Twenty-five years as a consultant has taught James Davella the value of an eating space with character—the kind of place people want to go when they just want something they trust to taste good. “Everybody’s chasing the white whale,” says Davella, founder of Davella Studios, a New York-based culinary design firm. “The white whale is that local restaurant that is so consistent, a restaurant that has a table and welcomes you.”
With foodservice graduating from an afterthought to a key offering among hotel, university, and corporate clients, there are more seas in which to find those white whales than ever before. But bringing high-quality dishes to a broader range of foodservice operations carries new challenges. Overcoming those problems creates more opportunities for designers, manufacturers, service reps, and equipment distributors to work together, with the most successful companies finding ways to cut through the red tape inherent in the opening of any foodservice location.
From Davella’s perspective as a designer and a trained chef, the challenge with communication is getting all the channel partners on the same page. Davella’s team often works on a project for several years before bringing in the contractors, equipment distributors, and other suppliers, and those channel partners must quickly get up to speed on the owner’s vision and requirements. “It’s getting the next team to understand the level of commitment and buy in,” Davella says.
When choosing a contractor to work with or helping the owner to find an operator, Davella makes sure everyone can have a say on the project, whether it’s developing the menu, selecting equipment, or influencing the layout around constructability. “You always have to leave room for an impact,” he says.
To facilitate that collaboration, Davella’s team spends a lot of time onsite, speaking to trades and answering their questions directly. Davella explains that he’d rather have his people holding live conservations at the job site than being detached and answering emails from an office. “We find that being onsite is impactful for everybody involved,” he says. “We all want to be rowing in the same direction, and if someone doesn’t want to row in the same direction, an onsite visit usually changes that.”
Sometimes constructive communication needs a moderator to bridge the questions and perspectives of various channel partners. That’s where Jim Lund, RATIONAL USA’s design and consultant resource manager, can make a difference. “The number one challenge of all business is communication,” he says. “Knowing when to ask for help when they need help and then being there for them to share our knowledge is critical.”
Like Davella, Lund has a culinary background, having worked as a chef in the Twin Cities for more than 20 years. For the past decade, he has sold RATIONAL USA’s commercial combi ovens across the country. As operators turn to innovative technologies to solve their space and capability needs, they need greater support from distributors and manufacturers. Combi ovens, in particular, are an interesting case because they’ve been mainstream in Europe for decades but are only now becoming a front-line cooking appliance in American kitchens. That means companies like RATIONAL USA must help chefs to relearn their cooking techniques to take advantage of all that their state-of-the-art equipment has to offer.
As such, much of Lund’s role revolves around education. He holds regional in-person events and monthly webinars on topics such as water filtration systems and new product launches to familiarize channel partners with the latest technology. Introducing the equipment to designers is especially important since few have culinary backgrounds and many have used the same kitchen templates throughout their careers. Lund says they don’t always investigate new technologies that can save labor, space, and time, leading to a quicker ROI. “We all need to do a better job educating the people who design the kitchens so that they can help the customers to understand the technology,” he adds.
Knowing what’s possible can help designers create kitchens that address the unique aspects of an operation. Lund recalls a situation where a customer that had a large production center wanted to place five combi ovens into their kitchen but lacked the necessary space. To address the issue, he came up with the idea to make every other oven a mobile unit so that they could be pulled out to create more working room. “By having the discussion and informing him of something he didn’t know about, I was able to help him,” Lund says.
The education mission extends to local authorities, who are not always familiar with advanced technologies and have the power to delay projects while they determine the code impacts of newly released equipment. Take RATIONAL USA’s recent launch of a line of ventilation hoods that use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to capture more exhaust particles. The product raised compliance questions from some local building authorities on a few projects and Lund stepped in and explain the technology to officials. It’s in those kinds of roadblock situations that Lund believes he can be a resource for dealers and designers.
On most projects, the foodservice equipment supplier does not enter the scene until the final stages of the process. To accommodate those later decisions, Davella paints the design in a broad brush early on to give the operator time to develop the menu before everything is set in stone. “You ensure the sandbox is well defined, but you aren’t putting everything inside of it,” he says.
Davella Studios typically determines between 85 and 90 percent of the total equipment, but it’s the last 10 or so percent that can really give a kitchen its identity. It’s our job not to anticipate every single possible appliance anybody would want but to have space for them to add appliances,” Davella says. Once the menu is known and the equipment is being finalized, he notes that the distributor’s role is to support the operator in fulfilling the program, whether it is a deli counter or an action station with custom elements such as built-in refrigeration.“
When choosing which distributor to work with or the preferred manufacturing brand, Davella Studios talks about criteria that falls outside the raw numbers. It’s looking for suppliers that can offer relationships that are more qualitative than quantitative—companies that are enthused to take ownership of their portion of the project without disrupting the work that has already been completed. “We’re looking for someone to get on board and do the same,” Davella states. “We’re not looking for egos or heroes, we’re looking for partners.”
The final key pain point in the design process is the timing between equipment delivery and construction progress. An oven that is delivered too early will end up sitting off to the side, taking up precious workspace and putting the equipment in danger of being accidently damaged. Contractors and distributors must work side-by-side to create an accurate schedule so that all the finishes and hookups are ready so that equipment can be installed as soon as it arrives. “The biggest change [to improve the process] would be ensuring that when the equipment is brought into the site it’s ready to go,” Davella says.
Even if everything does arrive at just the right time, there can still be complications with the machinery. Many foodservice equipment service calls stem from poor installation, says Wayne Stoutner, CEO of Duffy’s AIS, a food equipment service and installation business based in upstate New York.
Combi ovens, for example, tend to have more complicated installs because they require multiple mechanical connections—steam, gas, drainage, electrical—to be performed by multiple trades, leaving more opportunity for error.
To counteract those problems, Duffy’s AIS emphasizes to operators and designers the need to hire qualified installers. Further, Stoutner says the right project manager from the dealer can make a significant difference in ensuring all the hookups are completed correctly. Time also helps. Duffy’s AIS regularly conducts performance checks prior to installation, but when the window between testing and the start of operations is only a few days, a bad install can delay staff training or even the opening. Stoutner says performance checks would ideally occur a week before the equipment is set to go into service to allow for corrections if a problem is found. “We try to do our best to work with everybody to smooth that process out,” he says, “but it can be frustrating for everybody when it’s not installed correctly by someone who isn’t qualified.”
Advances in technology can help to resolve or lessen many of the obstructions that channel partners deal with on every project, but many of the innovations that will someday be standard in the industry will carry their own design challenges. The prevalence of internet-connected devices in the kitchen will only grow in the coming years as operators are drawn to the promise of greater cooking consistency and food safety. Lund says designers will have to lay out their kitchens with that tech in mind by including ethernet ports—allowing for hardwired connections that are more stable and reliable wireless signals. In anticipation of that future, all of RATIONAL USA’s equipment now comes with built-in splash-proof ethernet ports.
The change is worthwhile to Lund, who says that connected devices will not only improve the dining experience but will help the entire kitchen operation. When a machine goes down, managers will be able to send error codes directly to their local service rep to notify them of the exact problem, he says. By reading diagnostic information, technicians will be able to perform remote troubleshooting and, if needed, dispatch to the customer with all the right tools and parts to make the repair.
That kind of seamless response has the potential to solve problems not only for the ongoing operation, but the startup phase as well. “We’re going to dramatically improve our first-time fix rate and make our partners happier,” Lund says.