By Tim O'Connor
Assistant Editor

Consumers today look for convenience in all aspects of their lives, especially when it comes to finding a quick meal or a much-needed cup of coffee. They’re no longer content to run across the street for a jolt of caffeine or a mid-morning snack. They want options located within the buildings where they work, study, or receive healthcare.

In response, offices, college campuses, and hospitals are increasingly bringing dining and beverage options to new locations within their facilities.  As the reach of foodservice expands, it can no longer be tethered to a central kitchen. It must be mobile, able to be set up, broken down, and relocated multiple times a day.

Traditionally, stationary foodservice equipment is not designed with these new requirements in mind, creating an opportunity for Lakeside Manufacturing, a producer of mobile serving carts, kiosks, and action stations, to make an impact. “People want food wherever they are now, so we are in a position to support the custom integration of different products to deliver a unique experience,” says Joe Carlson, president of Lakeside. “You have a wide variety of logistical and service problems in moving food items and supplies to support these growing number of remote locations.”

With foodservice becoming decentralized, equipment, ingredients, and supplies must be quickly and easily moved between setups depending on the time of day and the menu options. Lakeside offers a wide assortment of unique mobility equipment to make that possible, from action stations and condiment counters to multi daypart carts/kiosks, creating a deep product family of utility carts that spans 72 years.

Operators want the flexibility to individualize equipment with a wide variety of options that are application-specific, Carlson explains. A multi daypart cart for an elementary school breakfast program may need chilled wells to hold beverages and an overhead basket for fresh fruit, while a similar cart at a college cafeteria may be outfitted with a warming drawer, refrigerator, or a plate dispenser to be used as a tasting cart for new entrees.

Accommodating those evolving requirements has been a 10-year journey for Lakeside. “All those trends forced us to adapt to the dynamic new way foodservice is delivered,” Carlson says. In the late-2000s, Lakeside realized it could no longer serve the market purely through a list of standard mobile single-purpose products so it set out to develop its modifiable and custom program, which allows operators and specifiers to create application-specific modifications to existing product configurations or work with Lakeside engineers to develop customized designs. Since then, Carlson says Lakeside and Multiteria, its related serving line division, have developed thousands of unique operator-specific variations of its products, including branded beverage and action stations, serving counters, and merchandising carts that use custom signage or merchandising support service to deliver a more personalized consumer experience.

To develop its modifiable and custom capabilities, Lakeside has completed several remodeling and expansion projects within its Milwaukee facility over the past 10 years, the most recent of which occurred about four years ago and resulted in a more efficient production layout.  But completing custom projects requires more than the right equipment in the right place. Lakeside also needed experienced staff that understood how to translate a customer’s individual application into an end-product quickly and creatively. To build that team, the company cross-trained its employees and blended in some new people with the complementary leadership, cross-functional skills, and strong technical skills needed to better support custom work and create a “can-do” culture.

The time from the initial conversation and concept to the manufacturing and delivery typically takes four to eight weeks depending on the complexity of the application, Carlson says. Such quick turnarounds have only become more critical as Amazon has trained all buyers to expect speedy deliveries.

Carlson says in today’s business environment, it’s no longer good enough for foodservice manufacturers to deliver high-quality equipment. They must now compete on speed while offering complete transparency throughout the purchasing process until it is operational on site. “Greater transparency in pricing, ease of product comparison capabilities, shorter lead times, customization and, most importantly, customer reviews have already begun to reshape our industry,” he says. “Who would have thought 10 years ago you could look online at your product on several dealer websites and have 10 people review your product and make it available to everyone?”

All of this makes it even more challenging to make a commitment to provide uniquely configured made-to-order products. “When you’re in the custom/modification business, there’s no second chance considering the speed that is expected today,” he continues. “You have to hit the creativity, quality, and the ship date the first time.”

Lakeside strives to stay ahead of its customers by getting close to operators and channel partners. Through his role as president of NAFEM, Carlson and the NAFEM board support members and bring forward information and initiatives that address issues facing channel partners and operators. The insights, trends, industry networking events, and information access provided by NAFEM have helped spark connections leading to the next generation of products in some member companies, many of which Carlson expects will appear at the next NAFEM Show in February 2019.

Menu flexibility, energy usage, smaller footprints, and multiuse products will continue to drive the industry’s evolution, he says, and will be enhanced by the coming breakthroughs in robotics, IoT, AI, and battery-powered solutions that allow for even more freedom in where foodservice can be added to support new menu development. “Equipment that can adapt and do multiple things will continue to be the trend,” Carlson contends. “The rapid development of battery power and new technologies is going to allow all of us to create a new generation of unique applications and products in the future.” ■

“When you’re in the custom/modification business, there’s no second chance.”
— Joe Carlson