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Energy Efficiency, Labor Savings Are Top Foodservice Equipment Trends

Foodservice equipment galore during the NAFEM Show, coming to Orlando February 9-11, 2017.

Burger-flipping robots may not take over foodservice jobs anytime soon, but labor-saving equipment and other devices continue to change the way restaurant workers do their jobs, according to those in the industry.

Restaurant kitchens are getting smaller, said Charlie Souhrada, director of member services for the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, and that means a need for “equipment that’s running smarter, smaller and easier to operate.”

“It really boils down to continuing that smaller footprint and the equipment collapsing when it’s not in use,” said Souhrada. “Operators are looking for those things so they can focus on the front of the house and areas where they can generate profits.”

Operators want to leverage technology particularly when it comes to food prep and they’re looking for multi-functional equipment such as combi ovens to increase efficiency and cut down on human error. And to save on labor and make training easier, that same technology needs to be simple, adds Souhrada.

Automation can also come in the form of functional upgrades to light timers and manual equipment monitoring. Dencor, which offers a system of sensors that puts equipment controls in the cloud, aims to put all the various energy hogs into one pen.

“What you see in many restaurants is all the decisions are siloed,” said Tony Carrella, CEO at Dencor, noting a thermostat example. A restaurant has one thermostat covering the dining room, one in the kitchen and one in the cooler, “but there’s nothing to bridge it with the overall facility.”

When equipment powers on and off and heat and air conditioning are automated, employees aren’t wasting energy or cooking guests. But it also means significant energy savings. Carrella said the Dencor system sheds an average of 15 percent on energy costs in customer businesses.

“Energy savings continues to be a major issue and a major push in the industry, both on the operator side and for manufacturers,” noted Souhrada. Most foodservice operators are taking some steps to reduce energy and water usage, and given the industry’s often slim profit margins, even a moderate reduction in utility costs can have a big impact.  

“Innovation is picking up at a faster pace in foodservice than we’ve seen in a long time,” said Justin Thompson, principal at Mendota Heights-based equipment
supplier The Yes Group. High-speed ovens are putting out more product in less time, translating to more customers served, and Thompson said batch-cook and quick-cool methods are another way operators can find efficiencies. 

But how much automation is too much? Thompson said there is concern about pushback from customers who feel automation is affecting the experience—or at least what they perceive the experience to be.

“Am I just going out to eat at the Jetsons’ house,” said Thompson, only half joking. “There’s a question of are you losing customer engagement. In QSR that may not matter but in an eatery with a scratch kitchen it sure does.”

As the popularity of display cooking and open kitchens continues, there’s a need for manufacturers to build equipment that’s aesthetically pleasing, said Souhrada.

“Equipment plays a role in the décor of the restaurant,” he continued. “It’s no
longer just a steel box.”

The next NAFEM Show, February 9-11, 2017, in Orlando is an opportunity for restaurant operators to explore what’s new across the equipment landscape, and is worthwhile even for those not in the market to buy right now, Souhrada said.

“You’re able to talk to the principal people behind the products,” he continued, noting there are 550-plus equipment exhibitors. A “What’s Hot, What’s Cool” product gallery will help attendees familiarize themselves with the highlights and acts as a roadmap of sorts for the show. A $500 NAFEM Show Scholarship is also available to help offset travel expenses and includes free registration. Visit TheNAFEMshow.org for information. 

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