The National Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers’ (NAFEM) biannual trade expo came to a close in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 9, providing attendees with a glimpse into restaurant kitchens of the future. Technology plays a significant role, with lots of talk and examples of “connected kitchens” where various pieces of equipment can communicate with each other and their operators. While the industry is going in that direction, there are still several hurdles to overcome—most significantly, standardization among manufacturers.
The more than 600 exhibitors also showcased equipment that addressed other new and ongoing challenges, offering updated solutions and designs. Here’s a roundup of six top equipment trends, as seen at the NAFEM Show.
1. Connecting through the cloud
Manufacturers displayed walk-ins, combi ovens, fryers, waste disposal systems, holding cabinets, ice machines and more, all programmed to communicate with operators through Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi. This connected equipment can remotely send alerts to an employee’s smartphone or other device when fryer oil needs to be changed, a refrigerator is not maintaining temperature, a chicken needs to come off the rotisserie or a batch of pasta is ready in the rethermer.
The newest technology enables this equipment to connect to the internet of things, allowing it to transfer data over a network without human interaction. Trouble is, if a combi oven is from one manufacturer and a walk-in from another, the two often cannot talk to each other. Companies are working on standardization and increased efficiencies, several exhibitors reported. Communicating to assure food safety along the cold chain is a top priority.
2. Meeting the labor challenge
Technology is also helping address the labor shortage. Instructions illustrated with icons and pictures make it possible for less skilled or non-English speaking workers to operate any piece of equipment. And nonchefs can download recipes using the touchpad on an oven, fryer or other cooking appliance and instantly cook a dish.
Although only a few visible robots were out on the show floor, many more were working behind the scenes. AI embedded in holding cabinets, for example, can recognize food and adjust the temperature accordingly, allowing employees to attend to more hands-on tasks. One company that markets condiment dispensers adapted a pump from the medical industry that allows the product to be stored in the kitchen and pumped out in the front of the house, saving steps and cleanup.
3. Dressed for front-of-house success
With more cooking taking place in open kitchens and action stations, and more menus geared for grab-and-go, manufacturers are designing equipment to have consumer-facing looks with back-of-house muscle. Steamers that cook oatmeal and eggs, sandwich toasters and bean-to-cup coffee makers take care of the breakfast crowd, while mobile soup stations and self-cleaning buffets move into lunch and dinner. A new snack system, slated for a full rollout in May, is patterned after a waffle iron but has interchangeable plates to turn out mini paninis, donuts and other baked snacks.
4. Jumping on the off-premise boom
Several NAFEM exhibitors showcased thermal carriers and other transporters to take advantage of the uptick in delivery and catering. The quantity and quality of this equipment has been upgraded with design and technology innovations. The carriers come in a range of shapes and sizes to accommodate many types of containers and pans, and new materials make them leakproof, sturdier and easier to transport.
Beverages have typically been a sore spot with delivery customers, but a new cup-sealing system on display sets out to boost orders. Currently in test, the equipment tightly seals any size cup with a tamper-proof and spill-proof lid, assuring safe transport.
5. Conforming to a smaller footprint
As restaurant kitchens have downsized, so have manufacturers downsized equipment to fit into more compact spaces. This trend has been going on for several years, and advances in engineering have brought a slew of new space-saving solutions to the market. On view were multicook ovens that can be programed to cook four to seven items at once—all at different temperatures and times; half-size display cabinets and warmers; portable compact prep tables; and mini pizza ovens.
To maximize the space for a new store prototype, Captain D’s seafood chain partnered with a manufacturer to design countertop fryers that are mounted on refrigerated drawers. Employees can reach into the drawers, pull out fish fillets, coat them with batter and toss them right in the fryer to cook to order. It’s a solution that saves steps and space.
6. Customize and globalize
Coffee machines were all about customization at this year’s NAFEM Show. With the demand for crafted-for-you coffee, bean-to-cup coffee makers made a splash. Operators can input the type of bean they are brewing and RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology calculates the grind and amount of water needed. Machines that can prepare cold brew, hot coffee and nitro coffee were also in abundance.
Equipment dedicated to specific ethnic food products was also trending. A new tabletop corn tortilla machine boasted that it could turn out 840 corn tortillas per hour, while an industrial-size food processor was billed as “the hummus machine”—even though it is designed for any heavy-duty food prep task.