Innovation: the consultants’ view

What does innovation look like and how do ideas translate to transformative equipment? Tina Nielsen speaks to FCSI-member consultants from across the world about innovation and what is means to them, now and in the future

Defined as “a new idea, method or device”. A new way of doing things. Regardless how we describe innovation, it remains clear that it is central to the work of a foodservice consultant.

As Argentina-based FCSI Associate Heraldo Blasco, director of The Fresh ID consultancy points out: “Innovation is the lifeblood of the food industry and is quintessential for any foodservice consultant. Consumer demands and expectations are constantly evolving towards novelties, and retailers are frenetically seeking new concepts or products to meet these needs and trends. We are here to help.”

Examples of brilliant innovation are all around us – from ventless cooking technology and multifunctional equipment to contactless payment systems and plant-based and lab-grown proteins.

More than ever before the past two years have demonstrated the vital importance of innovation; of always looking to the next thing. From manufacturers and producers to operators and consultants, there’s no standing still in this business.

Plainly, when the pandemic closed dining rooms and equipment factories, as it temporarily paused the world as we knew it, those who already had an eye on the future – and maybe even had disaster planning in place – coped better than those who didn’t.

Even among those who were unprepared many still thrived because they were able to embrace innovation. Thinking up new revenue streams, such as the implementation of delivery services, staying agile saved many.

Consider Alinea, the fine dining – and holder of three Michelin stars – Chicago restaurant, quickly set in motion plans to offer curbside pick-up service of food while dining establishments across the world thought up innovative ways to accommodate customers outside while dine-in services were out of bounds.

And after the initial lockdowns, dining rooms across the world reopened with reduced seating, QR codes for menus, Perspex panels separating diners and thoughtfully delivered menus that aimed to keep staff and diners safe.

Sure, some of these innovations were more successful than others, some were quickly dismissed, but it shows an appetite for risk and a willingness to try out new solutions to keep business going.

Making sure no stone is left unturned in the pursuit of survival first and success second, is second nature to those who run the foodservice and hospitality sectors.

For this edition of FCSI’s Foodservice Consultant we hear from FCSI Professional members from across the world about how they see innovation today – at a crucial time in history. After all they are the people who operate at the coalface of the industry and witness challenges and solutions.

Innovation is what will see the industry through the present challenges – and after Covid there are still significant concerns over supply chains and staffing shortages while the quest for better sustainability practices will continue for a long time.

What is innovation?

At its most basic innovation means change, says Brett Daniel FCSI, project manager at Camacho Associates in Atlanta, Georgia. “It means changing our processes and becoming more efficient. It means evolution.”

Bettina von Massenbach FCSI, CEO Oyster Hospitality Management, agrees. “It’s about changing perspective. Consumer attitudes have changed in terms of quality, speed, interaction and sustainability.”

The change, says Laura Lentz FCSI, design principal of Culinary Advisors in Maryland, is mostly driven by a need to fix or correct something; particularly appropriate at the moment. “Everyone in foodservice is looking to innovate,” she says. “To me innovation is when you are seeking a solution to something that isn’t working.”

Put succinctly by Min An FCSI, Ricca Design Studios in California: “Find a need and necessity, define them, and respond.”

As William Taunton FCSI, CEO of Gastrotec in Chile, explains innovation is about finding new solutions for our needs. “We went from hand drafting, to CAD drawing and from CAD to Revit,” he explains. “In the kitchen, we went from radiant ovens, to convection ovens and now combi ovens. Nowadays innovations come in the way we mix and match technology to resolve requirements and we, as foodservice consultants, need to be aware of the new technologies to find the best solutions.”

As Karen Malody FCSI, founder of US consultancy Culinary Options, emphasizes, innovation doesn’t always involve invention but it does create an added value. “It can range from subtle to audacious. Not all innovation is grandiose; it can be as simple as an improved POS keypad,” she says.

Abundant innovation

For Acker So FCSI, principal of A+C Consultants, China, innovation means something new, something creative. “It is something that will turn our traditional behavior or thinking to another direction,” he says. “Most importantly it will give people a hope that it will improve our lifestyle in future.”

Proof, if any was needed, that innovation is rampant in this industry is the variety of examples offered by consultants when asked for their favorite examples of innovative developments in foodservice over time.

