Operators' ability to look at projects more holistically, instead of on a line-item basis, will also help drive the acceptance of energy-saving items and high-tech solutions. "The idea is not to just look at the return on investment for the equipment but also consider the overall capital costs. If we have this one piece of equipment, what other equipment does it offset? For example, if you add heat-recovery equipment, what will it keep you from having to purchase?" Schroeder says. "The next step with sustainability is looking at the bigger picture to see how all of the systems are interconnected. How all the members of a project team work to make sure the outcome is energy- and water-efficient and is profitable and successful for the operator will be critical."
Some of these technologies, like sous vide or heat recovery in warewashers, have been around for a while, but the industry has been slow to adopt them. "It has to do with having short-term vision and a long-term vision," Schroeder says. "With some sustainable technologies there can be a higher capital cost. Institutional operators are often able to have that longer-term vision when it comes to calculating the return on investment. Commercial operators do not always have that luxury and typically look for quicker returns. Hopefully, the costs of those technologies will come down so they are more accessible to all operations. That's what has happened with on-demand ventilation, and now we see it in more places."
Of course, adding the newer, high-tech equipment may come with its own trade-offs. "The only problem is when you are pushing some of these newer developments, the technology is fragile. You are adding a lot of computerization, and you are adding much higher risks of failure," Frable says. "Electronic equipment like combi ovens and steamers need air space around them. You can't push other equipment up against it because the electronics need space to remain cool. And often you just don't have it. In the past, you used to have more than one range. Now if you only have one, you are in deeper trouble if that item fails."
So, what will a commercial kitchen look like in 30 years?
Perhaps the major metropolitan markets will offer the first indications. "What you see in the major cities like Chicago, New York and Miami is a completely different world compared to what you see in Middle America. There are no chain restaurants in many of these smaller communities," Frable says. "So it's amazing the difference in sophistication you see in an urban area compared to what you see in the rest of the world. There is a huge disconnect between the small independent and what's going on in the rest of the world."
Schroeder offers her take: "If we consider a goal of zero energy and zero waste, foodservice operations can go the direction of what we see for K-12. There is a centralized kitchen that handles production and distributes to the points of service. But that takes a lot of the romance out of the food. So I think kitchens will continue the direction that they have been going: more micro restaurants, chefs connecting with guests and menus focused on authenticity. Dining becomes an experience; and the operation is a destination that engages all five of the senses. And throughout we will see more focus on farm to table and the integration of sustainability."
Technology will play a critical role in the kitchen of the future. "Everything will be more traceable," Coca adds. "For example, when a tray leaves a hospital kitchen, you will know where it goes and how long it takes to get to the patient. And then we will track what's left on the plate to monitor waste. We are already doing some of this, but it will become more widespread, and cost management will help drive this. Employees will be held more accountable and engaged as we track more."
But ultimately will commercial kitchens 30 years from now differ greatly from those of today? It's tough to say. "I don't think it will be that drastically different from today. But I do expect to see more flexibility where you are able to take one piece of equipment, like a griddle, and turn it into something else," Coca says. "Everything will become more efficient and more flexible."