By Tim O'Connor
Assistant Editor

When deciding whether to develop a new buffet station or sous vide cooker, Vollrath always starts by thinking about the diner. They’re the ones who set the trends and determine what kinds of equipment the industry needs to fulfill their expectations. “To me, it always starts at the beginning of the value chain, which is the people coming into a foodservice operation—the actual customer,” says Paul Bartelt, president and CEO of Vollrath, a manufacturer of serving systems and components, countertop equipment, and smallwares.

He believes two major consumer shifts are pushing the foodservice industry today, the demand for convenient access to high-quality food, and the desire for customized meals that can be taken on the go. “They’re not going to cook on their own, but they want fresh, they want customized, they want environmentally friendly,” Bartelt says.

Those requirements are already difficult enough for specialized eateries to fulfill without the added expectation to deliver ready-made options. Consumers today want their corner hangout to offer the same flexible service as the fresh to-go counters at their grocery store, and they want high-quality, natural options at the 24-hour convenience store down the street.

From an equipment and supplies perspective, those expectations are driving Vollrath to figure out how to leverage technology in the kitchen that will allow operators to be flexible and fast at an acceptable cost. Manufacturers can’t control variables like food prices, but efficient equipment can reduce operating expenses. Bartelt says it starts with the design of the product and extends to how Vollrath enhances its control system or applies new technologies such as induction cooking.

Induction ranges are a good example of how equipment can make a positive impact on operating costs, Bartelt notes, because the low energy consumption of the range is only part of the benefit. Induction ranges generate less ambient heat than traditional gas ranges, so the kitchen stays cooler and the HVAC system does not need to work as hard to keep the back-of-the-house environment palatable, further reducing overall energy usage.

Additionally, an induction well for warming does not require a water hookup so operators do not have to pay to pump water in. This also allows for greater flexibility since the absence of an electrical or water connection enables the kitchen staff to freely move the induction range to wherever it is needed.

Outside of the kitchen, induction soup rethermalizers provide 360 degrees of warming without the need to continually fill them with water, making them an ideal fit for hotel buffets, supermarket hot bars, and convenience stores. “You can set up a soup station anywhere in your grocery store on a 20-amp outlet,” Bartelt says.

The ability to place an induction range or warmer anywhere is invaluable to operators, especially as kitchens continue to get smaller and the need to maximize space becomes more urgent. The tightening of cooking space is a trend seen throughout the industry because the front-of-the-house is where the profits are made. To help chefs compensate, Vollrath designs all its equipment with smaller kitchen footprints in mind. “The overall theme of flexibility and footprint covers the products we’re developing, whether they be induction products or non-induction products and even smallwares,” Bartelt says.

The trick to providing flexibility is finding ways to generate the same output in a smaller space. In some cases, it could mean a change in materials. Vollrath is looking at how metallurgical engineering could help it manufacture equipment that will last longer, be easier to move around the kitchen, and cheaper to operate.

Likewise, it’s rethinking the designs themselves. At this year’s NRA Show, Vollrath introduced a new look for its soup warmer lids that moves the hinge from the middle toward the back. Now, when someone lifts the lid, it exposes as much as 80 percent of the surface area instead of the standard 50 percent, making it much easier for cooks and customers to serve themselves. The welding on the handle also was changed to make it cooler to the touch so users won’t have to worry about burning themselves while filling up their bowls. Those changes may seem small, but they make the soup warmers much faster and easier to use, explains Bartelt. “Thinking through a relatively simple design made an impact not only on the operator’s efficiency but also on how the customer interacts with it,” he says. ■ 

“The overall theme of flexibility and footprint covers the products we’re developing, whether they be induction products or non-induction products and even smallwares.”
— Paul Bartelt

Digital Precision

Advancements in technology are enabling manufacturers to find new ways of enhancing the ease of use of their equipment. Already, European manufacturers are implementing digital controls into their devices, a trend Vollrath CEO Paul Bartelt expects to find its way to the U.S. market. Digital controls allow for much greater precision, a major advantage for kitchens that want consistency. Most analog ranges use a dial that goes from one to 10 to set temperatures, but there’s always some guesswork as to how hot each of those settings actually are. Digital controls solve that problem by allowing cooks to set a specific temperature. It’s a more accurate way of cooking, but Bartelt warns there will be an adjustment period. “We’ll have to learn as an industry how to take that improved precision and use it to provide the end customers with a better product,” he says.

As that shift occurs, Bartelt says younger chefs who grew up in the digital age will have a leg up on their predecessors. “If you’re under 35, you’re much more comfortable interacting with digital control systems than if you’re over 35,” he notes.

Integrating digital components into equipment also will eventually lead to smart controls that will allow a cook to select a dish from a preset menu and have the machine optimize the cooking process while accounting for variables in the equipment or environment. A roaster could pull data from various internal sensors to gauge temperature and moisture to determine when to alert the kitchen staff that a chicken is fully cooked, for example.

But all that innovation is useless if it doesn’t boost an operators’ output or lower their operating costs. Bartelt believes it is incumbent on manufacturers such as Vollrath to demonstrate the usefulness of advanced controls systems and digital technology. “You can do it, but it has to help the operator make money,” he says. “Technology for technology’s sake will have a slow adaption cycle. Technology that has a real advantage for operators will take off.”