense of new equipment. “If you’re able to make your equipment easier to use—or perform multiple functions—that can bring more return out of your investment,” says Charlie Souhrada, director of member services for NAFEM. While that may well be the primary driver, manufacturers are also taking a hard look at some of the big trends operators are facing.
Macro-Trend: Kitchens are getting smaller. “In a commercial setting, the operator wants to dedicate more space to front-of-house and reduce the space back-of-house,” says Souhrada. And beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant, smaller food production areas are springing up in satellite kitchens, pop-up restaurants and food trucks—locations where every inch of space counts.
Solution: “Equipment [will continue] to get smaller and more complex as operators need to optimize their footprint,” says Dean Landeche, senior VP of marketing for Manitowoc Foodservice. The classic example of a multifunctional piece of equipment is the combi oven. With its ability to cook, steam and hold it has always been versatile—but now it’s been shrunk down to a mini size that holds three half-size sheet pans and is perfect for countertop usage. Some of these smaller combis, like the Cleveland Convotherm Mini, have optional shelves so that two units can be stacked.
That concept of “going up, not out” is gaining popularity front-of-house as well, where self-service equipment is being redesigned to make it narrower and taller. Even something as simple as napkin dispensers have been retooled in small-footprint, “tower” configurations to save space. An added advantage to this vertical design: It holds more napkins, meaning less labor in refilling the dispenser.
Don’t waste your energy
Macro-Trend: Energy costs continue to rise, with back-of-house energy consumption making up more than half of expenditures. According to the National Restaurant Association’s ConSERVE website, the typical restaurant spends 35 percent of its energy dollar on cooking, 28 percent on heating and cooling, 18 percent for dishwashing, 13 percent on lighting and 6 percent on refrigeration.
Solution: Reducing energy usage has become a top priority for manufacturers, spurred on partly by efforts to meet EPA Energy Star standards. “Energy Star has raised the bar by setting new standards that are higher than before,” according to Landeche. “That is creating an unparalleled number of energy-saving pieces of equipment.” Currently, there are eight categories of equipment, ranging from dishwashers to ovens, that qualify for the Energy Star rating.
In many cases, it takes a major rethinking of the product design to make it more energy-efficient. One example is the development of heat recovery systems for dishwashers and refrigeration units. In these systems, the heat given off by the dishwasher’s waste water or the refrigerator’s condensing unit is recaptured and recycled to preheat the incoming water or air. An optional energy recovery system on a large, flight-type warewasher such as the Hobart FT900, can reduce the unit’s overall energy consumption by as much as 15 percent.
But even smaller changes can make a dent in energy consumption. Controllers with built-in timers allow equipment to be powered down during off-peak energy usage hours—a particular benefit with icemakers and other large energy consumers. Converting to LED lighting in display cases or reach-in coolers not only saves energy but cuts down on replacement costs. And electronic sensors in merchandising units like the Hatco Heated Zone Merchandiser “sense” when product is in the display tray and adjust heat accordingly.
|These smaller forces are starting to impact the development of new equipment:|
Increased menu diversity in a single restaurant (think Pan-Asian concepts) drives redesigned equipment that makes smaller-batch food prep and holding easier (think quarter sheet pans instead
of full sheet pans).
As more of today’s culinary students are trained in sous vide cooking, expect to see a wider range of sous vide units at more attractive price points.
Look for more smart phone and iPad apps to control equipment remotely.
Space-saving equipment designed specifically for food trucks is on the rise.
As display cooking increases in popularity, expect to see more variety in terms of color, shape and design for front-of-house cooking and merchandising units.
Induction technology moves beyond just cooking into holding and merchandising units.
More equipment goes ventless to comply with increasing local regulations on vent hoods.
New materials replace traditional stainless steel for equipment bodies, but with
the same durability and ease of cleaning.
More sophisticated holding cabinets and systems increase the amount of pre-preparation that can be done, while lessening the chance of product shrinkage.
Macro-Trend: High turnover of back-of-house staff—along with less time for training—means equipment isn’t always operated properly.
Solution: Technology to the rescue. While recent technology efforts have focused mainly on the innards of the machine, much R&D today goes toward making it easier to operate. One visible advance is the touch screen. Uncommon just a few years ago, they are now ubiquitous, particularly on convection or combi ovens, where a minor mistake in settings can turn into wasted, overcooked product. It’s a logical progression, comments Landeche, because “in the iPod world, everything has a touch screen.”
Not only do touch-screen systems help ensure proper cooking, they’re valuable with untrained staff, who may also be dealing with a language barrier. “Controls are being designed to minimize the skill and education required by the operator,” says Mike Whiteley, VP of sales and marketing for Hatco. “You see more of the menu being programmed into the controls and displays with pictures of the food. [Users] just tap on the chicken or the fish, so they know exactly what to do.”
Another small but significant change is the addition of USB technology for transferring information. In an icemaker, for example, the USB drive can track water and energy usage and monitor overall production. USB drives can be especially valuable in multi-unit operations to ensure consistent production and portioning standards or for implementing menu changes system-wide.
Combining the functions that equipment performs can also add to ease of operation. That concept is most evident in the increasing popularity of multi-capability, rapid-cook ovens. To speed up production time, just about every combination of cooking technology is available in ovens nowadays, ranging from microwave/impingement/convection combination (the Merrychef 402s) to a dual-plated, rapid convection conveyor system (the Matchbox from Ovention).