For many people the prime example of innovation is the invention of the combi oven. “I think some of the most innovative pieces of equipment have multiple functions and are able to replace multiple pieces of equipment in one footprint. Combi ovens are a great example,” says Brett Daniel of Camacho Associates. “You have a convection oven, a steamer, a proofer and a smoker all in the same footprint so instead of seven to eight feet of cooking space and an exhaust hood, you only need three to four feet of space.

“Apart from the equipment side of things, sanitary practices and processes for accountability have evolved over the years as well as more emphasis on energy efficiency and reductions in utility consumption to lessen the impact on the environment.”

Meanwhile, Vinoo Mehera FCSI, owner and CEO of promaFox in Switzerland, points to three examples that have all made their mark on the industry in more recent times: online ordering and self-ordering terminals; remote monitoring; and plant-based food products.

Nahum Goldberg FCSI, principal of NG Associates in the US offers yet another take on innovation. “Looking back over the past 20 years I would say adjustable breath protectors, demand control ventilation and capture jet hoods, ventless applications for ovens – these all really made a difference,” he says.

And commercial kitchen equipment is just the start of it. FCSI Associate Trish Jass, senior equipment specialist, Rippe Associates, adds ways of growing fresh produce in an environmentally smart way to the mix.

“I certainly think the on-site, hydroponics micro greens displays are neat. They reduce contamination potential by being soil-free, provide fresh greens, and offer an entertainment/aesthetic component to watching things grow. It hits so many bases,” she says.

Technology and people

As the sector faces down a serious talent shortage the focus on automated equipment and simplified working processes is set to continue.

“From a product standpoint, it will continue to be automation that allows operators decrease required labor – and especially skilled labor,” says Karen Malody. “It will be fascinating to see how culinary learning institutions adapt their curriculums to this reality. Graduates in the future may need to be more technology experts than creative chefs with great knife skills. Much of the creativity in the future will rely on innovative use of multi-functional equipment, like those using Combi ovens for sous vide today.”

It is clear that the current reality calls for innovative approaches for the sector to thrive – record numbers of employees leaving hospitality in what has been dubbed the great resignation. “People quitting jobs or not going back to work, because, in essence, working for ‘pay’ isn’t enough,” explains Rudy Miick. “Most line staff are living on credit or credit cards. Most of the industry thinks of work and workers as cogs in a wheel.”

He sees the innovation coming in an open books approach, fiscal play books and profit-sharing models in what he calls the great engagement. “The business model must include profit sharing and open books in the future. There is no room for multiple $100K+ salaries, there is room for profit sharing on both gross and net performance in any company if and when we allow it. This is not socialism, it is capitalism and based on merit and performance. This innovation in business culture and brand experience can add value to economy and community.”

Looking beyond hard business and profits towards a more people-focused model resonates with UK-based Chris Stern FCSI, managing director of Stern Consultancy. “Recent innovations that have chimed with clients are working with social enterprises and working with B-Corp companies [that balance purpose and profit],” he says. “Add to this with a focus on wellness, often paired with a move towards more plant-based focus and effective use of technology to inform the customer how to eat better.”

It leads to the notion that Innovation is about developing solutions for complex and networked societal challenges, starting with going back to the values of people and organizations, as proposed by Wouter van de Kolk FCSI, consultant with Van de Kolk Advies in The Netherlands. “Identifying shared values allows you to create new, innovative shared principles, methods and actions from a multidisciplinary perspective,” he says. “This in turn leads to innovative, sustainable collaborations between people and organizations.”

Accelerated by the pandemic

If product and process development was on the ascent before Covid-19 came along at the start of 2020, the pandemic seemed to accelerate this innovation.

As Georges Haddad FCSI, CEO of Luminescenza in Lebanon, says: “Through challenges come innovations, in just one year, the Covid-19 pandemic brought wide-ranging change to the F&B industry,” he says. “Restaurants implemented innovative ideas and technologies including online ordering, contactless pick-up, delivery and payment, QR code menus, waitlist applications and social media advertisement to stay competitive in the market.”

Of course there is a case to be made for the flip side of this and while those technologies that were already in the ascendancy have advanced, the new development of fresh technology may have slightly slowed. As Ken Schwartz FCSI, president and CEO of SSA Studios in Florida, says: “The pandemic has clearly had an impact on the industry. One aspect of this is face-to-face meetings and tradeshows. The lack of these has prevented the necessary interaction to discuss challenges and needs and to look for viable solutions.

