While many foodservice consultants specify pieces of equipment, few actually have the opportunity to aid in designing equipment. One foodservice consultant who often assists manufacturers in developing equipment items shares the lessons she's learned over the years that can help designers make informed specifications.

PattyPatti VenetucciWhile many foodservice designers focus on designing spaces to improve foodservice flow and operations, only a few work on designs for the actual equipment.

Patti Venetucci of 4C Consulting Group is one of those consultants.

"There are two avenues with this type of work — ether you re-design the equipment to make it work or reformulate the food to fit the equipment as it sits today," says the former chain restaurant veteran who worked in the operations and engineering departments at McDonald's, along with business partner Dave Jedal, who spent time at both McDonald's and at Yum! Brands.

Foodservice consultants bring huge benefits to manufacturers when it comes to testing equipment and recommending modifications. Venetucci is often sought out specifically for her chain restaurant background and because many chains have looked to outsource this type of work.

Often Venetucci's team is called in when the manufacturing sales team runs into challenges trying to sell the equipment. Venetucci will conduct both a market evaluation and thorough testing of the equipment — at the manufacturer's test kitchen, a chain restaurant site or other rentable commercial kitchen space.

Sometimes it's as simple as the equipment not matching the square footage of the allotted space or the outlet or gas connection doesn't match the piece's energy needs. "Just like updating the shower in your bathroom you can't always just drop in the new one without causing a whole lot of problems," Venetucci says.

Other equipment design missteps center around usability — in fact, most do. "An alarm might not be loud enough, or the display is too complicated or doesn't provide the right information to the user," she says.

After the testing process, Venetucci's team will present their findings to the manufacturer, often meeting halfway when costs or other barriers may stand in the way of all of the recommended changes. If the manufacturer can't change the size of the display, for instance, Venetucci will reconfigure the way the screen presents the information, adding arrows to indicate there is more text or notifications on the next "page" and allowing the user to scroll ahead, or figuring out other ways to brighten the interface and make it easier to read.

"We know that the user interface is critical especially when you look at the labor pool and the people working in restaurants," says Venetucci. "These days there are many more technology savvy workers — the younger generation is much more tech savvy so training materials need to mimic what they're used to looking at. You have to design interfaces to look and act like cell phones and other interactive devices."

The type of worker using the equipment in chains can change even by the hour. "The morning shifts include fewer younger people and then at 5 p.m. things change dramatically so your equipment has to be able to make that huge transition too," Venetucci says.

While equipment must relate to the tech savvy, it can't be too technologically forward. "It has to be jazzy enough so the younger crew members enjoy their job but easily understandable for someone who might not speak English as a first language," she says. Spanish translations, for instance, need to be spot on. In fact, some equipment interfaces allow the users to toggle between English and Spanish on the screen — or set it to one or the other. Good translation is especially important for equipment pieces going into restaurants outside of the U.S.

Ergonomics also play a vital role in equipment design. "I consider myself a short person and often notice equipment isn't designed ergonomically well for people my height," says Venetucci. But ergonomics is critical for chain restaurants where they employ a lot of different types of people.

Venetucci also works to reduce the number of steps and movement "crew members" (e.g., chain restaurant staff members) take to produce food or transfer food from one station to another before getting to the customer.

"We conduct a lot of time and motion studies," says Venetucci. Sometimes it's about making an easy fix like changing the way or direction an equipment door swings outward. Or simply making a freezer tabletop height so the user doesn't have to bend down too many times in a shift.

Finally, equipment has to stand the test of time. "We'll make sure all the technical documents are written so the average technician can install it and maintain it properly," she says.

If the equipment can't change, Venetucci calls in her culinary team of chefs and R&D specialists to make sure the food is cooked properly, or can cook faster or in different ways to meet the restaurant's service goals. Sometimes even the fat level in a product can cause the cooking times or process to be different.

As chains — and all foodservice operations — look to streamline their menus, enhance efficiencies in their kitchen and adapt to a changing workforce, consultants with this type of expertise and experience are finding they're busier than ever.