Foodservice technologies provide a glimpse of what's important to the industry today and a look at the focal points of tomorrow.
The National Restaurant Association's annual Kitchen Innovations Awards showcase some of the more inventive and emerging foodservice technologies. While the 22 products on display in this year's pavilion provide a glimpse at what's to come in the form of foodservice technology, they also shed some light on current trends when it comes to the foodservice operator's tools of the trade.
FE&S caught up with Bill Eaton, FCSI, chairman of the board for Cini-Little International, Inc., a judge and founder of the KI program which began in 2005, as well as Dan Bendall, FCSI, another longtime judge, to give us an overarching view of these emerging trends and technologies.
Bendall, founder and president of FoodStrategy Inc., divides this year's products into three general categories: energy management, safety and sanitation, and time- and space-saving equipment. Of course, categorizing foodservice equipment is rarely so neat and tidy, and such is the case here with a handful of products falling outside of these broad categories.
Energy management represents an ongoing issue that the foodservice industry continues to tackle. It is important to note that water management has become a part of this conversation. "You can't read anything in the industry without reading about Energy Star or energy savings or water savings," Bendall says. "I think manufacturers are beginning to reflect what are the top issues in the industry."
Manufacturers from many segments of the industry continue to introduce technologies that allow foodservice operators to reclaim heat from all sorts of places, both within the kitchen and within the equipment itself, such as dishwashers that reclaim heat during various cycles.
Energy-saving innovation also came in the form of add-on pieces for existing equipment, such as better grease neutralizers that can be retrofitted into existing hoods. "That is a real breakthrough for people who have an expensive system and don't want to look at a $30,000 or $40,000 change," Eaton says.
Ventilation represents an emerging opportunity when it comes to energy management, Eaton adds. "We've seen an increase in spot ventilation that specifically focuses on a small piece of cooking equipment, something you might use on a cafeteria serving line or food servery setup. This technology significantly reduces the air flow quantity, and it's less obtrusive and noisy."
Along those lines, noise reduction is a new focus this year among factories. Aside from quieter hood fans, one manufacturer applied noise reduction to blenders for use in open-air retail settings like coffee and smoothie shops. Noise reduction has also become a focus for manufacturers outfitting exhibition kitchens and other areas more exposed to the customer, including the dining room, Eaton says.
Safety and Sanitation
Food safety remains a timeless concern among foodservice operators. This year, however, workplace and employee safety seem to be a growing — and it should be, says Eaton.
As more equipment comes with the ability to allow operators to monitor activity remotely, this feature not only improves equipment maintenance and operational management in the case of downed equipment, but it also provides a safety element. Many systems, including a fryer in the KI lineup, have monitoring capability and alarms for fires and other potential kitchen hazards. This technology keeps workers safe while the kitchen is open and even when it's closed.
"It's not unlike a car's computer," Bendall says. "Your computer in your car can tell you what problems it is having, and you know when you need to fix those to prevent breakdowns. This type of equipment that can be looked at remotely offers the same thing."
Though the smart kitchen concept started a number of years ago Bendall believes its popularity is growing. "I see that picking up this year and next, especially among big chains who use the technology to monitor fire systems, refrigeration and other aspects of the kitchen remotely," he says. "I wouldn't be surprised if we had more entries along those lines next year."
Of course, food safety is still a driving concern, particularly in light of more operators looking to source ingredients locally. "A lot more produce is coming directly from the farm," Eaton says. "While it's been grown and handled with care, you really don't know who has touched it and how well it has been sanitized since it didn't come through a traditional vegetable processing company."
To address this concern power soaking technology has extended beyond pot washing to cleansing fruits and vegetables. Regardless if the food came from a local farm a second wash, even from a processing company, never hurts, Eaton says, particularly in light of increased national outbreaks associated with produce over the past few years.
Eaton also wonders when the foodservice industry might begin to employ the same air and vegetable sanitation that grocery stores currently use. Many grocers treat the air in an entire store, and then use ionized, treated air to create a mist for treating fresh produce that sits out in the open and "gets touched" by many hands, Eaton says. Of course the price tag on a system like that might be preventing entry into the foodservice industry, but it's an application on the horizon that could be getting closer, Eaton predicts.
This year's KI lineup also showcases the continued emphasis on time and temperature control. One manufacturer offers a hot food holding cabinet with a self-contained, propane-heating unit that can keep food adequately heated for eight hours. This would be suitable for such applications as outdoor weddings and other events held away from a kitchen, including country clubs where events may be held out on the golf course, Eaton says. The equipment also features solar panels to collect and store energy to run the electronic controls.
And although the idea of better cleaning equipment and sanitation isn't new, "we've moved into areas we haven't been in before," Eaton says. Notably, one KI product addressed the need to clean restrooms faster, easier and more efficiently using a mobile caddy setup. "It's something we don't always think about but every operation needs to deal with," Eaton says.
Of course, not all of the technological advances are very flashy but they do offer the opportunity to make the cleaning and sanitation of the kitchen and its equipment easier. Manufacturers offer products that make it easier to move the product and, more importantly, restore it to its proper place and level.
Time- and Space-Saving Equipment
Multi-use equipment continues to be the name of the game in both time- and space-saving equipment capability, both Eaton and Bendall agree. Combi ovens continue to play a critical role in this area, with manufacturers introducing units that offer even greater separation between cooking chambers, allowing vastly different functions and temperatures to occur simultaneously.
Two-sided grills that accelerate the cooking process continue to be popular among restaurant chains and other operators looking for ways to improve speed of service and throughput.
The "Other" Category
The miscellaneous category, Bendall says, shows how "each year they get a little bit better with newer ideas and invention." And, it's a way to branch out of the main trends of energy savings and food safety and sanitation.
For example, the beverage segment seems to be a growing focus, at least this year, as equipment associated with sodas, filtered water and other beverages has become more streamlined and functional in smaller footprints to save space, and at the same time, boost profits in another kitchen category beyond food.
One small piece of equipment offers hundreds of different types of soda flavor combinations while another features an underbar with interchangeable pieces and configurations for different display and other customizable options in a more compact space, says Bendall.
According to Eaton, there's been a renewed and growing "level of ingenuity coming into our business that we're really excited about." While not as frequently changing as the latest smart phone tablet or other gadget, Eaton says he sees new technologies and ideas coming out more frequently — a sure sign of positive things to come.