While every year the foodservice industry experiences a shift in drivers behind purchasing decisions, factors such as the economy, the cost of doing business, space or energy efficiency consistently come into play. In 2016, however, industry experts say the overwhelming considerations are footprint, staffing challenges and costs. Equipment choices are following suit, as operators seek out innovations in shrunk-down versions of workhorse appliances, multi-tasking and intelligent appliances, and/or products to help maximize human resources or stretch menu offerings. Joel Sisson, president and founder of Crush Strategy Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. says in working with operators, the focus in recent months has been on appliances that deliver consistent results and are easy to use. “Even though operators want to be energy efficient, that’s a distant third, because it’s harder to realize the savings.”
Staffing shortages have operators looking for appliances that perform multiple tasks while doing the thinking for you, Sisson says. “The available labour pool for back-of-house is terrible. The best way to deal with that is to invest in better pieces of equipment and less of them.”
The latest combi-ovens and rapid-cook systems help alleviate the issue of judgement to some degree, Sisson says. “You can set them up and they pretty much know how to cook things. And countertop rapid-cook systems [TurboChef and Merrychef] are ideal for quick heating and cooking in small spaces.”
Multi-function, smart appliances are among the most sought-after pieces of equipment these days, confirms Doug Feltmate, foodservice and hospitality consultant with Ottawa-based Planned Foodservice Solutions. “The biggest multi-tasking piece is still the combi oven — Electrolux, Rational, Alto-Shaam and Combitherm have all come up with a version of a self-cooking centre that does a lot of the work for you. They’re becoming mainstays in commercial kitchens. If you add automated cooking features, your oven becomes another cook on the line.”
Feltmate says the availability of ventless combi-oven units is a huge game changer. “Pretty well every manufacturer has a self-ventilating unit that meets all local codes. With them, you can make changes to an existing restaurant without affecting ventilation and the major capital costs that go with it.”
On the smaller side, Kevin Boyce, program coordinator at Holland College in Charlottetown, P.E.I., says thermal mixers — which serve as a slow-cooker, stand mixer and food processor — are making a comeback for the same reasons. “They can do milling, grinding, grating, kneading dough, chopping vegetables, crushing or whipping. They also cook, fry and steam, yet are only the size of a large domestic coffeemaker. A Thermomix commercial unit costs approximately $2,500, while Bellini has brought the price down to about $600 for a home system.”
Across the board, manufacturers are offering shrunk-down versions for space-challenged restaurant owners — from stackable combi-ovens to under-the-counter refrigerators.
“A lot of restaurants that used to consider 5,000 to 6,000 sq. ft. are looking for 4,000 to 4,500 sq. ft.,” Sisson says. “We’re seeing a lot cutting out 1,000 to 1,500 sq. ft., where possible, to get occupancy costs down while maintaining the same number of seats [so] kitchen size definitely comes into play.”
Bar 120 restaurant at Pearson International Airport, for example, has a finishing kitchen space that’s a mere two by four meters, according to John Placko, culinary director, Modern Culinary Academy in Toronto. “We had to think carefully about our equipment choices.”
His selections included a rotary toaster, Panini grill, two warming drawers, a Sous-vide Supreme unit (a second PolyScience unit is in the commissary), a TurboChef, a PolyScience anti-griddle, a Pacojet micro-puree blender and an induction cooktop — along with some under-the-counter refrigerators and freezers. “If it wasn’t for these pieces, I don’t know how we could have executed a consistent menu.”
Having extensive experience in working with small spaces, Placko says if you have a self-venting combi, induction cooktop and a sous-vide machine, “you can get away with not needing venting. It can certainly drive your decisions on how you put your menu together. And stackable countertop combi-oven units are becoming almost standard. That’s a big change from five years ago.”
ON THE CHEAP
According to Boyce, another driver in today’s economy are appliances that allow operators to work with less expensive proteins or extend the life of food items to reduce waste.
Sous-vide is one essential. “A lot of chefs are using it now because it can take inexpensive and undesirable meat cuts and seafood and make them incredibly tender, while containing all the moisture and flavours. It helps control menu pricing.” Affordability is a key contributor to the sous-vide resurgence — from $600 to $2,500 for commercial systems from PolyScience, and as little as $200 for home versions such as Anova.
Food dehydrators are also gaining popularity. “Again, that goes back to the economy,” Boyce says. “A lot of kitchens are using dehydrators on items that normally go to waste; for example mushrooms you can’t use up or fennel flowers. They cut and dry them and grind them to a powder to use as a seasoning for salads and steaks.” He adds dehydrating goes hand-in-hand with the increasing interest in charcuterie programs. “Chefs may want to dehydrate before they smoke or vice-versa.”
Along the same lines, freeze dryers — an appliance Boyce describes as an anti-griddle with a dehydrator on top — are a sought-after kitchen essential. The main purpose is to save product and waste and freeze-dry it in a short time. “It saves the integrity of the product more than dehydrating. The flavours, smells and nutritional values are unchanged. Units, however, don’t come cheap — typical pricing can run up to $18,000 for a large system for catering and commercial hotels.”
