From giving burgers a satisfying char to churning out perfectly crispy French fries, grills and fryers are some of the hardest-working tools in many restaurants. But as kitchens become more streamlined, the function of these stalwart appliances is changing. For some operators, the timeless simplicity of this equipment is making it more valuable than ever, while others are finding specialized adaptations in technology can revolutionize their kitchens.
SMALL CHANGE, BIG DIFFERENCE
When it comes to grills, restaurant operators have traditionally been faced with choosing between griddles and charbroilers. South St. Burger, however, says it’s found the best of both worlds by adding a grooved griddle plate to a flat-top Garland heavy-duty gas griddle (South St. Burger uses them in pairs, which retail for $7,400 per set). The company is currently rolling out this new grill system in its restaurants across Canada.
According to South St. Burger vice-president Thomas McNaughtan, the Garland grill offers the efficiency of a griddle while also producing burgers with the barbecue-style look typically associated with a charbroiler. After 13 years in business using charbroilers, the switch to griddles is a big change for the company and one McNaughtan says he’s excited about.
“We tried the flat-top technology a couple of times and didn’t really like how the product looked,” says McNaughtan, yet the company had never been satisfied with the energy consumption and amount of smoke generated by its charbroilers. South St. Burger is already seeing a reduction in utility usage in restaurants that have switched to the Garland grills. The new grills also reduce the frequency with which restaurants need to replace pricey filters in the ventilation systems, leading to further savings.
The burger chain has installed Garland grills in approximately one-third of its restaurants to date and McNaughtan says customer reactions have been positive. He says the new grills create a juicier product and are easier for cooks to operate. “You’re 30 seconds too long on a charbroiler and that burger isn’t ideal,” says McNaughtan, “the window of optimum time is larger [with the Garland grills].”
A simple grooved griddle plate brought about a radical change in the chain’s kitchens and, according to Stephen Tyler, director of Consultant and Contract Services at Mississauga, Ont.-based W.D. Colledge Co. Ltd., grill technology is moving in the direction of these kinds of specialized adaptations. Tyler says he’s seeing innovation around specific styles of grills made for specific applications in recent years, rather than advancements in basic grill technology.
A resurgence in the use of real wood and charcoal grills, for example, is fuelling improvements in this age-old style of cooking. “Once you start working with wood or charcoal, you can’t really adjust the temperature up and down,” says Tyler, adding that more manufacturers are coming out with wood and charcoal grills that incorporate grates on chains and wheels, which allow chefs to change the height of the cooking surface as a way to control temperature. The Jade/Beech Hearth Grill ($8,800), is one such example.
“Compared to 10 or 15 years ago when it was the standard grill and every restaurant was using the same thing, restaurant operators are now looking to differentiate themselves with the style of cooking they’re implementing,” says Tyler.
TRIED AND TRUE
Simplicity is key when it comes to fryers, says Ryan Smolkin, founder and CEO (Chief Entertainment Officer) of Ajax, Ont.-based Smoke’s Poutinerie. The restaurant chain uses Vulcan LG-400 fryers ($1,025), which Smolkin says have some of the highest BTU counts in its class. “The higher the BTUs, the better the recovery time, which allows us to pump out hundreds of poutines per hour without getting slowed by a drop in oil temp,” says Smolkin.
Smoke’s Poutinerie’s fryers run 24/7 and although Smolkin admits energy efficiency is a concern for the company, he says that the high-efficiency solutions currently available on the market have their own set of drawbacks. “In many cases, these solutions also come with a lower BTU count, which could slow our speed of service,” says Smolkin.
The nature of fryer technology makes it challenging for significant innovation to be possible, says Josh Wolfe, British Columbia regional sales manager and executive chef at Food Service Solutions in Mississauga, Ont. He says although operators are increasingly looking for ways to streamline their kitchens, a fryer’s size directly correlates with its output and is therefore relatively fixed.
“One of the difficulties in making fryers smaller is the fryer’s effectiveness relies on the volume of oil,” says Wolfe. “Reducing a fryer’s size might free up space in a small kitchen, but it would be at the expense of that kitchen’s capacity to quickly churn out fried orders.”
The same applies to a fryer’s energy efficiency. Fryers take a long time to heat up and need to keep running, even if they’re not being used for hours at a time, to be ready for any orders that might come in. “You’re [constantly] burning fuel to keep it hot,” says Wolfe. “You’re using all the energy just to keep it ready.”
It’s for these reasons that much of the new technology hitting the market offers restaurants alternatives to traditional fryers. Combi-ovens, for example, can brown and crisp foods like a fryer, while minimizing power consumption. They offer better space efficiency, too, since restaurants can use them to perform multiple cooking functions.
“High-speed cooking is doing a tremendous job replacing the need for a fryer or additional fryers,” says Wolfe. “But is a combi-oven going to do all the frying you need for every type of business? No. There isn’t one thing that’s going to do everything for everybody.”
Although it seems traditional fryer technology hasn’t changed dramatically in recent years, it doesn’t appear to be a problem for operators who prioritize reliability and speed over new, innovative features such as self-cleaning. “The more bells and whistles there are, the more there is to break down and add to repair costs,” says Smolkin. “For us — cooking one thing and one thing only — we need a simple solution with top-end cooking ability during our most high-volume times.”
The same is true for New York Fries, according to Marketing director Alyssa Berenstein. “We need solidly made, highly reliable fryers that can handle the daily wear and tear of a fry-based business,” she explains.
Fryers at New York Fries are running constantly, whenever the restaurant is open. The chain uses high-efficiency gas fryers from the Pitco Solstice series ($9,780 and up depending on features). “Fryers are the single-most important piece of equipment in our kitchen,” says Berenstein.
Although some kitchens are turning to new technology to sidestep the space and energy-consumption drawbacks of traditional fryers, it’s still a key piece of equipment for many operators. “[Fryers won’t] get phased out in restaurants,” says Wolfe, “but I see the technology in the combi- and high-speed oven market taking the overflow and gearing people in a different way.”
Written by Jessica Huras