From the judges' corner: Top trends emerging from this year's Kitchen Innovation awards

20 diverse pieces of equipment earned KI awards from the National Restaurant Association Show, each reflecting one or more overriding trends.
Atosa's french fry robot not only addresses fast food restaurants' labor challenges, it promotes consistency. / Photo courtesy of Atosa.

The National Restaurant Association Show announced the winners of the 2023 Kitchen Innovation Awards last month, bestowing the honor on 20 pieces of cutting-edge equipment.

Eight independent industry judges selected the awardees. We checked back with two of the longtime judges to track the top trends they spotted in this year’s crop.  

“Saving labor was the biggest,” said Dan Bendall, principal with Food Strategy Inc., a foodservice design consultancy. “The majority of the winners had labor-saving features, with robotics and AI leading the trend.”

While an awardee like the French fry robot from Atosa addresses the challenge of the labor shortage in fast-food restaurants, it also solves for consistency, said Bendall.

“You don’t have to factor in whether some high school kid will overcook the fries or make them too soggy,” he said. The equipment also includes a dispenser and dump station for an all-in-one solution.

Dick Eisenbarth, president emeritus of consulting company Cini-Little International, classified 16 of the 20 winners as labor savers and 12 as boasting some sort of AI.

“There was more thought to AI than ever before,” said Eisenbarth. “Last year, we were just coming out of COVID, and many manufacturers took a break from tech advancements. But now technology is back as a priority.”

“Technology innovation is more serious and complex,” agreed Bendall. “Just a few years ago, it was more visual.” He cited the example of a combi oven with a chicken image next to a button. A kitchen worker simply had to push that button to cook the chicken. Now the equipment is programmed to perform tasks with no human intervention.

This year’s winning combi oven, the ConvoSense, recognizes the food as it’s loaded and automatically launches the correct cooking program.

But there were also a couple of low-tech entries that earned the judges’ praise. Both Bendall and Eisenbarth are admirers of the UltraRinse from T&S Brass and Bronze Works. It’s a spray nozzle that attaches to a faucet and sprays from several openings along its length. The result: an easier and more thorough way to rinse produce and thaw meats.

“This product is accessible and affordable even to mom-and-pop restaurants that can’t invest in robotics, but it’s a time saver and promotes sanitation,” said Bendall.

In fact, Eisenbarth counted seven awardees as those that addressed sanitation and safety—a trend that has gained importance post-pandemic. One of his favorites was the Taylor Hydra Rinse. It fits on soft-serve or shake equipment and cleans it in one step, without disassembling the machine. “It’s a gamechanger,” said Eisenbarth.

Two products that keep food safe through temperature control were also overall picks. The ImmersaFlex, a device that creates water convection for quick thawing, and a new saute station from Kwick Cool, which has dual temperature controls to hold food at a safe temperature in the pan until it’s ready to cook.

“This year, we saw so many improvements in safety and sanitation equipment that they were more than evolutionary, they were truly innovative,” said Eisenbarth. “And when you look at the ROI, all have potential of quick payback on investment.”

Space saving was another overriding trend among the 20 winners. Both Eisenbarth and Bendall were especially taken with Hobart’s two-level undercounter dish machine. It’s the first time a two-rack model was designed to fit into a small footprint.

Sustainability didn’t seem as top of mind with this year’s entries as it had been in the past, as saving labor, time and space rose in importance. Waste reduction and other eco-conscious concerns may now be the implied mission with every new piece of equipment, but bets are on that manufacturers are exploring tech and AI to better address those challenges in the future.

“Manufacturers are not cutting back on innovation,” said Bendall. “We were pleased that there were so many awardees, as we reviewed three times as many as the 20 that won. These are the ones that go for true innovation—not just improvements.”

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