Ask an operator what drives their equipment choices and the answers come as no surprise. Shrinking margins, labour shortages and rising costs have long been underlying concerns for industry players. To that end, they’re seeking out equipment that’s easier, more foolproof and more efficient than ever.
There are other influencers at work as well. Plant-based menu items, the demand for sustainable practices and the artisanal-cooking movement play a part in equipment choices.
Then there’s the issue of space. Many restaurant owners are optimizing smaller-footprint kitchens through a number of investments, from multi-purpose hot and cold appliances, to prep equipment that can lighten the storage and labour burden.
“Profitability is always the number-1 priority for equipment decisions,” says Tim Cuff, executive chef at The Fifteen Group in Vancouver. “Operators want to make sure investment delivers a return. At the same time, the focus is on minimizing the kitchen as much as possible to free up square footage for customers.”
Smart choices include self-venting combi ovens, he says. “RATIONAL [ovens are] useful tools and can save tens of thousands of dollars in ventilation. It also allows you to put an oven in areas you wouldn’t normally be able to.”
Combis are more popular than ever, reports Joel Sisson, president and founder of Crush Strategy Inc. in Burlington. “When skilled labour is difficult to find, everything is focused on how to deliver consistently good quality food without as much work in the kitchen. Combi ovens allow for a lot of different kinds of cooking and holding. The best part is, you just have to set the time and you’re done.”
Longevity also matters and restaurateurs are spending more on better, more robust pieces, Sisson adds. “We had one client exchange their existing ice machine for a Hoshizaki system for their bar area that offered better capacity and recovery.”
Self-cleaning features are also a strong selling point, Sisson notes. “People aren’t cleaning as much or not as willing to do it. You need equipment to do as much as it can.”
The Incredible Shrinking Kitchen
It’s not always about the big stuff. “Restaurants are looking for ways to create a lot of food in smaller footprints, because kitchens are much smaller than they used to be,” says Ben Heaton, corporate executive chef at ICONINK in Toronto.
Rather than massive ovens and refrigeration systems, a smaller-format kitchen may be well stocked with blenders, sous-vide equipment, vacuum-sealing systems and shrunk-down appliances.
One effective approach is to produce as much as you can in batches beforehand, Heaton explains. “In the old days you might have had five or six ranges. Now, with pre-cooked techniques, you might only have one. There’s also less guesswork in cooking when you can get food ready ahead of time. It helps simplify the size of the space and the number of people you need.”
High-powered blenders and food processors are counted among his kitchen mainstays. “Rather than using large ice-cream-churning machines for gelato, we use smaller Pacojet blenders and freeze portions that can be blended to order. Thermomix is heavily used for sauce work because it blends and heats up. You can throw dry or wet food in and bring it to the temperature you want. It’s a lot more expensive than a bowl and whisk, but you save on labour, production and storage.”
Vacuum-packaging systems are also an essential efficiency tool, Heaton notes. “By shrinking foods in vacuum packs, we can lay them on top of each other in a smaller freezer unit than we would normally use.”
Heaton says there’s also an ever-growing range of compact appliances that help clear floor space. “I’ve seen some incredible dishwashing and sanitizing machines that have been shrunk down to fit smaller spaces. Ventless combi ovens are another way to save space. We use them everywhere. [in the kitchen]”
Induction cooktops are not only cleaner and more efficient, they don’t take up nearly as much room as a six-burner gas range and keep the kitchen cooler, he adds. “The great thing is they can be sunk into the counter or moved when you want to. We also use a lot of under-the-counter refrigeration and freezer units so they don’t take up workspace.”
“It’s all about more seats and making kitchens as efficient as possible,” says Andy Slinn, executive chef, Joseph Richard Group (JRG) in Surrey, B.C.
RATIONAL combi ovens play a big role in JRG’s operations, he says. “They’re great time and space savers because they can do so many things at once and you can program them using a memory stick. We can use the steaming feature for our Asian-concept restaurants, for example, and eliminate the need for rice cookers.”
For prep work, JRG uses Vitamix blenders and Robot Coupe mixers. “They’re super easy and don’t break down.”
Rather than separate walk-in coolers and fridges, he prefers space-saving combination refrigerator/freezers. “We use True a lot because of the service and warranties.”
And, rather than grills, Slinn has transitioned to flat-top griddles from Southbend. “They’re fantastic. You can have a three-foot-long system running three different temperatures at the same time. I can cook eggs on one at 200° and hamburgers on the other at 400° — you can’t do that with a grill.”
