Cooking technology for a post-Covid world

Sustainability, energy efficiency and smart cooking: Jim Banks considers how hot-side equipment is evolving, because of the pandemic – and despite it

The Covid-19 pandemic has focused the attention of the foodservice industry on short-term priorities, pushing long-term investment onto the back burner. Survival is now the priority for many businesses.

The pandemic has, to some extent, put the brakes on innovation, with operators looking to cut labor costs, improve flexibility to respond to changing restrictions on socializing and dining, and to gain a competitive edge by producing the best food in the shortest amount of time. With less revenue coming in, many are trying to do so with the cooking equipment they already have. “

The past year has been devastating for manufacturers and the entire equipment and supplies market, so there hasn’t been a ton of new innovation, but there has been a continual arc of innovation over the last few years towards smaller, more modular, and more flexible equipment,” says Denis Livchak, senior designer at Frontier Energy.

“This will probably continue to expand as operators move towards more flexible menus, strategic allocation of labor over longer hours, and off-premises dining.”

Fortunately, the cooking equipment already in place can, in many instances, deliver more than its owners had realized. “Chefs have been learning how to use the combi oven creatively to their advantage,” says Kip Serfozo FCSI, design director at Cini•Little International Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia. “In the past, they didn’t know how to use the combi technology correctly. It is like someone using a computer just for word processing without understanding its other features.”

A focus on flexibility

The arc of innovation seen in the last few years has served the industry well in terms of preparing it for restrictions on indoor dining and a growing drive to be resource efficient at a time when revenues have fallen sharply. “It has been a continuum of induction and other kit that’s anything other than the old days of pots and pans,” says Chris Stern FCSI, managing director of UK-based Stern Consultancy.

“Ventless cooking is massively important. As sites are downsized, having self-vented front cooking is a way of doing hot food with minimal back-of-house facilities. It brings savings on ventilation, though fire suppression is a whole new challenge especially when it’s front cooking.”

Ventless cooking is now widespread, and the flexibility it offers is an advantage when outdoor dining and cooking is more prevalent. Indoors, however, it does present challenges.

“If you are cooking you need some ventilation and fire suppression – regardless of whether you are using an exhaust hood or the room’s HVAC system,” adds Livchak. “Nothing is free – and that includes getting rid of all the heat in the kitchen. With ventless, that heat remains in the kitchen and has to be removed with your air conditioning, which is expensive. Research shows that it is always more cost-effective to put the larger equipment under a traditional exhaust hood where possible.”

Among manufacturers, the desire to innovate remains as strong as ever, and many recognise the need for versatility and the need to increase production capacity and menu options without taking up valuable space.

“We have seen interest in four areas of innovation: flexibility, reliability, simplicity and cost savings,” says Dan Montgomery, senior manager consultant services at equipment manufacturer Vulcan. “Operators are keenly interested in equipment that can be used for multiple tasks or that can be adaptable. No one wants to invest in an entirely new range line-up each time a menu adjustment is needed,” he adds.

“So, we use a modular design and manufacturing approach to heavy duty range lineups. This allows individual top or base components to be changed if needed.” Vulcan has also developed ways to make enhancements to existing equipment, especially griddles. It has, for example, developed a versatile heavy-duty clamshell that can be added to a griddle to reduce cooking times, while enabling greater productivity and flexibility without adding width to the cookline.

“One notable piece of equipment that was released this last year is the Rational iVario,” says Livchak. “This promises flexible production in a small space. We have also seen innovation in the induction range world and we now have one of the new Garland FlexiHob units in our facility. Combination ovens continue to evolve, and the new breed of small combis is really gaining traction.”

Juggling priorities

Though short-term considerations occupy operators’ minds, manufacturers are keen to develop new concepts in preparation for the market’s recovery. “As the foodservice industry bounces forward there is a greater sense of urgency around innovation,” says Rick Caron, chief innovation officer at Welbilt, the company behind brands such as Convotherm, Frymaster and Lincoln.

“Our design centers are more focused, working faster and stepping up the game with open innovation where ideas not only come from inside our organization but outside as well.” “Key technologies being transferred into foodservice range from advanced controls to new sanitation solutions to new platforms for heat generation and heat transfer,” he adds.

“Combi ovens are raising the bar with hygienic disinfection programs, which are being deployed through software upgrades. There is also more demand for unvented hot-side equipment. These innovations will help the industry as it re-emerges in 2021.”

Sustainability is a key driver of innovation and, though still pushed forward by regulatory change, it has given way to other priorities for now. Larger chains may still be focused on sustainability, but for small independents, survival comes first. There is an influx of low-cost, Chinese-made equipment, for which efficiency gains are less important than lower cost.

“The biggest impact from a regulatory standpoint is the mandate for all-electric kitchens that is now built into the building reach codes for many cities,” notes Livchak. “The all-electric kitchen requires advanced, integrated design in order to be cost-effective. There is also an amazing amount of immediate carbon reduction that can happen by simply using the high-efficiency gas equipment available on the market today, which could be a bridge to the zero-carbon kitchens of the future.”

Along with flexibility, reliability is now the concept at the top of many operators’ minds. “Cooking equipment must be durable and trouble-free,” says Montgomery. “A manufacturer’s ability to manage and deploy their service network has never been more critical. Operators need to minimise down-time.

“Simplicity is key,” he adds. “Controls need to be easy to understand and operate with little or no training. We have found there are frequent challenges with labor and turnover. Operators prefer controls that offer simple command of the functionality desired – from basic control to digital readouts and timers.”

Cook smarter

The need for simplicity, consistency and quality will stimulate more interest in smart kitchens in the post-Covid world.

“We will see more investment in intelligent ovens,” says FCSI Associate Heraldo Blasco, a foodservice consultant based in Argentina. “They can be operated by anyone, they can be programmed from a cellphone, and the programs allow for standardization, which means a consistent menu can be rolled out across a small chain very easily.”

“There is a growing demand for programmable cooking technology, which is simple to use and delivers consistent quality,” says Laura Lentz FCSI, design principal at US consultancy Culinary Advisors. “Restaurants are looking to increase sales without hiring more people, and intelligent ovens are among the technologies that can help with that.”

For Welbilt, multi-purpose cooking technology with smart capability is central to its pursuit of innovation. “Ovens that are flexible, that can connect to the cloud and upload the digital information necessary to enable a wide range of cooking functions continue to get smaller and more flexible with more widespread adoption of accelerated cooking,” says Caron. “Cognitive automation is emerging fast, enabling the operator to make better decisions about what and when to cook to fulfil the omnichannel demands that Covid has created.”

This technology is fundamental to the rise of ghost kitchens, which are set up for the preparation of delivery-only meals. Furthermore, the growing use of data and connectivity in the kitchen plays a key role in food safety and energy efficiency, as it enables the precise tracking of temperatures and cooktimes.

“In the near term, it is obvious that off-premises will be the dominant model for a while,” says Livchak. “The pandemic’s biggest influence on the marketplace has been the emergence of off-premises dining as the dominant business model. We anticipate that as the industry starts to rebound, this trend will continue. We will see more small, flexible and ventless table-top equipment such as high-speed ovens, induction, and highspeed panini presses. There may also be more small, high-speed pizza ovens.”

As always, the market will respond to the needs of the people designing the kitchens and buying the equipment. For consultants in these testing times, it is vital to know all the hot-side options and to continue helping kitchens to evolve.

Jim Banks

More Relevant

View More