Saving on labor costs can be a matter of properly applying foodservice equipment and training.
When the National Restaurant Association released its What's Hot in 2012 survey, we saw many trends spilling over from the previous year including: local foods, healthier eating and lighter kid's menus, in-house butchering, artisan foods and culinary cocktails. But another theme in the report was the prevalence of the use of labor-saving equipment and the need to incorporate these items while continuing to expand and improve menus.
"Labor is the most expensive thing in a foodservice operation," says Richard Dieli, FCSI, principal of Dieli Murawka Howe Food Service Design Consultants in San Diego. That's because from cooking to serving to warewashing to waste disposal, labor issues touch all aspects of a foodservice operation.
Labor-saving equipment that can multitask, produce higher volumes and run by itself has always been in high demand but seems to be increasingly so as of late, Dieli says. Today's foodservice equipment market features a variety of items that can multitask, saving time in both prep and cooking. Some examples include combi ovens, sous vide technology, cook-chill technology, volume steamers, food processors and pressure cookers, to name but a few.
Of course, buying a piece of equipment that can save labor does not mean that item will actually live up to its promise. So the critical element in ensuring that equipment will actually save labor comes down to first choosing the right piece for an application and training the staff to use it.
When Dieli sits down to design a foodservice space so it will maximize the use of labor he looks at three main areas: budget, square footage and space, and menu.
"After that we break down each station to see if and how we can multitask on a piece of equipment," he says. "Basically we want to figure out how we can minimize the equipment going in, which will minimize the required labor and maximize the menu."
First thing's first: budget. "When we're in design the first thing we have to recognize is there is a budget," Dieli says. "Combi ovens and cook chill are great, but not everyone can afford that kind of equipment."
Typically in institutional work, which represents about 90 percent of Dieli's projects, noncommercial operators tend to be more receptive to addressing labor savings, he says. In fact, labor savings is critical in operations with high employee turnover and, in some cases, more complex equipment. "They are more aware of operating costs on a daily basis," he says.
Cook-chill systems are classic labor-saving tools that allow staff to prepare as much volume as possible up front and then save a portion of the output for later use, according to Dieli. The high cost associated with complex cook-chill systems does not necessarily mean operators should turn their backs on this labor-saving technology. "You can still create a small cook-chill system," Dieli says.
For example, in one of Dieli's recent projects involving a small nursing home, the kitchen was set up to cook three to five different soups in a tilting skillet per week, but only one blast chiller was needed to bring everything down to the safe storage temperature so the operator could store the food for up to two weeks.
And foodservice operators do not need to select all of their equipment based solely on volume; those pieces can work with traditional a la carte equipment. If an operator can't afford a combi oven, a traditional steamer can assist in volume production of vegetables and starches alongside traditional grills and ovens, which can prepare cooked-to-order proteins and other foods. Designing a kitchen with just a few high-volume pieces can help small labor savings add up.
Application represents the most important consideration after figuring out space and budget when it comes to using more labor-saving equipment, Dieli says. "I've seen huge issues in warewashing," he says. "In these cases, the dishroom is under-designed, so it costs more labor."
For example, if you have a six-inch conveyor warewasher spitting out 200 racks per hour with a landing table of four feet long that has room for only two or three racks at a time, the staff will need to work that much harder to catch up, Dieli says. Either you'll need to add labor here or you'll be backed up. The solution in this case would be to either downgrade the warewasher to match the space of the dishroom, or create a larger landing table in some way. Things get even more complicated if a scrapper or pulper is added to the mix.
Aside from matching space to your equipment and existing labor, getting creative with equipment applications can help save labor, too. Dieli is seeing a rise in Panini grills for multitasking at a sandwich station, but also as a way to justify charging more for a premium meal.
"Labor is a function of volume," Dieli says. "The more volume we do the less labor cost we have. Or, if we're smart and use equipment judiciously, we may only need PTEs upfront versus a bunch of FTE's."
Putting out a better food product helps offset those labor costs. More non-commercial operators now use wood-fired ovens versus convection ones to offer a more gourmet product, Dieli says. But at the same time, if they put one of these ovens in they'll also use it for roasting proteins like chicken and using it for other appetizers.
Sous vide, a popular technology in the 1970s, is making a slight comeback. The application naturally has a labor-saving quality because it allows the user to vacuum-seal specific menu items, store them in cold storage and bring them back to temperature before finishing for service. This technology offers more than labor saving benefits, though. It can make chicken more tender, infuse flavors into meats and handle fish and other delicate foods. Plus, it's pretty hands-off.
One major concern with this technology, Dieli says, is food safety. "You have to have a good HACCP program — sous vide can lead to botulism if not done correctly, especially when working with meat." Sous vide machines also don't brown meats as effectively as a traditional range, so again, analyzing the menu and application of this labor-saving piece is important, Dieli says.
With higher end equipment more prevalent in the workplace, staff have to know how to operate the pieces. Certain equipment requires some basic skilled labor and higher capabilities even before training happens.
"You can't just throw the equipment in and say it's going to work," Dieli says. "If your staff can't support the process itself, then it's defeated. So the skill level has to be there, especially with sous vide or cook chill."
Some equipment, however, goes the other way, helping to account for lacking skills. Food processors are handy in the prep kitchen as an alternative to teaching better knife skills, Dieli says.
Either way, when it comes to using more complex, labor-saving equipment, "training is critical," says Dieli. "That's why chains do such a good job. When they put in a piece of equipment, they have the training already set up and they've already run through everything in their labs to see how it will affect design and transaction times."
For noncommercial and institutional operations, Dieli says, labor-saving equipment and training is even more critical because of high staff turnover, and in many cases, because budgets are setup to make room for these applications. But they often come with more complicated controls, instructions, programming requirements and basic culinary knowledge.
If the training program for new equipment is lacking, Dieli will bring in an MAS consultant to help bring staff up to speed. Utility companies around the country, such as Pacific Gas, have demo kitchens for use in staff training, as do some manufacturers and their reps.
"Training is a key component — the staff has to know how to use that piece of equipment and how it works with the menu if the operator wants it to be successful," Dieli says. Layers of skilled labor help too — train managers, sous chefs, owners and anyone directing others. The more backup the better.
So whether it's a top-of-the-line combi oven or a simple pressure cooker, foodservice equipment designed to save labor must be treated with the same, if not more, attention in terms of how they work with an operation's design, menu, staff and management.