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Cooling in the time of Covid

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Efficiency and versatility have dominated the development of cold-side technology for years. Jim Banks looks at how refrigeration technology will evolve through the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the foodservice sector. Social distancing, lockdowns, restrictions on indoor seating and a huge swing towards takeaway and delivery have left some operators struggling to adapt. The rules of the business are changing, sometimes from one day to the next, so planning for the future is a big challenge.

As always, technology will play a part in how the industry reinvents itself, as it is essential to work in both smarter and safer ways to survive.

“Restaurants have had to close then open then close again, and the rules can change overnight,” says Laura Lentz FCSI, design principal at US consultancy Culinary Advisors. “Covid makes people more thoughtful about technology and makes them appreciate it more. Restaurants managing inventory in an inconsistent situation are grateful that they can blast chill food rather than throwing it away.”

“We all saw our entire lives flipped upside down in the last year,” notes Brett Daniel FCSI of consultancy Camacho in Georgia, US. “Before the pandemic we were all trying to reduce the footprint of kitchens as well as increasing efficiency. Now, with social distancing the norm, we’re still increasing efficiency and looking to do more with less, while, at the same time, also trying to minimize contact between employees.”

Many kitchens are being retrofitted for takeout and delivery, often with areas that operate almost independently of the regular kitchen. Ordering systems, menus, storage and food ordering are all adapting to a different business model. “One thing is for certain, necessity is the mother of invention,” says Daniel.

The innovation express

In some sectors, notably healthcare, normal service has continued. In some regions, the corporate sector is looking at a return to work and is ramping up catering services. In these, and other parts of the industry, technology is essential in adapting to change.

“Operators are asking how they can leverage technology to improve customer service and quality,” adds Lentz. “Designers of new projects now realize that they need to look at technology upfront, whether it is for ordering, payment, cooking or chilling. Technology must be a foundation of the planning process.”

“Large commercial foodservice chains can demand equipment manufacturers design more customized refrigeration equipment that fits their needs and smaller specialized spaces,” says Denis Livchak, senior designer at Frontier Energy Inc. “The rise and rapid growth of off-premises dining is really dictating how space is used, the notion being more food from operations that have smaller production spaces but larger hot and cold holding areas.”

Manufacturers have worked closely with their customers to understand the changes that the pandemic has brought. In some ways, priorities have not changed, but the ability of some operators to invest in new technologies has been severely limited.

“The choice that people face is to close because of Covid or to close because of bankruptcy,” says FCSI Associate Heraldo Blasco, based in Argentina.

The number of cases of Covid is growing rapidly in Latin America, in a trajectory indicative of the global pattern. There, as in Europe and the US, restrictions on operation have hit the profitability of foodservice businesses, so operators are looking at ways to innovate, in terms of both technology and business practices, to maximise efficiency and remain sufficiently profitable to survive.

“Only the biggest companies are thinking about investing in new technologies,” says Blasco. “Their goal is to work with fewer people because labor is one of their biggest costs. The focus of investment in new technology is to require fewer people to do the same job in less space. The problem, however, is that many businesses lack the cash flow to invest.”

“Since chains have done better in the pandemic, they will be replacing any existing refrigeration equipment that goes down, but it will be a few years before the industry shows any significant rebound or expansion,” says Livchak of the global situation. “Meanwhile, kitchens that are open at partial capacity are recommended to consolidate their refrigeration space. Ghost kitchens are becoming more prevalent and they may have more centralized refrigeration, such as walk-in coolers, than smaller reach-in coolers.”

Only large QSR chains may be in a position to invest in new equipment, but manufacturers are still focused on delivering next-generation technology, in readiness for an uptick in business.

“On the cold side, a lot of the trends that we expect to prevail in 2021 will be continuations of changes that began in 2020,” says Chance Hunt, product manager at stainless steel equipment manufacturer LTI Inc. “We and many other industry experts expect several of the short-term adaptations to stick around. Some dining habit changes, such as relying more on pick-up and delivery, are expected to be permanent even when foodservice returns to something resembling the pre-pandemic normal.”

“As with almost any kind of crisis, Covid-19 has accelerated innovation in cold side equipment,” he adds. “In addition to the growth and advancement of cold food lockers, the industry has also seen a lot of creative thinking around cold merchandising. Manufacturers have had to consider how to showcase the pre-packaged foods that dominate a lot of today’s foodscape, allowing consumers to still ‘eat with their eyes’ while also feeling their food is safe and secure.”

Staying sustainable

Overall, the pandemic has slowed the pace of foodservice R&D, with manufacturers focused more on providing equipment parts and improving reliability.

“Sadly, Covid has dominated everything, but eventually environmental considerations will return,” says Chris Stern FCSI, managing director of Stern Consultancy, UK. “However, using equipment flexibly is an ongoing trend, as it ensures equipment can be adapted over time for varying uses and layouts.”

Nevertheless, sustainability remains a high priority for the industry, driven in part by regulatory standards, such as mandatory EPA low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerant regulations or ENERGY STAR.

“On the commercial kitchen side, more and more refrigeration equipment categories are adopting low GWP refrigerants including ice machines, soft serve machines and prep tables,” notes Livchak. “Blast chillers are slowly gaining more traction in the US market – a trend partially led by experienced foodservice consultants who understand how important it is to use this equipment to modify and modernize kitchen production strategies.”

Post-pandemic priorities

The post-pandemic world may see more intense efforts to improve resource efficiency, as lower operating costs and a greener footprint will always be among the industry’s priorities.

“Everyone wants refrigerants to be zero GWP, so it will be interesting to see how that can be achieved with larger refrigeration systems while staying safe,” adds Livchak. “Zeotropic refrigerant blends like R446, R447 and R451 are close to being accepted, so manufacturers may already be trying to integrate them into walk-in coolers and ice machines.”

In many parts of the foodservice sector, revenues are tight, and it is a brave move to invest in new technology when no one is sure when the pandemic will end or when business might return to pre-Covid levels, given the impact of the virus on the broader economy. Nevertheless, the spark of innovation never goes out.

In the post-pandemic world, new technology will be needed to help the industry adapt to a new way of doing business, but for now, the short-term priority is survival.

“Independent restaurant operators are just trying to stay open and any health code violation could set them back, so they are more vigilant about keeping food at a safe temperature,” believes Livchak. “However, most independent operators don’t have the capital to invest into new refrigeration equipment and will probably nurse their existing equipment along, even if their old equipment is on its last legs.”

For cold-side equipment, the market needs reliable equipment that can operate efficiently in a time of changing demand patterns. When revenues return, investment in new technology will become a priority, so manufacturers must work with their clients, and with consultants, to ensure the new breed of chillers, refrigerators and freezers is what the industry needs.

Jim Banks