Commercial kitchens are resource intensive, hot, uncomfortable, loud and expensive to run, right? That may once have been true, but the drive for sustainability is changing that paradigm. Today’s sustainable kitchen is unrecognizable from 20 or 30 years ago, and continues to change at pace.
In equipment for cooking, refrigeration, warewashing or ventilation, and in the design of the space itself, there has been drastic change, all driven by the desire to reduce harmful emissions, waste and cost.
“The most noticeable changes have been in energy usage,” says John C W Thomas FCSI, director of Sangster Design Group in Australia. “We now have warewashing equipment that uses only cold water connection, which has significantly improved heat recovery via drains, and integrated exhaust technology. Also, refrigeration is moving across to more sustainable refrigerants.”
Nowadays, automation and cloudbased connectivity are able to give operators remote access to manage the performance of equipment and the timing of each cooking process to keep ‘on’ time to a minimum. Nevertheless, kitchen equipment must continue to evolve to become more sustainable, not least because of stricter regulation.
Out with the old, in with the new
Changing regulations around the world are driving ever-faster change. In New York, for example, new rules are minimizing the use of combustible fuels, driving operators towards electric cooking. In California, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is mandating changes to the working environment to reduce stress on workers. The European Union already has an ambitious set of sustainability goals that are affecting foodservice along with every other industry.
Over the years, the impact has been seismic. Now, it is second nature to have mechanical ventilation in place to remove fumes, which was not the case 30 years ago. Gas cooking is increasingly seen as unacceptable, particularly in parts of the US, as is the use of power-hungry warewashing equipment.
“If you were to go back a decade you would see old-style hoods, which were left on all day at the same rate,” says Pamela Eaton FCSI at US consultancy NGAssociates. “Hoods used to operate from 6am until 1am across a range of gas equipment, but, now, variable speed hoods and smart technology are used to reduce energy consumption. The curve of change over 10 years is mind-boggling.” “Freshwater-cooled refrigeration, running cold water through a compressor and then down the drain, is also out of fashion,” she adds. “Pouring fresh potable water down the drain has been going out of favor for a long time now.”
As Eaton points out, exhaust hoods have changed dramatically to improve both performance and energy efficiency, but other kitchen equipment has consistently improved, though not necessarily at the same pace.
“Manufacturers are taking baby steps,” says Kip Serfozo FCSI, design director at US consultancy Cini Little. “When they modify their models, sustainability is a key priority, but it is an incremental approach rather than creating a radically new game-changing piece of equipment. The water usage of steamers and combi ovens is getting lower, and there are other tweaks every year. Generally, more commercial kitchens across all segments are going electric, and that is probably increasing efficiency and reducing energy waste.”
The result of electrification is a shift to induction cooking, which transfers less heat into the environment and can result in cost savings.
“Moving cooking and heating from gas to electric is the main theme of the last few years, and the most sustainable way forward,” says Julian Edwards FCSI, head of GY5 Catering Consultants and chair of FCSI UK & Ireland. “Equipment is a crucial area and a quick win for sustainability, and induction cooking is a fast-action cooking method, in which less heat is wasted in the kitchen area, so less heat needs extracting. But the cost of a good quality induction hob is high and still prohibitive for some operators.”
“Sustainability in equipment design is beginning to go mainstream, and many technologies are in the advanced stages of growth, which gives consumers an option to have a value-added environmentally sustainable design solution,” believes Thomas.
One example is the on-going withdrawal of refrigeration gases with high global “It means there is less HVAC required to cool kitchens,” says Eaton. “Less HVAC makes kitchens quieter, and without gas there are fewer volatile organic compounds – VOCs – in the kitchen, as there is no off-gassing.”
Balancing sustainability and cost
The challenges of meeting sustainability expectations are many, but the main stumbling block is usually cost. Financial sustainability is as important as energy efficiency, particularly in an industry that can be precarious because it operates on low margins.
