Almost overnight, equipment-investment plans were upended. Budgets once slated for typical equipment replacement and upgrades are now pivoting to strategic purchases that will help owner/operators manage the operational trials and tribulations the pandemic has brought to the table.
With staffing at a minimum, today, there’s greater demand for more multi-function, pre-programmable systems. The rise in takeout, particularly on the casual- and fine-dining side, is pushing for speed, consistency and elevated packaging requirements. Rapid cook is gaining steam, as are display refrigerators and freezers for the ever-expanding grab-and-go market.
While some choices are temporary reactionary responses to the crisis, others will be here to stay, says Doug Feltmate, principal, Planned Foodservice Solutions in Ottawa. “If one were to try and predict up-and-coming trends, it’s challenging because we’re in a paradigm shift right now. However, there will be new trends coming out of this experience that are changing the rules of engagement.”
All things to fewer people
While the pandemic means putting the brakes on some purchases, there are areas that have accelerated, Feltmate says. “Multi-tasking equipment is in demand because of the physical distancing required in kitchens. You can’t have people crossing over now. They have to be put at a station that can do multiple functions.”
The clear winners in that scenario are combi- and rapid-cook ovens, he adds. “In some cases, they’re being brought in [for the first time] because of COVID-19, but they’ll stay on going forward. Even though we’ve seen a move to multi-tasking for a few years, now it’s really taken hold.”
According to Feltmate, RATIONAL has reported a dramatic increase in multi-function products in the chain-restaurant sector. “People are really trending to equipment that can finish everything. RATIONAL’s new iVario platform for one, was introduced in the middle of the pandemic. It does all kinds of other things and can replace a kettle, griddle, skillet and more.”
Where space is an issue, smaller multi-function systems are in high demand, says Alex Fraser, vice-president, Western Operations for The Fifteen Group in Vancouver. “Merrychef and RATIONAL have both introduced very small units that are 100-per-cent programmable. This has not only lowered the cost for buying quality pieces of equipment, but also reduced the footprint requirements in kitchens.”
On a smaller scale, Thermomix appliances are growing in stature as a multi-tasking option for cooking rice, thickening sauces, ermentation and sous vide, he adds.
Another trend now gaining traction is ventless systems. Long-term care has been a particularly soaring sector in terms of demand, Feltmate says. “Ventless is changing how they design their serveries, how food is served and how people interact”.
While QSRs and fast-casual establishments are well entrenched in the takeout market, a growing number of dine-in restaurants are pivoting to takeout, grab-and-go or grocery offerings. With that comes a significant investment in packaging, from heat sealers to shrink-wrapping systems, to containers for transporting.
“Where restaurants have had to make the biggest adjustment today has been in packaging,” Feltmate says. The challenge with higher-end food items is finding packages with the right support and features for preserving food. “If you’re selling premium food, it can’t be lesser quality than if you were sitting in the restaurant eating it.”
An important aspect to consider with packaging is making them tamper proof, says Patrick Watt, of A Day in Life Foodservice Development in Saint John, N.B. “You’re dealing with third-party-delivery services, so you need to have standards in place in terms of controlling the product during delivery — usually a sticker or other type of seal. Tamper-proof packaging is really important.”
Not surprisingly, there’s a huge interest in water-soluble and recyclable or compostable packaging, but supply has been an issue, Fraser says. “Right now, supply and demand are a bit lopsided. Another part of packaging today is the branding aspect. If it doesn’t work [well] or look [good], that reflects on your brand.”
Takeout programs that include home-meal replacement and market-ready ingredients are also driving an uptick in refrigerators and freezers, particularly open-air merchandising and reach-in units, says Mark McEwan, regional sales director, Western Canada for Mississauga-based Food Service Solutions Inc. “That’s a huge trend, especially for catering companies that have had to pivot.”
The same demand is pushing the need for vacuum-pack and skin-sealing systems, he adds. “They’re huge sellers now.”
Upping the air quality
Ventilation is arguably one of the biggest considerations for today’s operators, from ventless appliances to exhaust systems.
“It’s the one area operations should be paying attention to,” Watt says. “Right now, air purifiers are the biggest thing. Most, like Halton, are leaning to proprietary systems that remove pathogens out of the air. However, air purifiers don’t work in kitchens as the air is going up the hood. Restaurants also need to look at more robust exhaust and air-exchange systems.”
One of the biggest equipment items in demand today is hospital-grade air purifiers, confirms McEwan. “People don’t necessarily think about air sanitation. They think about tables. The beauty of ones like Jaspr is that they plug into a 120-volt plug and actually test the air, while increasing fan speeds for faster purification when needed.
Safe and sanitized
Some operators are tackling equipment investments in areas they’ve never had to consider before. Hand-sanitizer dispensers, touchless bathroom fixtures, panels and dividers, protective gear and other equipment are among the many items high up on the list.
While operations have always practised sanitation protocols both in the back and front of house, “No one considered a sanitizing fogger before,” Feltmate says.
“All of a sudden they came out and everyone started implementing them”. More equipment is moving under the counter as a way to keep surfaces clean and streamline operations. On the bar front, Fraser says automation and space savings are driving equipment choices, whether for coffee and batch cocktails or ice making. “A lot of appliances are becoming lower profile as operations pivot to be more efficient and safer.”
Operations are also downsizing their ice machines, opting for systems that dispense both ice and water to reduce the need for handling.
While the challenges will continue in the foreseeable future, it’s clear that some of the trends that have been driven by the pandemic are here to stay, Fraser says. “There will be a lot of positives in a lot of environments, as the pandemic is moving ingenuity and processes along.”