The first in a series of excerpts from The Next Course: Reinventing the Modern Urban Restaurant by André LaRivière
While the restaurant business may “run on relationships,” its operations also rely heavily on energy — lots of it — to apply various levels of heat and chill to food and beverages, not to mention mixing things up, washing them down and keeping the lights on. In terms of future-friendly innovation, making smarter use of all that energy is perhaps the toughest challenge we face.
That said, technologies to add more precise control, versatility and even automation to energetic cooking and cooling processes are already here. They’ll surely get smarter and more powerful, offering a wide range of benefits to next-generation operations.
Use it, don’t lose it
Let’s say you want to do a DIY kitchen reboot for a future-forward casual concept. A poke through equipment catalogues offers tens of thousands of unique options in hundreds of categories. Of these, approximately 15 per cent are tagged as energy-efficient, with certification by Energy Star or other third-party evaluation programs. It’s a good place to start.
The revelatory numbers, however, are those described in The Efficiency Index comparing the relative efficiency — the amount of energy actually transferred to the food product — of the most widely used solid fuel, gas and electric cooking equipment. For a spreadsheet-savvy business that prides itself on maximizing razor-thin profits through efficiency (including minimizing food waste), it’s a staggering reality. It’s also clearly unsustainable as we motor into a decarbonized future; we need kitchens with the energy footprint of a 2018 Tesla, not a ’77 Buick.
Don Fisher, who co-founded the California test lab largely responsible for the Energy Star efficiency standards for foodservice equipment, offers an assessment of the level of R&D by the manufacturing sector, beginning with “diddly” and ending with “squat.” “For decades, it’s been the same-old at trade show ‘kitchen-innovation’ booths,” he says. “Some small companies try to shake things up, but often back out when they can’t realize the market share needed for a fair return on their R&D investment.” Which explains why the big-brand equipment conglomerates such as Welbilt and Middleby, align their R&D with the needs of multinational, multi-unit QSRs.
Luis DaSilva, Distributed Product manager at Garland Canada (Welbilt), shares that view. “When chain-business clients come to the showroom, they typically want to see all the latest high-efficiency gear, especially induction, because efficiency is a plank in their system,” he says. “Comparatively, the general market could care less.” DaSilva says it’s understood that independent operators gravitate to basic functionality and low-cost in order to reserve capital funds for more “customer-facing” priorities. “They’re not focused on the total operating cost down the line, just what it costs to purchase the gear today.”
Market demand (and potential demand) drives innovative supply and this is where restaurants and equipment makers run into issues of scale. Compared to consumer tech sectors, restaurant equipment is a small business, with thousands of manufacturers doing their best to serve highly competitive customers that have a remarkably diverse range of specific needs.
Compounding that challenge is the industry’s well-established practice of maintaining kitchen equipment in place — often for decades — until it can no longer be repaired, before purchasing a replacement or upgrade. Add the perennial high turnover of independent restaurants feeding a well-stocked pool of used gear and a general market for innovative, future-proof technologies is that much more elusive.
Of course, some of those QSR-driven efficient appliances, such as induction woks, mini-fryers and high-speed compact ovens, will benefit other kitchens and new menu concepts. For most anything else, you’ll have to ask.
What will drive real innovation?
Beyond energy efficiency, two factors cited as key drivers of kitchen equipment innovation — labour and real estate — will continue to be at a premium. Fisher and other gear gurus expect the arrival of fully integrated, programmable production, particularly in kitchens where repetition, consistency and volume are fundamental to the service concept. “Rather than a long line of discrete appliances, this would be a compact production system in a single or modular unit that applies cooking processes as needed, like a combi-oven on steroids,” says Fisher. “It would be programmed, ideally, by a chef and managed by a small team.”
The compact workhorse of the small versatile kitchen will likely remain a version of the combi-oven, which has proven that, with smart planning and organization, a small chef-led team can accomplish an exceptional level of production over the course of the day without compromising product quality and culinary technique.
Is there anything better than induction?
To the best of our knowledge, there’s no other high-efficiency, low-carbon technology other than induction that can generate the kind of robust cooking power demanded by most commercial kitchens. And all induction equipment is not created equal; the majority of low-cost “buffet” induction cooktops, typically rated at less than two kilowatts (kW), rarely have enough “juice” to be considered a reliable replacement for an open gas burner.
Therefore, until professional cooking standards (and expectations) change fundamentally or something new comes along, the best options to replace gas burners and flat-top griddles are high-powered induction appliances, rated from a minimum of 3.5 kW (12,000 BTU) to 10 kW (35,000 BTU). Chef-owner Andrea Carlson found out just how power-hungry induction can be when she was sorting out her kitchen at Burdock & Co. “The utility told us our building wasn’t wired in a way that allowed [us] to install as much induction as we wanted,” she says. “Induction is fast, clean and efficient…but we still need something better.”
Winnipeg chef-caterer Ben Kramer would like to see better and leaner induction. “It’s efficient and precise, but not cheap to buy or use,” he says, noting those factors also put the majority of new high-efficiency equipment out of reach of independent operators. “That’s why most still deal with what’s in circulation or what they inherited and why most gear gets repaired and run into the ground before it’s retired.”
