By Tim O’Connor
The restaurant industry may look a lot different today than it did at the beginning of 2020 – we have COVID-19 to thank for that. But the changes that are happening within the kitchen are being fueled by the same forces that were at work before the first person was infected: automation, connectivity, space saving, and speed.
New products in every level of the foodservice equipment and supplies industry – from the largest ovens down to the tools used for prep work – are being influenced by those four key factors. With the pandemic, the trends already in place have only become more pronounced. As the industry returns to normalcy, operators of existing restaurants as well as new concepts will be looking for equipment designed to address those needs. This anticipation of a rebound is why 68 percent of dealers are expecting sales to increase this year, according to the Foodservice Equipment & Supplies 2021 Foodservice Industry Forecast.
Fortunately, FEDA manufacturer members are ready to provide the equipment and technology solutions operators want as they emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. On the following pages, we’ll detail how manufacturers are addressing the four key trends in their equipment offerings – and provide examples of solutions that are already in place or soon will be.
Although many of the products featured here were available prior to 2020, interest in them has increased significantly during the past year as restaurants have pivoted their business models to fit local safety guidelines and customer expectations. Now, these offerings are poised to become mainstays in modern kitchens as the industry recovers and operators continue to seek out the most efficient means of delivering quality food at affordable prices.
The restaurant industry finished 2020 nearly 2.5 million jobs below the pre-coronavirus level, according to National Restaurant Association. Couple those numbers with the shortage of chefs and line cooks the industry was experiencing before 2020 – a 2019 survey from Toast, a point-of-sale technology provider, found that hiring staff was the largest concern among 51 percent of operators – and already thin kitchens staffs are being stretched even thinner. Those realities are forcing operators to turn to equipment and technologies to solve their labor challenges, and manufacturers are responding with solutions that help kitchens run more efficiently, with fewer people and less skilled labor.
Advancements in automation have made this possible. Many new ovens allow an employee to simply insert a dish, select a recipe from a touchscreen preloaded with the operator’s entire menu, and leave the rest to the machine. The process requires minimal training and interfaces are designed to be user-friendly, often replicating the familiar look of a smart phone. The goal for many manufacturers is to create something so intuitive that a person who has never used the equipment before can walk up to it and successfully cook a dish.
As individual pieces of equipment are becoming smarter and more automated, they’re also communicating more with the outside world. Research firm Gartner has forecasted that there will be 25 billion Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices worldwide by the end of 2021 – and judging by the new products coming out of the foodservice equipment industry, many of those devices will be found in commercial kitchens.
Whether it’s keeping tabs on equipment diagnostics from a central location or pushing out a menu update to all the multicookers in a national chain, operators are becoming more reliant on this kind of connectivity. Such reliance is only expected to grow in the coming years as the capabilities of connected equipment increases. Manufacturers are already finding ways to make the information generated by their equipment more useful by sharing that data to enhance business analytics. Products like Alto-Shaam’s ChefLinc cloud-based remote oven management system can tally how frequently specific dishes are cooked, and then feed that data back into third-party software systems to help operators better understand their sales and make menu adjustments. Others, like Hatco’s connected locker systems, can tap into mobile ordering apps to let customers know the status of their meal and push out notifications once the food is ready for pick up.
In either situation, the connected platform is customized to the operator’s individual needs, enabling the equipment to work within the restaurant’s specific business model. This can help with adoption while also allowing operators to select the level of connectivity that fits their budget and requirements. Importantly, the flexibility built into these connected systems means that operators are no longer stuck with their initial choice: Software upgrades can be made later on to add new features or increase the level of IoT integration, making them better long-term values.
The move over the past decade toward smaller kitchens may have been driven by some operators’ desire to maximize dining space. But despite dining rooms being closed or operating at limited capacity, the demand for compact, mobile, and multifunctional equipment has not slowed – even many larger kitchens are still looking for ways to save space and improve the workflow. In response, some manufacturers are reducing the size of their equipment to fit it into increasingly smaller footprints, or redesigning it to serve multiple purposes so that kitchens can operate with fewer devices.
Take combi ovens, for example: The basic technology has been around for decades but they have become increasingly popular in the United States over the past few years because they emulate the work of convection ovens, steamers, smokers, grills, and smokers. The ability to replace all those cooking devices with a single piece of equipment is why the combi oven market is expected to grow by $160 million by 2024, according to a 2020 study from Technavio.
The proliferation of ventless products is pushing equipment footprints even smaller. Items such as ACP’s XpressChef 3i
high-speed ovens can now be placed right at the checkout counter, bringing the cooking process closer to the customer and improving quality. Meanwhile, the mobility offered by Equipex’s triple play solution – which combines induction technologies and a cast iron panini grill under a ventless hood – is especially valuable for operators who want to provide outdoor or patio service during the pandemic, or for liquor establishments wishing to offer a small food menu.
Compact, multiuse equipment also makes it easier for operators to cater to the increasing number of delivery orders. According to The NPD Group, consumers tripled their share of restaurant meals ordered digitally between April and June 2020, and many restaurants have been adjusting their back-of-the-house to accommodate that uptick. By setting up a second cook line, restaurants can move preparation closer to the pickup zone without hampering regular kitchen operations. Multifunctional equipment also reduces the number of tools that cooks need, and limits the time they spend moving between stations while preparing a dish, increasing efficiency for dine-in and to-go orders.
Both the physical size of the kitchen and the number of people working within it may be getting smaller, but the increase in delivery and to-go service means restaurants are pushing out more and more orders in tighter timeframes. Even restaurants that haven’t seen an overall sales decline are doing more business out the backdoor. A Technomic study found that 41 percent of operators added curbside pickup in response to COVID-19. With dine-out now making up the bulk of their business, operators can’t afford to have hungry guests waiting past their designated pickup times or left wondering when their food delivery will finally arrive.
The best antidote for those challenges is speed, and manufacturers have spent the last several years making their equipment faster. Pizzas that used to take 10 minutes or more to cook in a conventional oven can now be ready to serve in two-and-a-half minutes in today’s high-speed ovens from manufacturers such as Accelerated Cooking Products. Elsewhere, manufacturers are designing tools such as grill turners with multiple functions in mind, making prep work faster by cutting down the time a cook needs to switch between tools. Even traditionally high-maintenance equipment such as fryers can now quickly self-clean between loads, reducing the amount of time the kitchen staff spends tending to the machine and eliminating the need to shut down the equipment to clear out filters during the busy lunch rush.