With the real estate costs remaining a concern, many foodservice operators continue to explore smaller, more compact kitchen designs that leverage the energy-efficient nature of induction, rapid cook ovens and other ventless technologies.
Small, ventless and induction-based kitchens using self-contained pieces such as rapid-speed ovens are on the rise. At least, according to Brad Belletto, founder and CEO of Vision 360 Architecture + Design, a full-service restaurant consulting and design firm in Dallas. Belletto and his 14-person team of chefs, kitchen, interior and graphic designers, architects, menu and concept developers are so impressed by the labor, space, cost and energy savings of these types of scaled-down, hoodless kitchens that they built their own test kitchen supporting this model four years ago. Since then, they've consulted a handful of new full-service and quick-service restaurant concepts looking to build leaner, "greener," and in some cases, healthier kitchens.
"What we were running into was all of our clients working with the big food distributors had to use their test kitchens to develop their green concepts, but these kitchens were not designed very well, and they didn't have the high-tech, energy-saving equipment our clients were looking for," Belletto says. As traditional kitchens, they were outfitted with what you might expect: fryers, gas ranges and big, heavy-duty hoods. But Belletto and his team are non-conventional kitchen creators.
In addition to saving energy and grease, these types of induction-based, ventless kitchens can also save space, labor, and the expense of a massive hood system. Still, they're not appropriate for all foodservice operations, and some municipalities prohibit complete or even partially ventless kitchens. But Belletto thinks these kitchens will continue to gain popularity. Here's why.
"Our whole menu development and testing facility spans 1,200 square feet, but the kitchen part is no more than 400 square feet," Belletto says. With just basic refrigeration; a couple of prep tables; two or three self-contained, rapid-cook ovens; two induction counter-based cooktops and a big butcher block table with seats for tasting and talking, the firm can run through an entire concept's potential menu.
"The typical induction-type kitchen we build for our clients is only 750 square feet," Belletto says.
At Bison Jack's in Middleton, Wis., which opened just over a year ago, Belletto's team developed a ventless kitchen with a collection of four stackable rapid-cook ovens able to cook all the bison hamburgers, pastrami sandwiches, meatballs, hot dogs and other proteins as well as freshly baked bread from scratch. In addition, a small two-burner, side-by-side induction range cooks up baked beans, vegetables and other sides to order. The staff can use the higher-speed ranges to boil water for different needs.
"We started out with one oven in the back for baking bread and three in the front originally, but found no reason for it to be in the back because they don't take up a lot of space on the line at all," Belletto says. Moving all the equipment on the same line upfront also cut down on staff movement without taking up extra space. The team also recessed the induction table flush into the counter to save further space while adding a more decorative look. A couple portable induction units are used for off-site catering and easily store away when not in use, Belletto adds.
With real estate a hot commodity lately, foodservice equipment and design that saves space saves money, Belletto says. "This is a key driver right now for these types of kitchens."
One of the other main reasons Belletto thinks these hoodless/ventless kitchens are on the rise simply has to do with the high ‚Äî and rising ‚Äî cost of hoods and stainless. "For many smaller operators the cost of a hood system can be astronomical," he says. "We're getting a lot of requests for small restaurants or cafes, particularly in high-rise buildings where it's costly and difficult to install hood systems."
With hoods costing upward of $2,500 per square foot, just 10 square feet of hood space can cost $25,000, says Belletto. For high-rise based operators that need to vent upward through five floors of building, for example, this cost only increases.
Some municipalities, however, don't allow venting at all. Others might not require a full fire suppression hood, but they do require a bonnet unit, Belletto says. In some cases, for induction cooktops, minimal down draft air systems are required to minimize the steam and smell that exists with any cooking equipment. But induction doesn't require a full fire suppression system because there are no open flames.
"You could still put oil in a pan and fry if you want, but if you put a piece of paper in between the pan and the pot, nothing will happen," Belletto says. "I could see more municipalities allowing more induction and ventless cooking in the future, but we have to keep explaining these systems to them."
With a little extra education, though, some of these areas come around. This is precisely what happened in the Madison area where Belletto's team helped Bison Jack's. After showing regulators other cases of ventless cooking in other major cities, they were granted permits to build the kitchen.
The fact that induction cooktops heat up and cook faster saves energy in general, according to Belletto. At Bison Jack's a 12-inch pizza cooks in one to two minutes. And, unlike a microwave, the rapid-cook ovens will cook as few or as many products as necessary in the same time frame because of the way it works with air and high-speed velocity. "It doesn't matter if you put one hot dog in the oven or 40, it will be the same amount of time," he says. "With microwaves you would have to double or triple the time and the consistency of the end product can change dramatically."
