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The Connected Kitchen

Stubborn challenges cloud the blue-sky vision of truly integrated connectivity.

 Connected kitchenThe truly connected foodservice kitchen is on the cusp of becoming a reality. The technology is available. Costs are trending down and tests are ramping up. Companies have made significant strides in many areas, and there's lots of chatter about the amazing possibilities that increased connectivity can bring to the industry.

Why all the excitement? Because the connected kitchen promises to improve product consistency and diminish human error and injuries. The connected kitchen promises to slash food waste and energy consumption while enhancing food safety, reducing labor costs and maximizing equipment performance and operating life. In the connected kitchen, data is easily shared among systems, equipment and mobile devices. And that data can be accessed in real time in the cloud, analyzed and acted upon remotely or automatically based on the information being exchanged to improve operations, guest satisfaction and profitability.

That's the blue-sky vision, and much of it is already happening to some degree thanks to an array of individual technological and systems advancements. Yet truly integrated connectivity seems destined to remain on the cusp for a while longer.

"We've come far, but not that far," says David Zabrowski, general manager at Fisher-Nickel Inc. and the PG&E Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. "It seems like I've been saying we're 10 years out from
realizing the connected kitchen vision for the past 20 years. The arguments for it are quickly becoming more compelling, especially in the areas of food safety, labor and energy use, and the technology is more robust and available, but I still think we're 10 years out."

Lingering Disconnect

Why the lingering disconnect, especially when virtually all other aspects of life and business seem to be quickly and easily interconnected in the "Internet of things" (or connected devices) era? Zabrowski and others point to a number of challenges that continue to prevent the industry from connecting all of the dots. They start with cost, but beneath that ubiquitous veneer lie systemic issues that include simple resistance to change, cybersecurity concerns and a lack of skills and resources to actually use the volume of data that connected kitchens could generate.

Still another primary hurdle, Zabrowski says, is the fact that a large portion of commercial cooking equipment is gas-fired and not yet easily metered and monitored in ways that facilitate connectivity. Fisher-Nickel is testing a prototype system that may alleviate that problem. But to date, he says, there's little in the way of direct metering of gas equipment that gives operators insights on energy usage
and performance.

"It's a lot easier to look at what's happening with electric equipment," Zabrowski says. "Connectivity in things like lighting controls and HVAC systems are now pretty mature. There are a lot of refrigeration-related controls that let operators know what's going on in real time and that issue alerts to ensure temperature compliance. But there's still a lot missing on the cooking side, and there's nothing to tie it all together. Part of the problem is that there are so many different suppliers and not everyone is up to speed or on the same page about what needs to be done."

As systemic issues go, the lack of a common platform among all of those diverse suppliers is among the most stubbornly persistent. That's not for lack of longstanding agreement among many industry players — at least in theory — that a common data platform is a prerequisite to realizing true kitchen connectivity.

Back in 1999, the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM), at the request of large restaurant chain operators who wanted the ability to connect their equipment to the internet, formed the NAFEM Data Protocol Subcommittee. Its goal: to bring manufacturers and operators together to develop an industry-wide communication protocol, that is, a "set of rules that describe how commercial kitchen equipment can communicate with computing devices."

The resulting NAFEM Data Protocol was introduced in 2002. It has since been refined and reintroduced, most recently in 2013 as Version 3.

"This new version is much simpler. It focuses purely on how data should be structured and organized so that different pieces of equipment can use it," explains Charlie Souhrada, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at NAFEM. "The early iterations of the data protocol did that too, but they went farther to specify transport layers — how the data would actually get from A to B. At that time, the focus was on Ethernet connection because other options, such as wireless, weren't as robust. But we've now gone away from Ethernet transmission as part of the protocol. We realized that it can be an impractical format in a commercial kitchen, and manufacturers and operators have different strategies for how they want to transmit data."

Souhrada adds that some operators were also uncomfortable with early versions of the NAFEM Data Protocol due to internal confusion about its use. "They were concerned about who was calling the shots in terms of controlling the equipment. Was it the equipment purchasers? The IT guys? There were some turf battles. So by simplifying the protocol and just focusing on how to present data consistently from one piece of equipment to another, we allowed the operators to make some of those judgement calls themselves," he says.

Data Protocol Dilemma

As it stands now, NAFEM describes the data protocol as enabling real-time information flow to address critical needs such as:

  • Asset management
  • Food safety monitoring
  • Energy management
  • Labor management
  • Product/inventory management

The association illustrates potential benefits to be gained from common data protocol-enabled connectivity using the example of a fryer: "A fryer can communicate with the manager's laptop or handheld device to relay information such as energy consumption, cook cycles and shortening temperature. The fryer can also receive commands to make adjustments in temperature, cook cycles and other operating essentials. When the fryer's heating element nears the end of its lifecycle or operates below specific set points, the unit can send an alert directly to the service center. The result is first call fix servicing and reduced equipment downtime — facilitated by the service provider's ability to access exact information on the model and replacement parts — before the heating element fails."

