Operators embrace new technology to make ends meet

Kitchen equipment and appliances

By Denise Deveau

Operators of all sizes are now facing a world of labour shortages, shrinking footprints and margins, and rising costs. In their battle to keep pace, many are turning to equipment to fill in the gaps — from smart connected appliances and energy-efficient equipment, to automated multi-function systems and software integration that can not only reduce staffing needs but keep operations efficient and profitable.

The changing landscape 

COVID forced a lot of companies to re-think their operations, says Christopher Knight, senior management and business-development consultant, The Fifteen Group in Toronto. “We are seeing a lot more bells and whistles that make things more efficient, such as built-in recipe catalogues and more functionality that can eliminate the need for a chef or executive chef in some cases.” 

With the ongoing labour shortage, there’s growing interest in user-friendly equipment that doesn’t require a high level of skill to operate, such as conveyor ovens, food processors and choppers, and sous vide, says Les Richenhaller, restaurant consultant and concept developer, Good Eats Consulting in Ottawa. “There are even cutlery wrappers now that also sanitize. If you can put in equipment that shows up every day, you don’t have to pay benefits or worry about consistency, it allows you to focus on the human factor and what hospitality is all about.”

Restaurateurs are ready to embrace new technologies says Peter Dougherty, general manager, Hospitality, at Lightspeed Commerce Inc. in Montreal. “With the pandemic effect, restaurateurs now have a level of comfort with technology and want to bring it into their environments more than ever to offset the increased cost of labour and food.”

All things all people

The biggest enabler for today’s operators by far is combi ovens, says Richenhaller. “They’re able to produce food twice as fast with 100-per-cent accuracy. There are now models that have been scaled down for smaller operations, making them more mainstream.”

“Combis are becoming game changers as far as footprint, efficiency and savings are concerned. You can easily eliminate five appliances within a small footprint,” says Louis-Philippe Audette president Rational Canada, based in Mississauga, Ont. “The iCombi and iVario, for example, can not only cook food in much less time, the precise heating technology ensures consistent product, without the need for burners, convection ovens, or steamers.”

Multi-function rapid-cook ovens for small cafes and quick-service concepts are also gaining traction, says Knight. “Ovens that combine convection, microwave and infrared can cook pizzas in 60 seconds and wings in two-and-a-half minutes and generate a high-quality product.”

“Orvid has developed a multi-purpose vacuum packer that allows you vacuum seal and marinate products in one-third of the time,” says Ibrahim Tams, executive chef consultant, Food Service Solutions Inc. in Milton, Ont.  

Energy and space savers

Equipment that saves energy is another huge driver behind equipment choices. “A lot of new technology for electric equipment is reducing the demand on combustion,” says Richenhaller. 

Induction is one technology gaining traction, he adds. “Energy transfer is as smart as it can get. Another interesting technology is radio-frequency ovens, which target specific foods more accurately.”

“Operators can’t always increase menu pricing so are finding ways to utilize all food,” says Tams. “There’s a lot of equipment that helps with reducing food wastage and carbon footprint because they’re not throwing product away.”

With footprint at a premium, operators are also looking at space-saving options. Many sites are moving to ventless equipment and induction, so they don’t have to install as many hoods, says Richenhaller.

 Smart thinking

“Smart ovens are a prime example of how far things have come,” says Knight. “Rational, Lainox, and Alto-Shaam offer multiple styles of cooking units that are high efficiency and very quick. They can cook multiple items in the same oven at the same time and be controlled by one cook using an iPad. It’s a big game changer.”

“Everything from fridges to cooking to holding and cooling can be communicated through apps, so chefs don’t have to be there all the time,” says Richenhaller. “They can check their phone to know exactly the temperature and humidity levels of food being cooked. Appliances can even send automatic alerts for maintenance reducing downtime.”

The most innovative part of equipment today is connectivity, confirms Audette. “Operators can have limitless access to recipes, review HACCP logging, change recipes, check on cooking status, initiate cleaning, and more.”

Sensors on refrigeration units are also effective in eliminating one of the thousand things operators have to worry about, says Richenhaller. “Another useful smart feature is automated oil management. With the cost of cooking oil going through the roof, there is now equipment that can monitor and change it out automatically.”

Cold shrinkage 

Even refrigeration is going through an overhaul. “With smaller footprint operations, we’re starting to see cool rooms go by the wayside, says John Lilly, senior product analyst, True Refrigeration Canada based in O’Fallon, Miss. 

“Having spot refrigeration so you don’t have to run to a cool room nearly as often means staff can stay on the line and crank out more food. We’re also seeing more prep tables with refrigerated wells, making it easier for people to grab items and keep the
line flowing.”  

Spot refrigeration at point of purchase is becoming an important revenue generator, offering opportunities for point of purchase sales of signature items such as barbecue sauces or salad dressings, and beverages. 

Tams has observed a surge in merchandisers. “After COVID, operators realized they had to do something else besides serve food in the way of grab-and-go options.” 

One for all

In today’s omni-channel world, foodservice customers are now looking for single vendors to deliver end-to-end solutions and run their entire restaurant-management system from a single platform.

“POS is substantially more powerful with more integration,” says Samir Zabaneh, chairman and CEO, TouchBistro in Toronto. “Having multiple solutions on a single platform transforms POS into a tool that can access all the information a restaurateur needs, from revenues and profitability to loyalty. 

“Everything is related — inventory management, kitchen displays, payment devices, or management,” says Dougherty. “Operators are looking for a unifying experience,” 

Integration of different payment platforms such as scan and pay, pay at table, and tap to pay are also innovating the payment experience, says Dougherty. “Tap to Pay on iPhone for example, allows servers to take orders on the phone, which also acts as a payment device. It’s a really powerful tool that also adds flexibility.”

Rise of robots

Robots are starting to make their way into more restaurant applications, says Greg Staley, general manager, E-Pro Bot Inc., Richmond Hill, Ont., whose Keenon Robotics line is designed to support food delivery. 

“Robots can help businesses become more efficient and drive more profits by freeing up the walking and waiting time in the kitchen,” says Staley. “Smart restaurants understand that if servers more time, they can upsell and take on more front of house tasks.”

Beyond delivery Staley sees robotics playing a role in performing repetitive functions. “We’ are starting see robotic salad makers, coffee and mixed drink makers, and sushi rollers. What is really needed is a dishwashing robot. Finding good dishwashers is one of the weakest points in a restaurant.”

Making it work

Operators should always choose applicable technology that works and produces results, cautions Richenhaller. “Don’t overspend. One chef in a smaller operation doesn’t need all the tech that larger kitchens would need. It’s always a fine balance between craft and technology.” 

The art lies in using technology wisely, he adds. “Remember that the goal is service. If we can find the sweet spot where you can incorporate technology and use to increase the hospitality side of your business, that’s huge. If you can use it to create more of a human experience, to me that’s the Holy Grail.”

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