“The biggest challenge is predominantly financial,” says Thomas. “Introducing revolutionary technologies will be an ongoing evolutionary process. Sustained success is achieved when increased efficiencies are balanced out with affordable pricing. Unit costs are often higher and often unaffordable for mainstream users during the introductory phase of a new product that has not yet offset production costs through bulk manufacturing.”
Overcoming this challenge will depend a lot on consultants, who can try to educate their clients in a long-term view of ROI, rather than focusing on paying less up front for equipment that might cost more in the long run. “Consultants ask clients, installers and caterers to look at capital expenditure compared to operating expenditure over a ten-year lifespan,” says Edwards.
“Compare outlay cost and energy usage over its lifespan. A freezer is on all the time and chefs may access it ten times a day, so it is easy to assess energy costs. A more expensive item may save more money over its life.”
Operators need to look at all opportunities for sustainability, rather than simply focusing on big pieces of equipment. Sustainability is a mindset, and it takes the courage to take the first step, but that is where consultants can really prove their worth.warming potential (GWP). For example, Europe banned the manufacture of R404 refrigerants back in 2020. As a result, existing systems will become more reliant on recycled R404 and, as its availability diminishes over time, the price of older gases with higher GWP will increase. Indeed, refrigeration has seen many changes, ranging from the addition of UV lights in walk-ins to kill surface bacteria on food, to changes in refrigerant gases, and warnings to ensure doors are kept closed.
“Refrigeration has seen big changes with smart technology that can tell operators when the door is open,” says FCSI Associate Mildred Famero, principal design consultant at Eminent Consultancy in the Philippines. “Putting it in the cloud or having some kind of sound to let the user know that the door has been left open is simple and can result in lower electricity consumption.”
“Cooking, too, has become more automatic, with equipment that can turn itself off when not in use,” she adds. “Dishwashers are already able to use their steam to maintain heat, and can use excess heat for drying as well as washing.”
The kitchen of the future
In the warewashing space, water efficiency is improving fast, and there are more double-skinned units on the market that are able to better retain heat. Indeed, the future of the kitchen could see many remarkable innovations. Dishwashers are using less water, and there is even talk of a time when they will require no water at all. In refrigeration, there is much talk about new magnetic technology, though it is not yet ready for the mass market.
“Emerging technologies such as magneto-calorific refrigeration have not yet achieved sufficient efficiencies to be used beyond small standalone systems,” says Thomas.
“Similarly, waterless dishwashers, which may provide steam and ultrasonic wash solutions, are still very much in their infancy in terms of research.” Anything that reduces waste footprint or monetizes waste products through reusable byproducts, as opposed to going into landfill or wastewater drainage, will also contribute significantly to more sustainable and affordable kitchens.
“One of our biggest topics now is waste management and not putting things down the drains that will block them,” says Edwards. “The sustainable approach is to carefully design waste out, so deposits are going into the right containers, and we will see more news of enforcement on that.” “It is great to try to get to a zero waste economy – a cradle-to-cradle approach where nothing goes to landfill – but that is a lofty goal,” says Eaton. “One thing that is underutilized is a device from Halton that captures latent heat in the air from the hood and runs it through a heat exchanger to heat incoming water. So much energy goes into heating water and air that then goes down the exhaust or down the drain.”
Evidently, resource efficiency will be a focal point for innovation going forward. Water and energy are center stage for equipment manufacturers, but there is another important strand in sustainability – the wellbeing of workers. Making the kitchen a more comfortable workplace is a key priority.
“There is a huge drive to make the kitchen environment more hospitable to employees,” Serfozo. “Fewer people came back to foodservice after the pandemic, so the industry is focused on keeping workers happy. That means ergonomic workstations, thermal comfort, better acoustic levels, the right amount of lighting – a big shift in the choice of equipment and the design of workstations.”
A key factor is managing kitchen temperatures to ensure work zones are comfortable and not excessively hot. This can be achieved using refrigerated AC systems, coupled with low-velocity kitchen exhaust and localized make up air. Kitchen staff also benefit from the ongoing trend for electrification, which not only enables the use of more renewable sources of energy generation, but also has a knock-on effect in the kitchen.