NAFEM says the nonproprietary protocol enables kitchen equipment to communicate consistently regardless of the manufacturer, giving operators the flexibility to select interchangeable equipment and software.

The fact that the protocol exists, however, doesn't equate to it being fully embraced by the manufacturing or operator communities. Many continue to develop and use their own proprietary systems, keeping connectivity and inter-equipment communication off the table.

Dan Henroid, director of nutrition and food services at the University of California San Francisco Medical
Center, says his operation has implemented many high-tech advancements that play to kitchen connectivity. They include robots that deliver food from the kitchen to other points in the building, web-based electronic data capture from certain equipment pieces for HACCP-driven temperature monitoring, RFID tagging of meal carts, and new display systems that provide real-time information on orders and key performance measures to kitchen staff behind the scenes.

But, Henroid says, the operation still fundamentally does not have a connected kitchen. "The NAFEM protocol really hasn't helped as much as it seemed it would have," he says. "We still have manufacturers doing all kinds of different things on the data front. We're looking to take a back-end food production system and connect it to a POS, and how great would it be if we could marry that with an online customer loyalty program? It's not really rocket science; people have been doing some of these things for years. But when there are multiple vendors involved? That's still a big deal."

Henroid's looking at a middle-layer platform developed by a third-party tech company that he hopes will be able to aggregate data from many different points with disparate data systems. "My dream," he says, "is to have all of the data I need, regardless of the source, pulled together into a living dashboard. I'd love to be able to walk in in the morning and have all the information that's important to me in my role right there in one place — total sales, sales by location, catering sales, retail sales, patient satisfaction ratings, number of covers done, inventory, real-time information that shows all of my refrigerators and freezers are operating within normal limits, etcetera. That's really the type of connectivity that we're hoping for but haven't yet been able to find because there's so much disparity."

Alex Birnbaum, partner and technology specialist at Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm Results Thru Strategy, agrees that achieving true kitchen connectivity requires a new level of cross-communication and centralized control of data. While manufacturers have done a good job of providing smart equipment that's connectivity-ready, he says, there still isn't a player that ties it all together beyond a single manufacturer's system.

Birnbaum, who, prior to joining RTS, was vice president of IT for CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries brands, says that sort of middle-layer integrator, commonly found in other industries, is the missing puzzle piece in foodservice. "It's almost a service model where they build a common interface that you can use for all of the various pieces and make each piece do what it's supposed to do," he says. "It's coming, and the larger chains will adapt to that model first and bring aboard their own integrators to write the code and make it work. From there, it'll push down to where other operators will be able to both afford and manage that implementation."

Such integrators, however, have their work cut out for them. That's not only because of the lack of a common data platform but more so because of the lack of consistency of equipment and suppliers.

"There are so many players. We have companies that make POS systems, controllers and equipment. We have operators doing their own thing and so many pieces that all have to come together," Zabrowski says. "If you're a controls company trying to reach this industry, you can be very quickly frustrated. Go into 10 restaurants and you can find 10 completely different kitchens with dramatically different equipment packages. Even within the same concept you might see gas in one location and electric in another, and several different approved suppliers. Ideally, we'll get to the point where everyone is agreed on exactly how we're going to communicate so that it's open-source, not proprietary based on a chain, a concept or a manufacturer, but we have yet to get there."

A Question of Readiness

If manufacturers have their own set of stubborn issues blocking the path to the connected kitchen, so do operators. Even if the sort of open-source architecture ideal that Zabrowski describes does materialize and manufacturers begin singing from the same hymnal, much of the congregation is not yet ready or able to sing along.

Many are worried that broader connectivity creates bigger cybersecurity risks, giving hackers more points of access. As such, there's growing need for multiple sophisticated firewalls to protect sensitive company data, the devices themselves and the integrity of the food being produced.

Pushback from franchisees, many of whom don't welcome the sort of "Big Brother is watching" scenario that connected kitchens can create is another real concern in some segments. On the noncommercial side of the industry, pushback from unions fearing job losses from tech advancements and "anti-technology clauses" being written into contracts are coming into play, according to Henroid.

No matter the segment, cost is a big hurdle. And it's not just the upfront cost of investing in smart equipment and/or sensors, transmitters, controllers and integrators. For many, there's even greater concern about maintenance and repair costs once the initial investment is made. High-tech, web-enabled equipment can deliver bottom-line benefits, but it can also be a finicky diva in the hot and abusive commercial kitchen environment.

Henroid says this particular reality has given him greater appreciation for the type of old-school, battle-tested equipment still in use in his operation's older kitchen.