The Packaging Revolution
With worldwide concern over waste and single-use plastics, sustainable packaging is becoming an increasingly important focus.
“Sustainable packaging is huge with the millennial market especially,” Cuff says. “More people are looking at that.”
Sisson says the focus on sustainable packaging is becoming a major issue for restaurants and consumers alike. “There’s a big push on making guests feel their operations are environmentally friendly. There’s a number of movements to eco-friendly packaging. Yes, it comes at a premium but, for many, it’s an investment they need to make.”
Canadian restaurateurs are at an advantage since the population is on board, says Mark Marinozzi, vice-president of Marketing for World Centric in Rohnert Park, Calif., a producer of compostable tableware products.
“Canadians have a strong interest in supporting and doing the right thing from an environmental and social standpoint. In addition, restaurants have access to a more widespread composting infrastructure than in the U.S.”
A World View
For anyone wanting to keep tabs on future equipment trends, it helps to look outside of North America, says Josh Wolfe, corporate chef with Food Service Solutions Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. “Europe has always been at the forefront of blast chilling and combi-oven technology, for example.”
One innovation of note from Italy is vacuum-packing technology. “Orved has a marvellous take on food-processing tools based on vacuum technology. They’ve figured out how to use very specific programming to modify the atmosphere in the chamber to do way more than just preserve products,” says Wolfe.
Systems can be used to clean mussels and clams, marinate and infuse oils and liquids within minutes or hours rather than days or weeks. “When combined with blast chilling and combi ovens, it can potentially touch huge pieces of an entire operation,” Wolfe says.
Switzerland’s Brunner-Anliker is revolutionizing prep functions with a unique high-volume fruit-and-vegetable-cutting machine. “It excels in combining throughput and speed along with precision,” Wolfe says. The system can dice to the precision of a Japanese knife and improve yield — particularly for soft products such as strawberries, tomatoes and bananas.
“It can do this in huge volumes, which is key for operators,” Wolfe says. He estimates ROI to be about 10 years based on labour savings.
Heaton found his favourite kitchen tool — a stand-up sheeter — when visiting the Middle East. He uses the countertop unit for making pita and flatbread. “You just drop in the dough and you’re ready to go. I love that piece of equipment.”
A Scholarly Approach
A culinary school is another focal point for exploring the equipment needs of today and the future. That’s because its job is to prepare students for the industry and where they’ll be working, says Alison Iannarelli, executive chef at Centennial College’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts in Toronto. “We show them, realistically, what they may encounter in their careers, from large equipment to small.”
When it comes to the hot side of things, students are introduced to conventional gas ovens, burners and stoves, as well as induction cooktops, grills and barbecues. “We also have RATIONAL and Garland combi ovens in multiple sizes for our event centre, labs and restaurant. We have beautiful deck ovens and a conveyor rotating oven as well.”
A new addition is a custom-built outdoor wood-burning oven. “It’s a good opportunity for us to show students different ways of cooking without gas,” Iannarelli explains. “We may also incorporate a fire pit as more restaurants are going back to artisanal and rustic [method].”
Other recent acquisitions include an industrial-grade spiral mixer and a grain mill. “Along with the wood-burning oven, we’ve created a whole new learning opportunity for students,” she says.
On the cold front, blast chillers are used in the large-quantity baking lab. “We have different ice-cream machines and new walk-in refrigeration systems.”
In recognition of the ever-expanding plant-based movement, the college’s appliance inventory includes Pacojets and Vitamix blenders, spiralizers and a Ruby Juicer 2000. “Utilizing fruit and vegetables in different ways is becoming more popular,” Iannarelli adds.
The Art of it All
Beyond the size, space and cost savings, a growing number of restaurants are going the artisanal route. “That’s a big thing,” Cuff says. “If it’s pizza, a lot are going back to wood. Tandoor ovens and rotisserie equipment are big as well. Charcuterie has been growing in popularity in the last 10 years. It’s really exploded, so we’re seeing a lot of interest in dry-aging and curing cabinets and other specialty equipment.”
Another trend affecting choice is the move to open-kitchen and chef-table venues, he adds. “They provide that Instagrammable moment for restaurants. Equipment elements are being incorporated into the aesthetic of the restaurant in ways we’ve never
Written by Denise Deveau