Therefore, it has been some time since we have seen innovation from a working model or demonstration. And, of course, needs have realigned somewhat on a global basis.”

One of the areas that has been vastly improved and propelled by the pandemic is off-premise dining. Gone are the days when take out and delivery was limited to pizza and mediocre meals from chains and mid-level restaurants. Even before the pandemic delivery was on the rise as the ghost kitchen concept started gaining traction. Covid accelerated the ascent of this business model and today it is hard to imagine any outlet that doesn’t offer a delivery or take-out element.

“I think the conversation of how to handle off-premise orders is much more massive than ever before,” says Tim McDougald, project manager, Clevenger Associates in the US. “In the past we’ve rarely had the conversation of how to handle off-premise orders, how to hold them, all of that. In the new era I think it has to be front and center at the start of design.

“We’ve seen huge innovation in various ‘food lockers’ from several manufacturers. Designing those spaces at the beginning of the project is more important now. Thinking through the make line for those orders is a bigger topic. It used to be an afterthought, maybe you stuck a shelving unit over in the corner and hung a DoorDash sign on it. That doesn’t work anymore, establishments are now being designed with off-premise as the main focus and indoor dining as an added bonus, a complete reversal of what a restaurant was before. Finding innovative products that help this happen is a much bigger focus than ever before.”

Karen Malody too believes ghost kitchens are here to stay and will open up new avenues for consumption of food. “Ghost kitchens will likely proliferate alongside the continuous innovation in technology surrounding ordering platforms, payment methods, and delivery systems,” she says. “Interestingly, this will bring back such methods as automated delivery belts taking food to cars, drive up automats (as well as walk-in automats), and pneumatic tubes. Delivery of food in pneumatic tubes is an example of how innovation can be utilizing a process, service or product in a manner not previously utilized.”

(A Minnesota McDonald’s drive-thru restaurant famously delivered food to customers in pneumatic tubes until its closure in 2015.)

Michael Neuner FCSI, has overseen the launch of a program of delivery services and a virtual concept developed by his team at fine-dining Michelin-starred restaurant Hakkasan in London and he says the evolution in delivery will continue.

“Innovation over the next 5-10 years will focus on evolving delivery solutions; utilizing technology more efficiently for both POS and also within the kitchen/BOH areas to use fewer humans,” he says.

Beyond function

Today the expectation is that an oven or a stovetop cooks and a fridge cools – but that is not enough, as every manufacturer knows. The boundaries of innovation keep getting stretched to create better looking, smarter equipment that is flexible and performs at the highest levels.

“I think the best innovation that happened in the foodservice industry was a thought process deviation from manufacturing equipment for a purely functional perspective to designing foodservice equipment from an aesthetic perspective,” says Rajat Rialch FCSI, COO of HPG Consulting, New Delhi, India. “The European manufacturers started designing kitchen equipment from a design perspective, from an equipment perspective the best innovation was a combi oven and a constant upgrade of this piece of equipment. From the foodservice design perspective the biggest innovation was bringing the kitchens to front of house, the whole dynamics of interaction, involvement and engagement got changed.”

A more recent challenge thrown down to manufacturers is a response to the shortage of skilled staff in foodservice forcing a move towards simpler and more efficient kit.

“Today’s operators have been dealing with significant labor shortages, well before 2020 and any solutions we can bring to them to produce more with less people is crucial,” says FCSI Associate Eric Goodrich. associate principal, Rippe Associates, US. “The advances in connected kitchens is a significant time saver for operators, as so much time is traditionally spent taking temperatures of equipment and product in log books and then storing them for internal QA and for visits from the health inspector.

Having equipment log temperatures of itself and of product, as well as communicate maintenance needs, not only ensures that HACCP is being followed, but also that equipment is being cleaned correctly and that it won’t be breaking down at the most inopportune time. The days of trying to locate missing sheets in temperature logbooks are over, and managers and chefs can spend less time doing busy-work and more time managing their business.”

The role of the consultant

The rapidly changing picture of the foodservice sector with new innovations emerging at pace in response to new requirements from operators inevitably means change for the foodservice consultant too. How could it not?

“From a design stand point, I see the role of a consultant changing dramatically as innovation in certain apps, AutoCAD & Revit will allow us to input the factors necessary for a specific kitchen or cafeteria, into an algorithm and, voila, out comes a credible design that would have taken a consultant weeks to prepare. General planning & drafting will be relegated to the machine,” says John Radchenko FCSI (PP), Van Velzen + Radchenko Design Associates in Canada.

