The foodservice industry’s view of the smart kitchen is similar to society’s view of mermaids and unicorns: We all know what they look like but nobody expects to actually encounter one any time soon. It might be time, however, to adjust your definition of what actually constitutes a smart kitchen.

Joseph M. Carbonara, Editor in Chief
Joseph M. Carbonara, Editor in Chief

In researching this month’s feature story, “What Makes a Kitchen Smart?” (page 16), I came to realize that our contemporary view of smart kitchens is, well, not so smart. That’s because the industry’s vision of smart kitchens has long been clouded by the promise of automation, with an eye toward eliminating as much human involvement as possible. While that perspective made for interesting story lines on television shows like “The Jetsons,” it does not translate into an effective foodservice environment.

That’s because the potential of a smart kitchen viewed solely through technology relies on the premise that the foodservice operator will continuously mass-produce a defined number of products. That’s a wonderful idea if we’re talking about ballpoint pens or cars rolling off an assembly line, but the truth is that all foodservice operations serve a human customer base – one with constantly evolving tastes, preferences and needs for food prepared outside of the home.

In addition, a smart kitchen viewed only through technological sophistication does not take into account the social realities of the day, such as sustainability, local sourcing, made-to-order meals and trends that have yet to emerge. “The preparation of food is a complex and ever-changing process and that alone creates challenges for those that would like food preparation to be automatic,” says Jim Sukenik, principal and president of The Baker Group, a Michigan-based foodservice consulting firm.

Of course, automation does have its place. “Machines do quite well at many of the things that support the preparation and service, but do not replace it,” Sukenik adds. “Portion control, variable cooking cycles, packaging, product handling, irradiation, temperature, energy and water use and product storage are tasks that machines can do quite well. At the end of the day, though, our human desire for new and better experiences in the foods we eat compels us to consider that a smart kitchen is not so much a collection of machines, but of machines whose capabilities are fully utilized by a smart operator.”

In other words, how smart a kitchen really is depends not on what equipment is there but how efficiently the foodservice operator uses them to meet customer needs. “As you consider how you might become a smart kitchen operator, you have much more to consider than simply determining how to create a highly automated kitchen,” Sukenik adds. “Your focus, as an operator, should be on using your equipment, personnel and market resources in the smartest way possible.”

When working on a project, Sukenik and his team use an internally developed smart kitchen checklist to make sure the design allows the operator to make the most of their resources. This list addresses such elements as security, safety and hygiene; health, nutrition and local sourcing; sustainability and environmental concerns; improving technologies; energy- and water-use management; production methods and customer-service trends.

Along those lines, you could use efficiency and profitability to measure the intelligence of a foodservice operation. Even with all of the cutting-edge technology equipment manufacturers have to offer, a foodservice operation isn’t smart if it isn’t profitable.