Thanks to a built-in catalytic converter of sorts, the ovens also won't transfer smells from one product, such as fish, to another, such as bread, Belletto adds.
On top of that, he says, "The induction ranges we specific hardly draw any energy and run on a standard 220 outlet."
In fact, David Zabrowski of the Food Service Technology Center has said induction cooktops are 80 percent to 90 percent efficient compared to even traditional electric ranges, which are 65 percent to 70 percent efficient. By using magnetic coils that react with non-aluminum pots, only a small, initial amount of energy is necessary, a form of demand-control technology.
Aside from space and real estate, labor has posed a major concern to cost-conscious operators, including Bison Jack's, which only has one culinary degreed kitchen manager on staff and can face a higher turnover with younger students, Belletto says.
With the rapid-cook ovens, "you program everything so it's easy as pressing a button to operate." A built-in memory card helps managers program and store their menu items, making updates as needed.
Buying pre-cut vegetables can save even more labor and time if necessary, Belletto says. "We're at the point where we're training the next generation of cooks," he adds. "People who have traditional culinary training struggle with the notion of these kitchens. Andy Revella, our chef and partner who has an extensive culinary background has perfected this type of cooking, but a lot of people are still figuring it out."
When it comes to these ventless cooking appliances, traditionalists tend to assume induction cooktops and rapid cook ovens lack the searing capability some chefs desire when cooking proteins, Belletto says. Operators can use special racks in the ovens to create scoring marks and a sealed-in crust without the excess charcoal-like coating, often considered less healthy.
That said, induction cooking can have advantages in the healthier eating department, if that is a goal, Belletto says. "When Bison Jack's came to us and said we they wanted to create their entire menu around one of the leanest proteins, we knew we needed to help them set up a cooking platform that wouldn't turn their food into overcooked hockey pucks," he says. With each bison burger, hand packed and costing $7 a pound, "there is no market for error here."
Using the rapid-cook ovens, French fries can be baked crisp and have 60 percent less fat compared to fried product, he says. And vegetables are more nutritious in these ovens compared to microwaves, which have a tendency to destroy cell walls and limit nutrient uptake potential, according to Belletto.
Belletto also recently helped a soon-to-open, "health-conscious" barbecue restaurant, which looked to induction and rapid-cook ovens as a way to cut down on extra grease, oil and less healthy fats.
"There is nothing particularly healthy about smoking meat for a barbecue concept, but all the lighter side dishes are made using the rapid-cook ovens and induction cooktops," Belletto says. "The owner is a 30-year-old guy who works out every day and is super health conscious. When I showed him what we could do with the sides using induction cooking versus deep frying, he was very intrigued."
Belletto's team set up a combination traditional kitchen side with smokers alongside a ventless area with this equipment, taking up just a corner of the 8,000 square-foot kitchen with 280 dining seats and a majority of the space devoted to the smokers.
The other advantage of going induction/rapid-cook in this regard, Belletto says, is the ability to cook more foods to order in a more a-la-carte style. "All the sides are fresh and change frequently based on what's seasonally and locally available," he says. "We wanted to create recipes and menus that would allow the restaurant to cook foods spontaneously."
Rather than using traditional steam holders to hold large pans of pre-cooked foods for long periods of time, the restaurant uses waterless induction tables to keep food fresher and crisper. "The restaurant didn't want to overcook food and just stick it in a well to sit for hours."
That goes for fresh-baked breads, something Bison Jack's looks to do as well as Dunn Bros, a coffee chain with about 80 locations throughout Minnesota and Texas. Using just two rapid-cook ovens, each store can bake up pastries and breads for breakfast and lunch sandwiches to order.
Belletto says he sees these types of kitchens growing in popularity, especially as the next generation of foodservice workers and professionals come through.
"As more young people become inspectors, planners and reviewers, ventless might happen more," he says. "The more 'old school' groups look at this technology and they don't understand where we're going with it." States like California are beginning to demand more use of induction, though, simply from an energy-saving standpoint, he adds. And in New York, which has fought back against fast food chains heavy on frying, these types of kitchens offer a healthier eating advantage.
Still, these pieces can be pricey upfront, even if they don't require hoods. But with a return on savings through energy, space and labor reductions, they could gain more ground ‚Äî which drives prices down.
"I think induction is the wave of the future," he says.