Top Design Trends for 2011

Three veteran foodservice consultants provide their take on some of the leading foodservice trends and the related design and equipment issues.

A New Year is on the horizon – so close it seems as if we can almost see it. The great thing about new years is that they bring with them new hope, new ideas, and of course, some new and continuing trends. FE&S tracked down three consultants who gave us their picks for the top 2011 design trends.

Sophisticated K-12 Cafeterias.

Eric Norman, MVP Services Group: We're continuing to move away from traditional serving lines and still seeing more scattered systems that are similar to a college food court dining experience. This is in contrast to the way things used to be where you just pick up a tray, move down a straight line, get to a cash register and have little room to move around in the process. Going to a scatter system has allowed K-12 schools to diversify their food offerings with different stations. One station may be pizza, one may be pasta, and then there's usually a hot lunch, salad bar and grab and go station. This is a trend that's been going on for a while, but we're starting to see it really take hold, especially in light of the push toward healthier eating and fresher foods as a way to combat childhood obesity.

Fresh Food.

Jim Webb, Webb Design: Fresh food and nutrition certainly is at the forefront of trends these days, particularly in the K-12 and healthcare segments. It's all about a la carte, fresh, made-for-you products.

Norman: We're seeing a much stronger move from frozen and prepared foods to fresh foods prepared a la carte, and that's driving changes in equipment. More operators are purchasing blast chilling equipment and combi ovens, both of which have been steadily gaining in popularity the last few years. Fresh food is almost more a movement than a trend – sourcing local food from sustainable farms is part of that, and that's driving larger preparation areas for cold prep. We're also moving away from freezers and instead seeing larger walk-in coolers, many dedicated to fresh produce.

Sustainability and LEED.

Norman: It's a huge design trend and will only continue to gain ground. Already, we've seen many operators buying in-house composting equipment, not only at colleges and universities, but also in the business and industry and K-12 sectors as well. Operators like this equipment because then they can tout themselves as being green and it's also helping earn credits for LEED building and certification. Now that LEED has finally recognized foodservice as an important part of the process, we're seeing more innovation in water and energy-saving equipment, including water-cooled compressors for refrigeration, and tying those into geo-thermal systems. These are great because you're not running a fan and using high amounts of energy, but instead using naturally-cooled, recycled water.

Webb: We've heard the terms green and sustainability a lot these days, but I think they're becoming more rooted and are really being taken seriously, especially in the healthcare and education sectors. That includes K-12 schools and, of course, colleges and universities have been the leaders on the institutional side when it comes to sustainable indicatives. LEED now is also recognizing foodservice and food equipment as being a big contributor to energy savings and as consultants we're becoming more aware of that.

Better Warewashers.

Norman: We're seeing more dishwasher manufacturers continue to produce machines with lower water and power consumption and really being on top of that trend. Being able to use those machines in our designs has really helped us help the operators save utility costs, and it's great for earning LEED credits.

Restaurant-Specific Labor Management.

Juan Martinez, Profitality: Instead of creating a program that manages labor broadly for a concept, we're developing restaurant-specific labor management tools that take into account the key parameters for each location, including quarter-hour sales, product mix and other site-specific variables, among others. This provides the restaurant the ability to optimize its labor resource, one of the most expensive costs in the operating statement.

Modular Kitchens and Design-Flexible Stations.

Martinez: The principle behind this trend is to provide the restaurant the flexibility to adapt its cooking line to allow for menu innovation. This type of design facilitates labor efficiency by making it easier for the employees to execute the evolution of the menu.

Smart Kitchens.

Norman: We're slowly moving toward complete monitoring of the kitchen, thanks to certain companies that have been able to put this information up online. For one of our clients, we're able to sign on to the energy management company's website and it will show us a layout of the kitchen and all the hoods, including what speed they're running at and how much CFM they're drawing. Technology has advanced to the point now where you can monitor all the cooking and holding equipment in the kitchen to a very specific level of detail. For example, I can use my laptop to pull up a school in the middle of Iowa and watch the kitchen in real-time. If a walk-in door was left open, I can set an alarm that will go off if the temperature gets too high. Then I can call and say, "Hey, something's wrong with your freezer." Moving forward I see more operators having some kind of system like this.

Menu Innovation and Mass Customization.

Martinez: We're seeing more operators provide the customer with the option to completely customize their order. Part of this may be driven by the trend toward healthy eating, but also by the customer's increasing desire to be in control. In addition, with McDonald's adding coffee and smoothies, Dunkin Donuts adding sandwiches, and other chains adding menu categories outside their typical comfort zone, the thought is that without menu innovation, concepts can at the very least, become irrelevant. At the same time, if the menu does not evolve correctly, the concept may be killing itself.

Online Ordering and Other Technology.

Martinez: Online and mobile phone ordering is all about convenience and getting to an audience that is tech-savvy. Some extensions of this even include tracking your product, as Domino's does. In addition, wireless (digital and sound) communication, including i-pads and table-ordering systems are becoming increasingly popular among foodservice operations, restaurants and bars.

Take-Out Service.

Martinez: Increasing numbers of fast-casual and full-service restaurants are introducing or improving take-out and carry-out service. This is also as an extension of consumer's growing desire to order online or via their mobile phones. The goal is to leverage internet proliferation and technology applications to increase labor efficiency and sales.

Multi-Use Equipment.

Martinez: Implementing equipment pieces that can provide multiple functions is becoming more common in commercial kitchens. Versatile units help meet varying menu items while taking up less space and using less energy overall.

Going Fast-Casual.

Martinez: Developing a fast casual version of an existing concept becomes a vehicle for growth for brands, especially if their concept is struggling.

Socialization of Food.

Webb: The socialization process with food, and the education process about food, is becoming more important. These aren't really design trends as much as they're social ones, but they are leading us to formulate new concepts that show the personality of spaces and help blend with social process, such as social media and communal dining. Community eating has become more about an involvement with fresh food, where it comes from and how it's made. When we say socialization of the food, it also refers to the trend toward exhibition cooking moving into the dining room, and toward better plate presentation. The presentation of the food has just as much to do with the entire experience of dining.
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