Then there are appliances which simply make more sense in a cost-conscious world because they can keep overhead costs down, including staffing. Retherming, for example, is making a comeback as a means to work more efficiently, Boyce says. “It’s an older technology that has become very trendy. It used to be you needed an army of cooks lined up in a big row to put food on plates and pass it down, creating an inconsistent product. Now you can plate cold, roll a rack full of plates into the oven and rethermalize it slowly and safely according to prepared settings. What normally took 10 to 12 chefs can be done by two or three.” Chef/consultant Darren Brown says the cost of ventilation is also steering more operators to induction, immersion circulators and rapid-cook ovens. “When you consider that hoods represent one of the most significant equipment costs at $60,000 to $100,000, it makes sense to have a lot of small appliances working together that can run without hood fans — especially when you’re tight on space.”
Smaller, tighter spaces don’t always lend themselves to a comfortable work environment, but the right equipment choices can certainly relieve the burden. Induction shines in this regard. Not only are induction appliances more efficient and cook more quickly, they don’t create external heat in the kitchen. “Induction only generates heat when pans are in contact, so [they] run 30 per cent to 40 per cent cooler versus a traditional kitchen with gas-fired cooktops,” says Christopher Moreland, executive chef for Chesher Equipment in Mississauga, Ont.
There are also plenty of energy-efficient enhancements that improve comfort levels in kitchen spaces, Feltmate says. “Ventilation from leaders such as Halton and CaptiveAire are being integrated into building-management systems to enable remote monitoring.”
There are even smart dishwashers that are helping to reduce labour, while making dish room space better places to work, Feltmate adds. “All the major players such as Hobart and Champion are coming up with heat-recovery dishwashers that don’t emit heat or steam.”
A BREADTH OF CHOICES
Equipment innovation is not limited to mainstream items. Brown says urban cultivators for microgreens are showing promise in terms of both sustainability and quality. “It’s an easy case for ROI, they’re great for the environment and from a health and nutrient standpoint because you don’t harvest until you use the product.”
Smokers are moving to the top of the list for many operators, Sisson says. “There has been a huge increase in smokers because they allow you to be more cost-effective by using cheaper cuts of meat and you don’t need to watch them.”
Feltmate also reports major breakthroughs on the fryer front in terms of energy efficiency and zero-heat recovery times.
There are now electric deep fryers that enable 100 per cent transfer of energy into the oil, and have removable elements for easier cleaning, Moreland notes. “The problem is energy-efficient fryers can be more expensive. An entry level Vulcan PowerFry 5 gas fryer and the Standex Ultrafyer for example can cost $3,500 to $5,000 versus $700 to $1,000 for a basic fryer. But they last forever and there’s less oil degradation, so [they] pay for themselves in the end.”
Charbroilers and griddles are showing significant improvements in heat transfer, Moreland adds. “Some newer griddles have an aluminum core along with thermostatic snap action built into the metal for a more accurate and consistent temperature read. Vulcan’s IRX infrared charbroiler has emitter panels that can heat up to 800° and disperse energy across the entire bottom without flare-ups from dripping grease.” Another wish-list item is solid-fuel ovens. “We are getting more requests than ever for wood- and coal-burning pizza ovens. There seems to be a romanticism about it that appeals to chefs,” Moreland says.
THE COLD FRONT
While large-scale refrigeration units haven’t seen an abundance of changes, Feltmate reports a growing interest in rapid/blast chillers, particularly on the smaller operations side. “They were once for institutional applications. Now, smaller operators are interested from a food-safety aspect so are willing to invest $8,000 or $10,000 for a smaller unit.”
Moreland agrees that beyond large-scale operations, money is not being spent on walk-in refrigeration and freezer systems. “Younger chefs, especially, don’t use freezers much because they are working with local foods and want to use them at the peak of freshness. If they do, it’s a very small one. Operators are also moving to customized units to fit different spaces.”
When it comes to tea and coffee makers, it’s all about precision and consistency, Brown says. “Machines are focused on quality, control and precision. There are some amazing all-in-one machines for super high-end service environments that can put out high-calibre lattes more consistent than a barista’s.” One of Brown’s favourite technologies is a siphon vacuum extraction tea and coffee brewer from Utah-based Alpha Dominche, which can programmed by an iPad.
Moreland notes two intriguing trends on the coffee front. The first is “super automatic” machines that can dispense every type of beverage with a single push of a button. “We’re even seeing operators transition into using pod brewing. Nespresso now has a whole commercial division and is trying to get these systems into chains. Right now, the challenge is the cost-per-pod is 50 to 75 cents, while fresh ground espresso is around 15 to 20 cents. You lose a lot of margin, but you do gain in terms of consistency and quality.”
The other trend is custom roasters and percolators. “It’s more to address the artisanal side of coffee making,” Moreland says.
On the drink-dispensing side, cold-pressed juice machines are also gaining traction, Brown says. “Most operators start with smaller systems that cost about $2,500. When you get to the $15,000 massive hydraulic presses, they’re a totally different product. Another key trend is intelligent dispensers that integrate with your POS system.”
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
Moreland says the biggest trend on the technology horizon is the connected kitchen. “A lot of operators want intelligent equipment they can interact with — whether they’re in the kitchen or not.”
And manufacturers are answering the call, he says. “The Amana ACP high-speed oven countertop appliance, for example, changed its control panel to a Wi-Fi-based touchscreen similar to an iPhone so customers can update new cooking processes, create menus, take pictures of dishes or do any other programming remotely.” Italian supplier Lainox has gone one step further with its Naboo combi-oven, which uses Cloud-based technology to enable chefs to post recipes for downloading.
But this is only an inkling of what the connected kitchen will become, he adds. “What you are seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can expect to see in the next five to 10 years.”
Volume 49, Number 6
Written By Denise Deveau