The smart kitchen may not be a new concept, but the foodservice industry is seeing a growing number of innovations coming to market in the form of multi-function appliances, Wi-Fi and Internet-enabled equipment, mobile integration and all manner of techno-wizardry that are helping kitchens be more efficient and easier to manage. As Chris Moreland, corporate chef for Chesher Equipment Limited in Mississauga, Ont. notes, smart technology is helping kitchens get lighter. “When you travel, you don’t need to carry a day planner, phone, notes and cameras. Now it’s all in one place. Kitchens are doing the same with less equipment, smaller footprints and more interactivity with people.”
The motivators behind this interest in smart innovation range from training and staff shortages to energy costs and quality. Yet, while there is plenty of buzz around connected kitchens, how far are operators along that path? Many are now looking seriously into smart appliances, from warewashers and ventilation systems to ovens and refrigerators that can send alarms, do self-diagnostics and track performance. There is also a wealth of operators working on front-to-back-end integration through POS systems, mobile devices and digital signage to name a few. Some are even getting to the point where appliances can talk to each other, not to mention adding robots to their back-of-the-house lineup.
INTEGRATING FOR EFFICIENCY
In the grand scheme of things, larger operations and restaurant chains are strongly committed to the smart-kitchen model, albeit in stages. The Halifax Convention Centre is currently in the throes of implementing a new kitchen facility. When completed in August, the 15,000-sq.-foot production kitchen will have the capacity to handle up to 4,000 people per meal.
Executive chef Christophe Luzeux says a major concern in selecting equipment was maintaining the quality and consistency of the food. To do that, he says, “We selected the smartest pieces on the market.” That includes the latest model Rational combi-ovens that can be programmed to cook overnight, as well as perform multiple tasks from grilling and roasting to smoking.
Luzeux says a key benefit of the technology is the ability to program ovens from his office. “There’s an IP address attached to each unit.” The ovens also capture HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) data that can be downloaded via a USB key. The Centre’s director of Food and Beverage, Greg Smith, says it is now looking into connecting the refrigeration systems so it can gather ongoing data on energy efficiency as well as send alarms should anything go amiss. “Not only will it give us updates in terms of our energy efficiency, it will relieve the job of having to do manual rating checks.” The Culinary Institute of Canada at Holland College in Charlottetown, P.E.I. has also been working on major upgrades to its kitchen facilities. “Technology integration is a part of that process,” says Austin Clement, program manager, Culinary and Hospitality programs. That integration is being applied throughout the supply chain, from how food is ordered to when it’s served.”
The kitchen has a blend of Combitherm and Rational equipment, which can be programmed to do overnight cooking and monitoring. Refrigeration monitoring, for its part, is especially critical, he adds. When the project is completed, all refrigerators and freezers will be monitored and alarmed so alerts can be sent to someone’s cell phone immediately and inventory at risk can be transferred to a backup unit. “With $100,000 in inventory, we can’t afford to have something go down at 9 [p.m.] and wait until 7 a.m. to find out,” Clement says.
He firmly believes the capacity to monitor from a distance will be commonplace in five years. “We’re seeing an awful lot more equipment being monitored much more closely.”
KEEPING UP WITH STANDARDS
But, smart appliances aren’t just for commercial kitchens. Moreland says smaller operators are also looking for appliances they can interact with via Wi-Fi or Internet connectivity. “They are seeing the benefits of more intelligent equipment, because it allows them to stay in touch with their operations even when they are not onsite. It’s much easier for them to use apps to connect to their POS systems or appliances with their iPad or phone.” With networking and mobile technology, it’s much simpler for chefs and operators to distribute new cooking programs, update software, receive push notifications in real time, troubleshoot units or transmit settings, as well as capture and document HACCP data. Gary Lummis, president of Lummis & Co. foodservice consultancy in Fredericton, N.B. says the biggest leap in smart-kitchen technology has been the adoption of BACnet (building automation and control network), a protocol for wireless communication between devices and monitoring equipment. “The protocol was actually from the HVAC industry for refrigeration and exhaust hoods,” he explains. “National Defence Canada, for one, is now insisting that new kitchen projects incorporate BACnet systems.”
Among other advantages, BACnet enables equipment such as combi-ovens to perform self-diagnostics and communicate to monitoring devices, Lummis explains. “Some devices are even beginning to employ algorithms to ‘think’ for themselves and make adjustments, but that is rare as of yet,” Lummis says.
For QSR operations, mobile is becoming a key component in managing ordering and fulfillment processes. Subway Restaurant, for example, is working with Vancouver-based Avanti Commerce’s new cloud-based ordering and payment platform to streamline ordering processes.
The system can be configured to send mobile orders from customers to the front- and back-of-the-house. “Orders can be sent in less than a second, whether through a POS, an in-store kiosk or digital panel,” says Jason Strashek, Avanti founder and CEO. “It means less queuing up for orders and less need to add to your head count.” At Student Biryani restaurant in Mississauga, Ont., POS systems are integrated with a touchscreen digital display that automatically posts each order for the kitchen staff. Workers simply touch the screen when it’s completed. “During busy times we get huge lineups,” says Saleem Khowaja, owner and president. “We need a system like this to keep up,”he says.
When the brand expands into Toronto in the months to come, he has bigger plans for the digital-display system. “Right now we have one screen. With our new locations we might have three. There are lots of improvements that can be done.”
THE FUTURE IS NOW
The very near future also promises some interesting prospects that have yet to hit mainstream. Chowbotics, for example, has been garnering a lot of attention at trade shows with Sally, a salad robot that represents “the next generation salad bar,” according to Deepak Sekar, CEO. The unit can create up to 1,000 salad combinations using 21 different ingredients, while providing users with the calorie content before mixing. It also controls portions through a weight sensor, and is Wi-Fi enabled so it can notify operators if an ingredient canister is running low.
Sekar sees this as the next big trend for cafeterias and offices, and fast-food operators looking to increase the variety of healthy, lower-calorie choices on their menus, while reducing costs. His plans are to add more robotic systems to Chowbotics’ lineup for a variety of ethnic foods, such as Mexican.
Sekar is not alone in his enthusiasm for robots. “In the next five to 10 years, they will be commonplace for performing routine tasks, such as chopping onions. If you speak with most fast-food executives, robots are an inevitability.”
Volume 50, Number 2
Written by Denise Deveau