There’s a strong possibility, foodservice designers say, that the servery of the future won’t look exactly like it does today.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have a long-lasting impact on the way we work, the way we eat and the way we come together (or stay apart). While operators continue to grapple with challenging issues in the form of labor shortages and rising costs, some silver linings have come out of this global crisis. Many operators have adopted or plan to adopt technology and systems that will help deal with the lingering challenges they face while also streamlining and enhancing the guest experience. Others have already figured out ways to do more with less. The planning might look a little different than in the past, and there will be differences in each segment.
Here’s a look at some of the major issues impacting servery design today.
1. Labor Issues Require Greater Consideration in All Segments
Labor issues remain center of the plate for the foodservice industry. Big, spread-out serveries with lots of moving parts can require a fair amount of labor. Given the labor issues all operator segments will face, servery layout will need to pay greater attention to this issue in the future, says Tarah Schroeder, FCSI, LEED AP, executive principal, Ricca Design Studios, based in Greenwood Village, Colo.
For example, one of Schroeder’s recent higher ed clients is considering a new servery that will span two levels, allowing the operator to shut down one level when there are fewer customers to feed and less staff on hand. It’s becoming increasingly important, she says, “to design spaces that are not necessarily shrinking but that can size up or down depending on demand. This helps with the labor issue because it allows staff to be in the right place at the right time.”
The two-level approach essentially hides a closed-off area so the servery doesn’t look completely empty when stations are shut down. In a single-level design, Schroeder says, “what I’m seeing is having a group of platforms more adjacent to the kitchen and then breaking off a few different satellite stations that are completely separate.” Those can then sporadically close when it makes sense and staff can move freely through the space and to the back of the house to enhance shared responsibilities.
Another example, Schroeder offers, also comes from a university foodservice operation, which has a teaching kitchen that’s used for foodservice during peak periods and for demonstrations or overflow seating during shoulder periods. This station features plenty of convenience outlets and space for plug-and-play, ventless and countertop equipment that can easily be switched around with support from heavier cooking equipment in the main servery.
2. Hybrid Office Situations Could Transform B&I Serveries
In early August, the delta variant swooped in to change many plans for workers to return to physical offices, which in turn will alter almost any white-collar corporate feeding program. “The jury is still out as to how a hybrid foodservice operation will work,” says Khaled Halabi, director of design, Northeast-Central, for Cini•Little International Inc. “There might be a situation where there’s less people in the office overall, so it’s a different kind of operation where you order or preorder food for lunch or a meeting for pickup without a huge cafe or servery.”
In that case, having the flexibility to open or close certain stations or parts of the kitchen will be important. Some corporate feeders may do away with heavy on-site cooking and simply bring in external restaurants or caterers to feed customers, which will require a more flexible setup in terms of equipment selection. In fact, prior to the pandemic, a handful of corporate feeders had started occasionally inviting local restaurants to set up shop on campus to help with menu variety and support the local community.
3. Constant Changes in Consumer Preferences Increase Desire for Servery Flexibility
This is where menu flexibility and flexible stations come into play. Serveries of the future will need to have stations “that serve multiple functions,” says Schroeder. “Choosing equipment will be based on this process.”
For example, a pizza represents but one menu item operators can cook using a hearth oven. Combi ovens, of course, perform multiple cooking functions in smaller footprints. Interchangeable hot and cold wells will only become more important as menus change more frequently. Induction cooking pieces allow for quick, pop-up action station capability. Ventless continues to grow in popularity as operators look to switch things around without the permanency of a hood. And, Schroeder adds, everything needs to be plug-and-play; utility distribution systems can help with that if all stations and equipment have the same power requirements.
The placement of stations in the future will also be important to meet changing menus and consumer preferences, says Lisa Paige-Pretorius, associate project manager, Cini•Little International Inc. “Delis in the past used to be only good for lunch and dinner, but if set up properly, they could be used as a cold bar with some minimal cooking equipment for breakfast.”
Supply chain shortages and delays during the pandemic have had a lasting impact on foodservice, in many cases leading to some inflation and higher prices for commodities like meat and specialty products. As a result, many operators streamlined their menus considerably and, subsequently, food stations. These trends seem to have staying power.
“Operators are getting smarter and adjusting the menu on a daily or weekly basis depending on what they can get; there might be some preset menu but one that can be easily adapted,” Paige-Pretorius says. “Stations can be smaller, but they need to be more flexible for these ever-changing circumstances.”
4. Healthcare Variables Have Altered Foodservice and Servery Needs in Hospitals
In hospital foodservice settings, nurses and staff have more limited time than ever during their meal periods. As a result, many healthcare foodservice operators have dabbled in enhanced meal delivery services; culinary staff prepare meals in the main servery or back of the house and then send the food to nurses’ stations or satellite kitchens throughout a campus. Schroeder says this is where food lockers may come into play. “Two years ago, the idea of lockers wouldn’t have even come up in conversation, but now many more clients are looking into them,” she says.
During the pandemic, visitors at hospitals were limited, and this could continue in some form into the future. Schroeder explains, “Serveries might be smaller in general, and we might see more enhanced grab-and-go, pre-order pickup areas, more delivery to rooms and to other areas away from the main servery.” The other option is a reduced seating area with more space devoted to cooking and back-of-the-house spaces for prep and even ghost kitchen-like operations.
5. The Noncommercial Move away from Serveries and toward Microrestaurants
Microrestaurants and food halls have many similarities. The difference between them, Schroeder says, is that “the microrestaurant often has its own dedicated seating and each area feels and looks different, whereas the food hall may showcase different concepts but there is shared seating.” The issue with microrestaurants in the future, Schroeder points out, is that they are difficult to change as menus or concepts change, compared to food halls with a more uniform appearance that can be more flexible. “Platforms need to be able to duplicate menu items but offer unique menus at the same time,” she says. “Food halls allow for more flexibility in terms of style and service while allowing for changing menus.”
What needs to happen, whether you have a traditional servery, microrestaurant or food hall setup, Paige-Pretorius says, is a separate pickup area at each station for pre-orders. “More people want a separate pickup station or cubby so they can just run in and grab their food without waiting in a long line.”