Game-Changing Equipment Innovations are Taking the Sting Out of Rising Costs and Labour Shortages

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It hasn’t been an easy time for operators — escalating operational costs, labour shortages, more stringent health-and-safety requirements and an increasingly competitive landscape are playing a part in driving their equipment decisions.

“In 2019, everybody will be trying to save money,” says Joel Sisson, president and founder of Crush Strategy Inc. in Mississauga. “The industry had a weak start in 2018 in terms of minimum-wage increases and labour shortages. It’s difficult to find people in any sector, whether it’s QSR or full service.”

On that front, a key focus for operators is figuring out ways to get food produced faster, more consistently and with less human intervention. That means investing in equipment that can think, multitask and speed-up cooking times.

Restaurants are also seeking solutions that can help them bump up the quality of lesser cuts of meats, reduce shrinkage and increase the lifespan of fresh products to improve margins. Whether smoking, sous vide or blast chilling, many are reconsidering options for reducing food waste.

Even the front-of-house is being re-evaluated, as operators apply effective self-serve and tablet technologies to lower the number of staff while speeding up table service.
The good news is there are plenty of equipment options filling the more crucial gaps for foodservice operations, from countertop ventless appliances that reduce costs and footprint, to energy-saving induction systems and intelligent rapid-cook and combi-ovens that minimize training and staffing needs. Add to that mobile connectivity and IoT (Internet of Things) capabilities and the options for saving time and money are increasing.

Here’s a look at a few of the top trends experts believe will be in the spotlight in 2019.

Chilling Prospects
A number of industry observers say blast chilling will be topping many of 2019 wish lists. “For one, blast chilling extends the life of food by properly chilling without changing the profile of some proteins. There are a lot of new units from the likes of American Panel and Alto-Shaam that you can use for shock freezing,” says Doug Feltmate of Planned Foodservice Solutions Inc. in Ottawa.

Some newer units are as small as microwaves, he notes. “It’s really a matter of food safety and quality. You can bag soups, for example, then blast freeze them. It’s so quick, the soup won’t continue to cook and get mushy. Also, you can avoid foods reaching the hazardous temperature zone.”

Blast chilling is going to be on everybody’s radar, confirms Josh Wolfe, executive chef with Food Service Solutions in Vancouver. “In Europe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that didn’t have it in its everyday operations. We’re starting to see them more here. They are good for many reasons — from shelf life of products to their quality. You can batch cook, chill and freeze. They provide all sorts of options for how you look at your scope of work throughout the entire day.”

In an interesting twist, the Neo blast chiller from Lainox in Italy can not only chill and freeze, it can rise to 185°F for sous-vide cooking or proofing — all using an icon-based screen. “Combine that with a high-speed oven and it can be pretty much all you need to run a restaurant,” Wolfe says.

Mark Greenfield, corporate chef with Executive Hotel Group in Vancouver has his sights set on Neo units combined with the Naboo combi-oven — both of which have built-in intelligence. “It’s a game-changer for sure. The combination opens up all sorts of possibilities because you can perform the entire cook/freeze cycle. You only need to add a vacuum sealer and you can conceivably have your prep done for a month at a time.

Blast chilling has been a particular benefit when it comes to seafood, he adds. “Typically when you cook, freeze and thaw fish you lose 10 per cent of weight through moisture loss. Blast freezing takes it down to a fraction of that.”

Fast and furious
Accelerated-cooking technologies will continue to impress as they become even more versatile. An added bonus is much of the accelerated-cooking technologies are vent-less, Feltmate says. “TurboChefs and Merrychefs used to be trendy but are now becoming more mainstream. People are understanding there are other ways to cook rather than in burners on stovetops. Because they don’t require venting, the ROI is achieved the day you install one.”

“The days of the steam kettle and tilt skillet are out. Rapid-cook and combi-ovens are overcoming the food cost and labour-shortage challenges facing operators today,” Greenfield says.

The company is in the process of installing Amana AXPs in all properties, he adds. “Staff can produce great quality pre-prepped items with minimal labour and training.” An added bonus is that the units can connect with the Cloud, so managers can remotely update recipes, along with valuable training information.

Wolfe reports a sharp increase in high-speed-oven sales because there’s so much more that can be done with them. “High-speed technology is not new in the market. But what is trending is the applications of it. You can really push the limits of these machines. They were originally geared for QSR and never considered to be part of traditional-style cooking. Now, even high-end restaurants are using them for finishing sous-vide items, heating proteins at salad stations and speeding up lunch service.”

