Labor, labor, labor. It’s all people seem to talk about lately as we move through the next stages of the pandemic and its aftermath. That’s certainly the case for Cini Little’s Kip Serfozo, FCSI, LEED AP, WELL AP, who says every one of his clients has brought up labor shortages as the No. 1 issue of concern.
“From what I gather, [the shortage] is being caused by a combination of factors,” Serfozo says. “The first is that with the pandemic still lingering, a lot of people who might have been interested in foodservice and hospitality are questioning if a job in this industry is safe for them right now.”
In addition, Serfozo says, wages in the hospitality industry have historically been lower than in other industries. At the same time, other industries like delivery offer not only higher pay but also more benefits and flexible hours. As a result, the pressure is on operators to find frontline and middle management staff.
“People in foodservice and hospitality are realizing that in order to compete for staff, they need to create a work environment that’s healthier, with more comfortable working conditions,” Serfozo adds. In other words, there’s less of an appetite to work in a hot, stressful kitchen all hours of the day and night – and not even get paid very well to do it.
The good news is that with challenges come opportunities. Here are some ways Serfozo and his team use specification and design to enhance kitchen efficiencies and working conditions with less or fluctuating staff.
Robotics and Integrated Technology
“We have relied on technology for years to offer labor-saving solutions for our clients, but now technologies are improving more quickly and are more effective,” Serfozo says. “If you would have told me there would be in the foodservice industry 20 years ago, I would have said, ‘yeah right.’ Fast forward to today and robots are all over the place.”
Just before the pandemic hit, for a hotel technology conference, Serfozo’s team created a prototype for the hotel industry using a robotic room service vehicle that could take orders and deliver food on hotel property. “If a client is interested in going this route, we’re the ones who work with the robotics company to get it implemented,” he says.
When it comes to remote ordering technology, the operator-client is typically the decision-maker for selection, but Serfozo says he still needs to keep tabs on what’s out there and how these systems work. “We also need to make sure that the kitchen display systems are synched with the software, or even create a separate office to handle however orders are coming in,” he says. “We mostly need to know how they are managing their systems and managing the flow of customers coming in and out of the space.”
The good news, Serfozo adds, is that these ordering/fulfillment software solutions typically have a quick return on investment — usually a year or less — so this has made operators, and particularly chain restaurants with deep pockets, quicker to invest in them, especially if they help with labor savings.
There are some obvious robots on the market take shape as a robotic arm or small delivery vehicle. There are also less obvious “robots” that operate as equipment with enhanced automation features — also meant to replace mundane tasks.
Even at the beverage level, Serfozo says he can’t remember the last time he specified a manual espresso maker. “Everyone is moving to semi-automatic or fully automatic,” he says. “There’s even a new breed of smoothie machines that work almost like a vending machine; they come equipped with the ice, all the flavorings and ingredients so all you have to do is press a button.”
In addition to saving on steps and dedicated staff to make smoothies, these machines also save on space because they replace all the extra room needed for the blenders, ice bins, syrups and more. “These are especially popular in rural areas where there is an even smaller labor market,” Serfozo says.
A low-hanging fruit when it comes to automated equipment with a faster ROI, Serfozo says, are fryers. More top-of-the-line fryers these days come built with self-filtering, self-changing equipment that doesn’t require staff to manually handle hot, dangerous oil, and the automation also better maintains oil quality and prevents spills to minimize food costs.
The topic of “smart equipment” has been talked about for years, but now these pieces are finally taking up more market share and are becoming more user-friendly than ever before. “The display panels on some of these pieces look like your smart phone so they’re very intuitive,” he says.
Like the aforementioned fryers, many smart ovens and smart exhaust hoods feature self-cleaning options to make it easier on staff. Smart screens on combi ovens, dishwashers and even some garbage disposals feature automated turn-on/turn-off options. And then there is the advent of more industrialized, automated baking equipment for making pizza dough, cookies and other products faster and on a larger, more industrialized-like scale.
Serfozo, who is based in Atlanta, says that the top five independent restaurant groups in his city have switched to a commissary-style platform, where all the baking, sauce- and soup-making and other high-volume production now takes place in a commissary or ghost kitchen and is shipped out to the various restaurant locations. “This model easily saves space and labor,” he says.
Addressing Nonpeak Periods
Another way to address labor issues is to design spaces with peak and nonpeak periods in mind.
“We’re always interested in designing the facility so that workstations can scale up or scale down super quickly and efficiently,” says Serfozo. “At peak time there might be four people working in the area, but we want the station to be able to be operated by just one person working at a time if need be.”
That means connecting stations closer together, such as the garde manger with a cooking or grill station and adding more two- and three-compartment or other dishwashing options throughout the space so there’s less of a need to run to a centralized dish station far away. If a servery includes separated or island-style stations, there are ways to shut or close them off so they don’t look obviously vacant. One of Serfozo’s hotel clients even worked with an interior designer to design a lobby hotel bar with a sliding bookcase barn door of sorts to close off the liquor shelves when not in use.
Serfozo sees more opportunities for technology to come up with easier ways to clean kitchens. Not only does this cut down on manual labor to do so, but it’s another way to further improve working conditions. “There is definitely room for companies to come up with robotic floor cleaners or other solutions that are more industrial,” he says. “We’re also seeing a big increase in electrolyzed water used for cleaning.” This cuts down on the nasty chemical smell sometimes found in kitchens, and the products are safer for staff to handle.
One less-thought-about way to cut down on foul chemical smells in the kitchen is to design the mop or janitor’s closet where chemicals are stored with a self-closing door and vented to the outdoors with negative pressure. “Even just installing a fan that can vent odors outside helps,” Serfozo says.
Other Environmental Enhancements
Kitchens produce a lot of heat, making them tough to work in for long hours. “We take care to specify very efficient exhaust hood systems that take all of the heat and grease-laden vapors out and allow for more clean air for kitchen staff,” Serfozo says. He also often recommends using air doors at the back entrance to keep air-conditioned air in and hot air out.
Gone are the days of the dark kitchen. “We try to push the need for daylight on every project that we do,” says Serfozo, who will work with the architect to get as much natural light into the front and back of the house as possible. “It’s healthier for the workers, and it shows off the food better.
“From a design standpoint, if we can make the facility as efficient as possible, as easy to clean as possible and as ergonomically-friendly as possible we’ve done our job,” Serfozo adds. “This is going to create an environment that’s safer for employees, and possibly require less of them to operate successfully.”