"Based on our experience, we're now inclined to opt for less-high-tech kitchen equipment," Henroid admits. "It's a fine line because you want the ability to do lots of things, but too many bells and whistles create problems. I'm spending more money on new equipment repairs and maintenance in our hospital's two-year-old kitchen than I am in our 1953 kitchen. That's a frustration, and it shouldn't be the case."

In addition, most operators simply aren't prepared to store, analyze and interpret the types and volumes of data that connected kitchen technologies promise to deliver. And even if they were, many feel that the "so what?" question has yet to be answered, observes Juan Martinez, principal at industrial engineering consulting firm Profitality.

"An easier sell may be a POS system that talks to the machines and initiates equipment action based on orders coming in. Or things like temperature tracking for HACCP reporting, or maybe automated beverage dispensers or fryers linked to the POS systems. The benefits from having the ability to send and receive information are evident. But when you're looking at machines talking to each other via the connected kitchen, I don't think a lot of operators feel there's a clear need or enough of a payback," Martinez says.

And there are still miles to go before most operators will have the resources and skills needed to deal with connected kitchen technologies.

"I like to say that all we're trying to do in foodservice is cross the street, not go to the moon. If it costs the same to go to the moon, OK. But it doesn't," Martinez says. "And if you're asking an operator to deal with 20 bells and whistles and notifications and data streams coming in, they'll go crazy and get nothing done. They're getting bombarded with data and have no idea what to do with it. It's like me grabbing a Chinese newspaper: I know there's probably a lot of good information there, but I just don't read Chinese, so I set it aside unless and until I really do need to learn how to read Chinese."

A Matter of Time

Despite the many challenges blocking the path to the fully connected kitchen, however, Martinez and others agree that it's only a question of when, not if, the industry will get there. Pressing operational issues, they say, will demand it.

On the operator side, Zabrowski feels top drivers making a stronger case for connected kitchens are the need for food safety/HACCP compliance reporting throughout the entire food production cycle and looming changes in the electric industry.

"Utilities are recognizing that they have a surplus of power at certain times of day and a deficit at other times. They want to flatten that out so that their systems can operate and deliver power at the maximum efficiency," Zabrowski says. "They're going to start to incentivize customers to use energy during the surplus periods (i.e., during the day when renewables like solar and wind are online), and penalize them for use during times of maximum demand and minimum supply (i.e., in the evenings, when renewables are offline). That affects restaurants. Having that awareness of when your appliances are using energy and when they need to versus when they don't will be a key benefit of connectivity. It's going to make more sense because there will be a direct impact on cost to the operator."

Others feel rising labor costs will be the straw that breaks the camel's back, necessitating more connectivity and related kitchen automation.

"So far, the labor cost scenario hasn't reached the point of crisis like many expected it would, particularly since the nonexempt salary rule was put on hold. But we're approaching that tipping point, and the case for connected technologies is becoming much stronger," Birnbaum says.

BandB-Kitchen-prepBatali & Bastianich Hospitality Group taps into a variety of systems and apps to reduce labor, control costs and improve operations.Meanwhile, even partially connected kitchens with disparate systems are proving that more, better and smarter connectivity is the future. Just ask Nicole Brisson, culinary director at Batali & Bastianich (B&B) Hospitality Group's Las Vegas division. Overseeing four high-volume restaurant operations and a staff of nearly 500, she says her company is tapping a variety of new systems, apps and smart equipment to reduce labor, control costs and improve operations. Cloud-based technologies keep her connected to what's going on in all four Las Vegas restaurants as well as to the company's New York-based headquarters. They enable easy, real-time sharing of information, from recipes and training materials to comparative pricing, maintenance logs, employee files and schedules.

B&B Hospitality Group's refrigeration systems track and record temperatures, and send text and email alerts if something's amiss. "We have a dry-aging facility off-site where we have about half a million dollars of meat at any time," Brisson says. "If something's wrong, I get alerts and can look at the camera system to see what's up and address it right away. It's critical to our business."

Brisson's team also recently began using an app that lets them scan invoices via smartphone into an inventory management database, providing easy visibility into pricing trends and comparisons, boosting her group's buying power and dramatically reducing the time, paper and labor previously spent on invoice management. And new high-tech ovens are improving consistency and reducing labor costs.

"They're amazing — like the iPhone of ovens," Brisson says. "They cut out human error. As a classically trained chef, it's a little scary to me to be dependent on a machine or computer system versus having a skilled employee in charge. But as a manager, you have to be conscious of labor numbers and costs. Restaurants are one of the hardest businesses to make money in. As brutal as it sounds, if machines like that and other tech-based solutions can let us cut out a couple of staff members and still deliver great products, we can survive and grow."