Animating the automated

To compensate for a lack of experience in the kitchen, more automated equipment carries the load. Jim Banks asks how manufacturers are striving to meet this need

Faced with a shrinking workforce and a waning appetite for working in restaurant kitchens, operators are increasingly employing low-skilled and unskilled workers.

Skilled workers are leaving the foodservice industry in droves. Data from the US since the start of the pandemic is startling, and there is no sign that this worrying trend is easing.

According to US government statistics, by May 2020, 5.9 million jobs had gone from the restaurant industry as the industry shut its doors to combat the spread of Covid-19, but this masked a growing trend of people quitting their jobs and looking for a new direction.

In August 2021, the US Labor Department reported that 4.3 million Americans left their jobs, the highest number since December 2000, and restaurants, bars, and hotels were among the worst affected, losing almost 900,000 workers in that month alone.

September 2021 was another significant month in what people are calling ‘The Great Resignation’. During that month a further 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs.

The situation is no easier in the UK, where Brexit has exacerbated the problem. Changes to immigration laws following the UK’s departure from the EU have led to many EU nationals leaving the country. The Food & Drink Federation (FDF) reports that one in five UK-based EU nationals is employed in the food and drink supply chain, so the sector is being hit harder than most.

But the problem goes deeper than Brexit. Fewer people are applying to catering colleges, which suggests that fewer young people are pursuing careers as chefs and waiting staff. The FDF also reports that a third of employees in the industry will reach retirement age by 2024, which could create a shortage of around 140,00 workers in the food and drink supply chain.

“With the pandemic, there is a 30% shortage of staff because people are going where they are paid more and have a healthy environment to work in,” observes Frank Wagner FCSI of German consultancy K’Drei. “But this problem goes back a long way. I started in 1991 with my first kitchen and back then everyone said staff were not experienced enough and ovens needed to be simpler to use.”

Finding the answer in automation

When there are fewer workers in the kitchen and, in some cases, employees are not native speakers of the local language, equipment that is complicated to use or that requires extensive training can cause more problems than it solves.

This has accelerated the trend towards more automated cooking equipment, where precise cooking operations can be performed at the touch of a button.

“The industry has had less well-trained staff for many years, but it is at a crisis level in the US now,” says Alexandra Ricciuti, chef and combi business development manager at Vulcan Equipment. “You may need to get an 18-year-old novice using a combi oven with good results in a short time.

“Also, Covid caused many people not to come back to the workforce, so staffing levels are lower – you may have three people instead of five in the kitchen,” she adds. “Even well-known chefs are short of staff and are paying signing bonuses and rates above minimum wage, even for inexperienced staff.”

According to Paul Bartlett FCSI of KitchenSolutions Consulting, in the US a starting dishwasher is paid $14 per hour, a skilled cook is from $18 up to $22 per hour, and each position costs $5 more hourly than one year ago.

“That is a lot of pressure on operators when everyone is trying to survive,” he remarks. “There is also a trend towards seeing cooks as assemblers or mechanics with a lower skill level, but cooking skill requires time and a mentor. That is partly why automation is a big trend, though it is also because manufacturers have made processes efficient in a very small footprint. A little oven in a 2 sq ft space can turn out 20 menu items.”

“The last 15 to 20 years has seen big technological advances affecting the requirement of staff,” he adds. “Combi ovens have been around for a long time and can do almost everything – steam, bake, hold and much more. They have preset environments for cooking, with many processes pre-programmed so quality is maximised and not much training is needed.”

At a time when more and more people are digital natives, even inexperienced employees have grown up with modern technology such as smartphones, so the learning curve for automated equipment is not as steep.

“When we show people how to operate combi ovens with computer control, they tend to get concerned about understanding how the oven works,” says Ted Doyals, principal at US consultancy Ricca Design Studios. “I always make sure my cellphone is at hand and tell them that if you can operate one of those then they can operate the combi oven.”

A new breed of combi

Vulcan is just one example of a combi oven manufacturer that has embraced automation. Its ABC model has been on the market for many years and is designed to be extremely easy to use. Operators just set the temperature, time, and go, with no programming required. Soon, Vulcan will launch its new programmable and self-cleaning TCM Combi Oven.

“Equipment is adapting,” says Ricciuti. “With combi ovens you can just press a button to get it to the right temperature, turn your back and leave it until it is ready. For cookies, you can use preset programs and the oven can adjust itself to get to the right colouration with no need to poke and check. Ovens can also cook and hold turkey, ribs or any large protein overnight.

“Automated equipment is pricier, so you need to get value,” she adds. “That comes from freeing up workers to handle another task while leaving the oven to handle the cooking. Before the pandemic, there was often a complaint that there
is no art left in cooking, but we hear that a lot less now.”

Prioritizing people?

Though automation undoubtedly brings efficiency, there may be a limit to the level of automation with which diners can be comfortable. Wagner points to the example of a KFC restaurant in Russia entirely staffed by robots.

“You order from home, scan a code and get the food, but I don’t know if it is successful,” he says. “It may be more of a marketing tool. Everyone tries it once and it makes headlines, but will people want their food cooked like that?”

“Cooking is cooking, and you cannot change it,” he adds. “It is about time and temperature. I doubt full automation will happen because who would want to eat it? We did an experiment in a canteen in Germany a few years ago, where everything was fully automated and from 200 people at the start only 50 people were coming at the end. No one wants to eat the same taste every day even if it is perfect. I want to know that my food has been made by a human.”

Wagner believes investing in experience is essential for the future of the industry. Others agree, though, with the belief that automation will still play an important role.

“Automation can exist and grow along with more investment in people,” says Bartlett. “There will be kiosks with automated cooking, and other places where everything is automated, but you still need the chef to design the programs.”

As manufacturers such as Vulcan and Unox take automated combi ovens to the next level, and manufacturers invest in the development of multi-function equipment that is easy to operate, automation no doubt will help operators to deliver results with less experienced staff. However, the future also depends on developing the high-level skills required to understand the processes that lie behind high-quality food.

Jim Banks

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