There’s no escaping the pandemic but there are ways smart technologies are helping operators cope with the labour and health-and-safety challenges it brings. Some innovations are brand new, while others have been on a slow burn for several years, but quickly gaining traction as the goalposts have moved. Then there are the up-and-coming ideas that have yet to hit mainstream but are waiting in the wings.
From connected kitchen equipment to integrated front-of-house systems to mobile apps, operators are finding multiple ways to streamline operations, connect with customers and keep pace with changing requirements.
It comes as no surprise that it’s large and multi-unit operations leading the way, says Nahum Goldberg at NGAssociates, a foodservice operation and design consultant in Richmond, Calif. “Chains and QSRs with multi units on a large scale, as well as large workplace foodservice operations are ahead. They’re leading the research and willing to invest in the technology.”
Here are a few of the digital trends driving those investments.
As operators face a lack of labour and move increasingly to takeout, they’re changing the way they think about production flow and equipment to optimize productivity, says David Zabrowski, vice-president, Frontier Energy in San Ramon, Calif. As a result, he’s seeing a lot of equipment manufacturers embracing smart controls and cloud connectivity.
Newer controls are even able to run videos on the units themselves, whether its for preventative maintenance, implementing particular procedures or inputting recipes, he adds. “They’re great for training and labour savings. Henny Penny models, for example, has put training videos right in the fryer controls. Given the biggest challenge with labour turnover is training, if equipment has training built in, that’s gold.”
Not surprisingly, combi-ovens have been the go-to equipment for programmable features, he adds. “Rational is the market leader there.”
Now those same features are expanding into other appliances, says Chris Knight, consultant with The Fifteen Group in Toronto. “More appliances are utilizing digital controls and programmable features, on fryers as a way to capture heat within the units. They take the skills required out of the job.”
Zabrowski’s favourite smart control is one that can detect when an appliance is cooking and go into auto-setback mode. “We first started seeing them in bakery ovens because they were batch oriented. Combi-ovens have adapted that as well and we’re now seeing that rolled into other appliances.”
Anton Ovtchinnikov, manager, Western Canada for GBS Foodservice in Calgary, points to consistency as a driving factor behind technology choices in equipment. “No matter the number of locations, digital technology and programming come in handy. As long as you throw a product in and press the button, every store will produce the same product.”
The best part is the ability to program menus, making it easy for new staff to follow recipes, he adds. “You can even control things from your phone. You’re seeing a little more of that in hotels, where chefs can program an oven and change recipes from anywhere.”
Some manufacturers are introducing auto-clean models that save a lot of money and labour at the end of the day, says Ovtchinnikov. “Semi-automatic filtration in deep fryers such as Ultrafryers can take less than five minutes, saves oil costs and keeps the oil cleaner.”
Vacuum packaging systems are also taking on a mind of their own, he says. “We’re seeing more software and programming heavy units, such as VacSmart from Minipack, that allow you to marinate, tenderize, cold brew and infuse within minutes. Before, chefs needed to press multiple buttons to control the process. Now the software can do it.”
Samir Zabaneh, CEO, TouchBistro in Toronto, says restaurants are facing more complexity, with customer orders and demands coming from multiple directions. “Customers are now connecting to kitchens from outside ordering through mobile, pickup, or third-party apps. This demand from different channels didn’t happen in the past. Takeout and ordering were relatively small, but the volume is here to stay. Ordering, loyalty, data…everything has to be connected.”
Digital ordering for restaurants has become not only a benefit, but a necessity, says Andrew Infantino, marketing specialist with Copper Branch in Pierrefonds, Que. “Compared to before the pandemic, we have seen a more than 60-per-cent increase in ordering from our mobile app, website ordering, or third-party-delivery platforms. This is, by far, the most important technology within our restaurants as it not only is connected the back of house and our POS for efficiency and processing orders more quickly, it acts as a marketing tool connecting our customers to our menu in a more personal manner.”
In-house, a lot more operations are using iPads and tablets for ordering, says Knight. “If you’re working with a bigger brand POS vendor, it’s easier to integrate a few more pieces of hardware to inventory.”
The QR Factor
The QR code is clearly hitting its stride. While the capabilities were already available, COVID-19 made them more necessary, says Zabaneh. “QR-code ordering and menus were talked about two or three years ago. It was an idea that restaurants never thought would be needed. Now you see QR codes on every table, with varying levels of sophistication. Some only provide a PDF version of a menu, others provide online ordering, self check-in and self check-out.”
In his work, Goldberg sees a lot of restaurants using QR codes for ordering apps for pickup and delivery. “Pre-ordering is huge right now. It’s coming in on just about every project we’re working on.”
Justin Tisdall, owner of JUKE Fried Chicken and The Chickadee Room (a cocktail bar inside the JUKE premises) in Vancouver, introduced QR code menus early in the pandemic. “All the menus have become digital and broadcast on screens. People can scan the code at the table and the menus pop up for both rooms.”
Since then, they’ve worked with local developer Auphan Software to enable customers to select their items, build custom cocktails, order drinks and pay through their phones. “The orders go right to the bar. If they want, they can pull up their own bill and pay it using the QR code, or have someone bring a handheld terminal to the table.”
Ray Abramson, COO of MeazureUp in Toronto, developers of digital checklists, notes that COVID-19 has expedited digital transformation in the foodservice-audit space. “Health and safety have always been important, but now they’re under more scrutiny as owners and franchises want more visibility into compliance at the store level.”
All the checklists can be done by phone or tablet. Not surprisingly the COVID-19 checklist is the one that is generating the highest demand. “It’s a whole new type of assessment that takes into account everything from condiment setups to utensil stations and menus,” he explains. “Because it’s all cloud-based and uploaded to a dashboard, they can be monitored remotely so a general manager can check in at any time.”
Equipment connectivity and control are among the top items on many agendas these days, Goldberg notes. “Interactivity is not tremendously new. The technology is just better.
Operators are now able to remotely see what’s going on in their operations, receive notifications and perform preventive maintenance to prevent down time and service interruptions.”
He points to recent digital technologies that are specifically designed to help operators understand how much food waste is going to compost or landfill, how much they purchased and how they can reduce it.
Smarter connectivity can also play a key role in reducing energy consumption, Goldberg explains. “Now there’s energy-management technology that connects to thermostats in cooking equipment that can be pre-programmed to modulate and reduce actual energy usage during peak times. It’s not in place yet, but soon will be.”
Written by Denise Deveau