With a noteworthy exception (deep fryers), upgrading to energy-efficient equipment, electric or gas, generally has a relatively long (two to five years) return on investment. “The savings may add up at the utility level, but not in my pocket. And, like too many energy-efficient solutions, such as heat pumps and solar panels, in order to save $3,000, I have to spend $20,000,” he says. “If they want to foster long-term change, the electric utilities and cities should mandate an upgrade, with some very healthy incentives, for any restaurant that’s rezoned or rebuilt and not grandfather an existing location.”
Clear the air and chill
Whatever the choice of cooking energy, kitchens will always need efficient methods of extracting heat as well. A substantial wedge of a restaurant’s energy pie is gobbled up by ventilation, from extracting hot greasy air to pulling in fresh outdoor air to helping everybody in the kitchen keep their cool. Ducking into the walk-in or leaning into the reach-in may seem like reasonable alternatives but are not very conducive to reducing energy use or ensuring food safety.
That said, ventilation and refrigeration, each all-electric and relatively efficient, are further along the future-friendly road than most of the gear on the hot side. Demand-control kitchen ventilation, which adjusts exhaust-fan speeds up and down by sensing actual cooking activity, is a substantial energy-saving improvement over the standard on/off system, while improved refrigerants, insulation and controls allow coolers to run fewer cycles to hold temperature.
More innovation is certainly needed, particularly when considering how food and foodservice systems rely on cold storage at every scale and with air quality already compromised in many urban areas.
The future of cool
When the goal is running the most efficient, low-impact cooling system, as when matching the right tool to the right job, size does matter.
In parallel with advances in electric vehicles over the past decade, some manufacturers are now building smaller motors for refrigerator compressors, delivering exceptional performance for a fraction of the horsepower once required and demanded. “The days of ‘how big is your compressor?’ are over,” says Steve Proctor, director of International Sales and Marketing at True Manufacturing. “The benefits for walk-in coolers are significant, but for smaller reach-in coolers that have to open a hundred times an hour in a space with a temperature of 34°C and 80 per cent humidity, that’s where the performance and recovery time of this technology is really mission critical.”
Beyond meeting the growing demands of high-volume, fast-paced production and service with more compact “low boy” and under-counter coolers and freezers, manufacturers are also responding to the other primary 21st-century need. “More operators want mobility to adapt to menus and spaces, like a prep station beside a pizza oven wheeled over to become a sandwich counter,” says Proctor.
And while there are innovative ultra-efficient refrigeration technologies available, for now they’re mostly confined to critical applications in medicine and science labs. For the foreseeable future, Proctor expects the familiar removing-heat-from-a-box technology in use will continue to improve with alternative refrigerants and better insulation materials. “At the end of the day, you gain efficiency when refrigerators have to run less. And they can, if we’re smart about it.”
The role of AI
The design of every high-tech enhancement to a foodservice operation, whatever the concept or segment, has to start with the goal of improving the guest experience, according to Jason Leeson, president of Squirrel Systems in Burnaby, B.C. “In limited-service, innovation will be driven by mobile or kiosk ordering tied to automated production, primarily geared to convenience and speed of service,” he says. “In fine dining and premium-casual, it could mean a discreet and seamless experience, perhaps enabled by a mobile customer profile that alerts the restaurant to your arrival and to prep your favourite beverages and dishes, then lets you get up and leave and have the check automatically charged to your account.”
And, says Leeson, it comes back to how much data you have and what you can do with it. “We can now collect a lot of valuable data from the various touchpoints guests have with an operator, and then leverage analytics and artificial intelligence to produce actionable insight.”
Chef Tyler Schwarz of Rational also sees evidence of fully automated kitchens on the way. “You’ll have one or two chef-programmers coding their menus and turning the work over to an AI to manage production,” he says. “All the chains with standardized menus, from QSR to upscale-casual, will benefit from this level of tech.”
The mission-critical factor, adds Schwarz, is to keep culinary professionals at the input panel. “We have to fight for that, because if efficiency is the only goal, there’s too much risk of feeding people meals with no real nutritional value.”
Fisher agrees. “Forward-looking, tech-loving chefs aren’t that worried about a more automated kitchen, as long as the tools allow for creative input and culinary integrity,” he says. “The real concern is that these systems will be built by and for people who could care less about that, and be all about efficiency and lowest-possible cost.” Fisher also shares the concern Elon Musk and others have about the potential for unbridled, unprincipled behaviour by artificial intelligence. “An AI can teach itself to cook, scanning every online recipe and technical database. With the wrong goals and values as operating parameters, that could be a nightmare.”
The e-book of The Next Course will be available at a special discount price for F&H subscribers through Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.
André LaRivière is a sustainable-foodservice consultant, former CBC Radio producer, New York–trained chef, restaurant trade journalist, food critic and social entrepreneur. He has been a go-to resource and friend to Vancouver’s restaurant community for the past decade, helping many leading operations save energy, reduce waste, and choose sustainable menu options. LaRivière also co-founded the Green Table Network, a non-profit enterprise to foster sustainability in the foodservice industry. Currently, he is a principal with fish+river, a progressive foodservice consultancy.