Then there is, as always, the growing reliance on the versatility of the combi-oven. “That will never change as an industry trend,” says Rudi Fischbacher, associate dean, School of Hospitality, Recreation & Tourism at Humber College in Toronto. “Operators want multi-functional equipment that can do as many jobs in the smallest square footage possible. The programmable part is huge.”

Waste Not, Want Not
Kitchen waste — from the garden-variety garbage to electricity consumption — is being scrutinized more than ever.

One trending technology is onsite composting, Feltmate says. “Accelerated composting can be in several forms and takes all food waste and turns it into a soil-like substance.”

While the systems can be costly (ranging from $30,000 to $60,000), the 80-per-cent reduction in food waste pays for itself in tipping fees. Feltmate reports a number of corporate cafeteria and other larger-scale operations have “jumped on the bandwagon” as part of their corporate philosophy.

Another food-saving must-have is vacuum packing (in conjunction with blast chilling). According to Feltmate, “Vacuum packing extends the lifespan of fresh foods as well as enhances the flavour. For example, you can get a week out of fresh salmon or prime cuts, which would normally break down after a couple of days. With increased labour costs, people can also stretch production schedules from prepping every three days to every seven days.”

A lot more operators are also using smoking-capable appliances as a means to control food costs, Sisson says. “Part of the reason is that you can use secondary pieces of meat and play with flavour profiles. There’s also more leeway. If you overcook on a grill, that’s bad. But if you over-smoke something by 10 or 15 minutes, it doesn’t matter that much.”

Breakfast is Served
The continuing rise of the all-day breakfast menu is providing opportunities for operators to increase revenues and volumes at a comparably low cost.

“Griddles and flat tops are relatively cheap and can be used for other items, such as burgers and grilled sandwiches throughout the day,” Sisson says. “If you want to [cook] something lean and mean and cheap, a griddle is a great piece
to have.”

“Breakfast has become an interesting category and generating a lot of R&D into countertop and vent-less equipment,” Wolfe notes.

New entrants into the market include an egg station by Antunes that can be used as a “one-stop breakfast-sandwich shop,” he adds. “You can use it to cook eggs or a slice of bacon at the same time in about two minutes. If you combine it with a high-speed oven for warming, you can increase your production dramatically. Plus you can develop a Panini program with the same combination. It opens up all sorts of new menu capabilities.”

Fischbacher confirms that breakfast equipment is getting quite a lift in restaurants. “There are the usual salamanders. But there are also unique additions such as induction woks, flat tops and griddles from Garland that are highly effective
and can power down when not in use. So much of breakfast cooking can be automated with some of these products and require little training.”

Connecting the Dots
While it might be less obvious, integration between the front- and back-of-house operations can deliver huge cost and labour savings, from remote equipment monitoring to self-server ordering kiosks to tablet-based ordering.

Alex Barrotti, founder and CEO of TouchBistro in Toronto says there are constant requests for back-of-house integration with tablet-based ordering systems. “Instead of them having to go back and forth to access the POS, you can place the order at the table or kiosk. If every waiter has an iPad, you can do a lot more with less staff. Operators are able to add more food-and-drink runners so a server, instead of a four-table section, can take eight.”

That’s not the only POS integration available to restaurateurs, he adds. “Operations can also integrate ordering systems, menu boards, alcohol metering and inventory control with today’s new POS systems.”

Restaurants are rethinking how they facilitate the front and back-of-house to work together, Fischbacher says. “Even equipment monitoring can be integrated with smartphones, so operators can receive alarms, or log in to monitor equipment and troubleshoot problems from any location.”

Thomas McNaughtan, vice-president at South St. Burger in Toronto, says integration of self-ordering systems is next on its agenda. “Kiosks are the big one for us. Now that they’re out there and affordable, you can also use the same portal for a mobile app for advance ordering from your car, home or restaurant lobby.”

Integration is also helping restaurants beyond the QSR segment. Feltmate says he’s currently working on a project in which the restaurant posts menus on a digital board and allowing late-evening customers to order and pay from their smartphone. “The restaurant can send serving staff home earlier and eliminate the need for table service for late-night nachos and beer orders.”

Written by Denise Deveau

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