He adds: “Flexible design has been discussed on most, if not all projects. It is a relevant issue, especially with the pandemic and the capability of changing operations to suit the new circumstances. This is a challenging effort as we attempt to provide versatility, yet are restricted to equipment with mechanical and electrical services that are difficult to move or relocate. The idea of moveable services or small stations could solve the implementation, hopefully through innovation.”

A climate friendly industry

Few of the consultants that responded name sustainability explicitly when predicting innovation of the future – not because it doesn’t feature heavily on everybody’s minds, but because today designing and planning with sustainability in mind is a given.

And innovation is at the center of the sustainability push. “Innovation offers control of processes for more environmentally friendly impact and secure food products,” says Peggie Ullie FCSI, in Sweden.

Thus, in the short and long term, Sustainability will feature heavily. “I think there will be and needs to be a greater focus on energy efficiencies and pollution controls, says Ken Schwartz. “Those that lead the pack on these aspects of the industry will thrive.”

Nahum Goldberg FCSI in California agrees: “Energy modulation in the electric cooking sector will become standard. More resources and solutions to pressing global food and nutrition issues will be forthcoming – out of necessity and with a greater consciousness.”

On the part of the consultants, says Georges Haddad in Lebanon, there’s a commitment to work in parallel and in close coordination with end users, operators and equipment manufactures on innovations and growth that advances sustainability. “Manufactures are investing money and resources to develop innovative equipment that serves the cause,” he says and points to three examples of this trend.

Equipment that transforms organic waste, including plates, biodegradable/compostable cups and cutlery, into an organic-mineral fertilizer in seven hours. The machine leaves a dry solid residue for use in gardening activities. One man’s trash is someone else’s treasure in this case.

Machinery that chefs can use to house and grow plants inside their restaurants, making a way to cook with fresh ingredients. The unit uses LED lighting and hydroponics along with environmental sensors and smart cloud software to monitor crops.

Cooking equipment that allows frying without smoke extraction system, which leads to more sustainable and energy-efficient operations than a traditional fryer, in addition to oil consumption reduction and a low electricity consumption.

The future

Marco Amatti FCSI, CEO of Mapa Assessoria in Brazil, says foodservice is at a crucial point in time. “The industry is at a turning point – politics, economy and society are at a crossroads, why and how could we [in foodservice] be different?” he asks. “Hospitality, since the early days of civilization, has been a pillar of sociability, creation, celebration, a support system, convenience; a space for flirting, dialogue and discussion of ideas, an essential service for human beings.

“Innovation for future generations will be focused on wellness and sustainability. The foodservice labor crisis is being felt in the industry all over the world, and will not disappear magically. Innovation to recover passion, motivation and professional skills and attitude is the eternal goal,” he says.

“The impact of food production on the world must be a crucial issue for humanity. Innovation to feed the population safely and on a permanent basis must be a mission towards a better world.”

Anybody who thinks robotics is a passing trend will see how the evolution continues with genuinely game-changing technology, according to Jay Bandy.

“Innovation will continue in the area of AI and robotics. These two technologies will change the restaurant business like the assembly line and then robotics revolutionized the automotive industry,” he says. “The robotic food kiosk, along with connected technologies will enable the consumer to get pretty much anything they want near where they live – either to be picked up or delivered. This will be the evolution of the ghost kitchen as a way to move food service closer to the consumer.”

In the wake of the pandemic there is a food safety element to robotics that is coming into focus. “Robotics can help avoid food hazards. It can play a role in production, preparation and logistics. It will not replace the real chef, but it will add efficiency, accuracy and safety to the process and enhancements in flexibility,” says Stijn Creemers FCSI, consultant with AAG in The Netherlands.

However, the debate over robots versus humans will no doubt continue. Rudy Miick maintains that the human element will continue to be central regardless of technological advances.“People lead innovation and even the AI development that will co-create its own innovation,” he says. “If/as boards, founders and leaders allow, innovation will move even faster than it has in the last two years of pandemic driven innovation,” he says.

“Equipment will evolve into AI driven tools, maintained by trained humans, production will evolve to AI wherever possible, robots are coming… Engaged, passionate people will be more important than ever.”

