In some respects, it would seem that U.S. commercial kitchens are just now catching up to their European counterparts. "Europe has always been about smaller, more efficient kitchens and specialized labor. And that's what is now starting to take root here," Coca says. "Labor is becoming more and more expensive, so operators will continue to look for ways to keep those costs down."
Shifting consumer demographics represent another key factor that will shape commercial kitchens of the future. For example, according to the Technomic study "Understanding the Foodservice Attitudes and Behaviors of Millennials," 41 percent of millennials purchase food away from home at least twice a week, compared to 38 percent of Gen Xers and 37 percent of baby boomers.
As the baby boomers gradually give way to millennials as the dominant demographic among consumers, foodservice operations will need to continue to adapt because the differences between these two generations are significant. "Millennials eat several meals a day at all hours a day. So from an operational point of view, kitchens need more flexibility of equipment and systems," Schroeder says.
For some consultants, the future is now. "For the general public, we now design much more for millennials," Barker says. "For the younger generations, dining is not as much of a choice as it was for previous generations. It is now a part of the gambit of the night. They will go get something to eat and then see a movie because their night is filled with multiple events. In contrast, previous generations would pick one activity and really immerse themselves into it. You could give previous generations something new, but you had to follow a certain formula to give them the experience they wanted. It's a change in mentality."
While a change in mentality, perhaps it's a natural evolution too. "Foodservice now is about the experience and that social interaction. The original social network was the kitchen table, but now that social network is being transferred to restaurants and other foodservice operations," Coca says. "Even though people have a sense of individuality, they also want to be part of the pack, and it is up to foodservice to provide that. They want options, but they understand that you can't give them everything."
For millennials, the overall experience is everything. Members of this generation embrace consistency of service, menu, cleanliness and more from one visit to the next. While they understand most operators can't offer a vast menu, millennials also have little tolerance for less-than-stellar experiences. "They don't want to accept that something might go wrong, so you deal with them differently," Barker adds.
Further, it's impossible to discount the role of social media in shaping perception of a foodservice operation for consumers – and even staff. "Now their experience is going to be on Twitter in 30 seconds, and your next dining room turn will be next door," Barker says. "Everyone, including your customers and staff, is not only more critical, they are more vocal about it."
As a result, operational transparency and excellence will become increasingly important for foodservice providers, and it is something the design will need to address. Understanding where the food comes from and seeing the cooking process is only the beginning when it comes to satisfying these emerging generations. "They are not going to stop eating out or using foodservice, but they will spend their money more wisely. So what you give them has to be great," Coca says.
One possible by-product of this evolution could be greater levels of customer engagement and participation. "Culinary arts departments are popping up everywhere, so the next generation will have more of a connection to their food and more awareness than we have ever seen," Coca says. "Next, participation may replace observation. Exhibition kitchens are here to stay, but what's the next step in that area? Do we create kitchens where people come in to create their meals?"
While millennials and members of other generations want to define their own dining experience, baby boomers are quite the opposite. "With the baby boomers, they want you to help guide them through the experience," Barker says.
And that explains, in part, the cross-generational appeal of fast-casual operations and this segment's ability to thrive while others struggle. "Fast casual is user friendly. I can come and eat quickly, or I can linger. It's up to them to pick their experience," Barker says.
Of course the evolution of the baby boomers into their golden years represents new and different opportunities for the foodservice industry to apply the lessons learned over the years. "As baby boomers get older, restaurant designers are getting called into senior living facilities. You are building locations where people can come have an hour-and-a-half meal on premise," Barker says.
The foodservice industry has developed a reputation of being low-tech and high-touch. But that might be changing into more high-tech, high-touch. "It is pretty amazing that the kitchen has not changed that much at first glance, but what has changed has been pretty gradual. There's more technology involved," Coca says. "Unfortunately, it's not as exciting as what one might expect, particularly when you look at other areas where technology is having an impact. Will it change dramatically in the future? I doubt it."
Coca attributes this to a lack of research and development among foodservice equipment manufacturers. But that's not necessarily all bad. "For me it's really more about smart innovation. Don't innovate for the sake of it. Do it because it makes the product more helpful and efficient," he says.