Today’s restaurant guests demand both speed and quality. In fact, some 91 percent of consumers say that offering value through quick, high-quality service is important to them at fast casuals, according to Technomic. For operators to deliver on that need means taking a look around the kitchen—beyond the ingredients.
“We try to stay current on the latest kitchen innovations, particularly those that can help increase our customer satisfaction,” says Ric Scicchitano, EVP of food and supply chain for Corner Bakery Cafe. That’s why the chain has been researching and testing the latest generations of rapid-cook ovens that use convection and microwave heat. “We wanted to reduce the wait time for our guests, and the technology in these ovens improves speed of service,” he says. “For us, it was more than just replacing old equipment, but rather always choosing the best products to help us serve our guests.”
In addition to a 75-percent reduction in cook time, Scicchitano sees the ovens ($7,000 to $8,000 each) as an opportunity to promote consistency along with speed. With these ovens, “employees can’t serve product until the cooking cycle has ended, versus [without] when they can open the lid of the panini press and serve a sandwich that might not be finished,” he says.
The ease of use of some of the fast-cooking equipment available today also swayed Latinicity, a food hall that opened in Chicago in December, to go with conveyor toasters at its torta station, which served a total of 2,800 Mexican-inspired sandwiches in January. “There’s no having to put it in … and pull it back out of [a traditional] oven,” says Executive Chef Mark Chmielewski of the toasters that cook sandwiches in 45 to 75 seconds each. “It’s very reliable. It makes life a lot simpler and faster to get everything out,” he says. “It is absolutely a workhorse for us.”
But when the right piece of equipment isn’t out there, some operators take matters into their own hands. Yalla Mediterranean, the seven-unit fast casual and sister concept of Daphne’s California Greek, couldn’t find a speedy conveyor-style grill that would rotate skewers as they cooked to-order, so Michael Mitsoglou, VP of operations, resorted to designing, patenting and producing a custom one.
“It needed to be something that would bring the warmth of the barbecue four feet from the guest, together with the visual [experience] of watching the skewer move down the line and seeing the flames go up,” says Mitsoglou. The end result is a 600-pound stainless-steel grill that cooks each skewer in 1 1/2 to three minutes, with a capacity of 580 skewers per hour. The cost: $16,000, which Mitsoglou compares to the top 25 percent of ready-made grills he also considered. The money he saves on labor and decreased product waste justifies the cost, he says. “[In my experience,] the grill man is the one who has the highest per-hour salary because [he is] dealing with the most expensive product in the kitchen,” he says. At Yalla, it’s an entry-level job and requires simply placing each skewer at the designated starting point on the grill.
Acquiring the safety and sanitation certifications needed for custom-designed equipment, though, costs both time and money. “Full certification is a long—seven to 12 months—and costly process, upwards of $20,000 sometimes, which has to start at the factory level before the equipment is even fabricated,” Mitsoglou says. “Unless you’re certain you will be ordering several pieces of the same model, it’s not practical.”