The consensus, crucially, is that we are not likely to see a slowdown in this innovation in the immediate future. “Operators today are being asked to do more with less, every day; less kitchen space, less employees, less equipment, and less energy usage. This trend will continue into the future,” says Eric Goodrich from Rippe Associates. “I believe we’ll be asked to increase kitchen throughput with a reduced footprint. We’ll see a push from government towards equipment which can be fueled with renewable energy. We’ll see more robotic and drone delivery of food produced in kitchens without, or with reduced seating capacity.  I would also expect that within the next decade, the advances in robotics will take full advantage of connected kitchens and less complicated cooking equipment to take on a significant role in the commercial kitchen of tomorrow.”

In other words, operators, manufacturers and consultants should buckle up – the innovation continues to fuel an industry moving at lightning speed.


From our sponsors

Kevin Kochman
Owner, KCL

“Sometimes innovation is a breakthrough design or product that is completely new – a product that you never knew you wanted or needed. Sometimes innovation is an incremental change with outsize results.

“The touch screen is an amazing innovation. People were happy with remote controls, track balls and keyboards, but the touch screens advanced our lives and made tech user-friendly and portable. We have touch screens in our phones and in our cars. In restaurants, we use touch screens to send orders to the kitchen, control equipment, and run POS systems. Touch screen kiosks at fast casual and fast food restaurants expedite the ordering process. Some restaurants have entertainment/order-pay pads on the table giving control to the diner.”

Kyle Forman
President, Krowne Metal

To me, true innovation exists when the mere thought of the idea makes people uncomfortable. People tend to stray from change even when that change can bring momentous benefits. One example of great innovation is Airbnb and as many remember this idea initially made people extremely uncomfortable. The best part about innovation is that you know you have succeeded when the change becomes commonplace due to mass adoption.

Mark Klindera
President, Unox

To me, innovation looks like moving forward. If something’s always been done a certain way, innovation challenges us to ask ‘why?’ It requires us to shift our mindsets from the status quo of the present to what will revolutionize the future. Artificial intelligence is probably one of the best examples of great innovation. Being able to program or a machine to “think” has opened doors for a plethora of new technology, new processes, new ways we live our day to day lives. AI is an innovation that is applied in almost every industry, which is another hallmark of true innovation. It doesn’t come to exist and then stay put; innovation reaches beyond its original applications.

Lloyd Hartsfield
President, CounterCraft, A Division of Duke Manufacturing

For us, innovation starts by listening to the customer’s needs and identifying a gap in their line of products, services, or a process. From there, it is a matter of discussing how this gap impacts the customer’s day-to-day business and working with them to develop practical solutions that meets their needs both today and into the future.

We think a lot about the value the new product, service, or process delivers to the industry. For us, a lot of the time spent on innovation is in pursuit of saving customers time and money, while nourishing the world.

Our consultative selling approach breaks down the day-to-day challenges our customers are facing and works to turn those challenges into a new idea for an innovative solution that helps facilitate profitability, operational efficiency, or simple increase in quality.

Today, innovation means a lot of things to a lot of people. For us, it’s about executing ideas that add value to the customer.

Dan Montgomery
Consultant Services manager, Vulcan

When we talk to operators and designers, we are most concerned about what matters to them in their day-to-day experience.  We often use the phrase “practical innovation” when discussing cooking equipment that is reliable, requires no special training, delivers superior results, and is adaptable to menu or concept changes. This adaptability is a critical consideration for some because it can have significant impact on success in an operation.  Many operators are requesting equipment that is modular in design, allowing them to easily change out components if needed in the future without having to replace an entire line-up.  Similarly, operators using individual equipment items now seek innovative products that deliver exceptional results over a wide range of menu items.

Some designers have used robotics successfully in food serving applications, thus enhancing the customer experience, and addressing labor concerns.

Sebastian Hainz
Executive vice president sales and marketing, Meiko

For MEIKO, as an engineering manufacturer, innovations have enormous power and are the indicator of our development capabilities and performance. Innovation at MEIKO means anticipating our customers’ needs and wishes. Our mission is to provide innovations that add tangible value to their business. We always look at the complete value chain and consider ourselves as full solution provider. At MEIKO we call that “the MEIKO Clean Solution circle”. It comprises top-notch technology, after-sales services, cleaning chemicals, as well as consulting and training offers.

Tina Nielsen

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