Amidst all the changes that have buffeted foodservice in the past five years, operators have had to rethink their equipment from both an acquisition and usage standpoint. Here, four foodservice industry veterans weigh in on the state of equipment today.
Flexibility has been the name of the game the past few years when it comes to cooking equipment. Is that still the case? If so, how does that mesh with operators’ desire to be authentic?
Bendas: What we try to do is find as many ways [as possible] of cross-utilizing a piece of equipment. The bigger point is, can you surround that unique piece of equipment that you need to be special with other things that help you in terms of cross-utilization and efficiencies?
Chaplick: Flexibility to me means the utilization of equipment that can cook multiple products in a single footprint. One example would be the use of a combi oven. As for being authentic, we are quickly learning that the technology has improved, and customers are able to make the same menu items in these ovens. So flexibility can work well with authenticity.
Lennon: “Flexibility” is an easy term to throw around, but not effectively explaining the capabilities of multi-operation equipment can sometimes lead to the over-purchase of equipment and the loss of productivity. If you’re cooking over a solid fuel like wood or charcoal, and you need that flavor profile, you’re not really going to be able to replace that with, say, a griddle. But for the most part, heat is heat, so it doesn’t really matter what the fuel source is. So when it comes to flexibility, a lot of times those authentic recipes can be done on a piece of equipment like a combi oven because they can do so many things and they provide different accessories that can create that flavor profile.
O’Donoghue: It depends on the operator. With a lot of the independents and hotels, they are looking for the “hot” food or the new sauce this year. And I think the equipment has to lend itself to that, and the chef has to say, “Hey, what else can I do with that?”
Supply chain issues over the past few years have impacted operators’ ability to receive equipment in a timely manner. How has this impacted what they want and expect from their equipment?
Bendas: The best way to answer that question is by asking, “What’s their time frame?” We’ve had clients that have had to literally scour the country to find a refrigerator or walk-in cooler/freezer in order to meet an opening deadline. It presents a real scrambling problem. We tell our clients to get orders — or at least purchase orders — in place as soon as possible. But I think generally people still want the equipment that they want, and if they have the time window to wait for it, that’s still the first preference.
Chaplick: Customers had no choice but to adapt and accept what equipment was available. It was either that or wait — in some cases up to 24 weeks — to get what they wanted. The bigger question is, will customers go back to the original brands, or will they be more accepting moving forward with some of the alternate equipment? Manufacturers and distributors will need to start all over in some cases, retraining customers on features and benefits.
Lennon: The name of the game is what can be delivered to the project in time with the construction schedule and the opening schedule. Just like in every aspect of life in general, supply issues have really wreaked havoc when you are depending on a specific piece of equipment with specific features desired by the end user. A lot of times, we have to go with what’s available, but it’s just the reality. That in turn can potentially affect how the operator is able to design their menu because maybe they can get a piece of equipment that has 80% of the features of the one they specified but doesn’t have 20%. So some menu items are going to either have to be modified or potentially change.
O’Donoghue: Stress on the supply chain has, in many instances, closed the gap between premium product and product that’s “just good enough.” Operators do not want the supply chain to affect their business and will do what they have to in order to continue to operate and service their client base.
Is the trend toward smaller equipment continuing? If so, how does that change the back-of-the-house flow in terms of design and workflow?
Bendas: It’s definitely going to continue, for a couple of reasons. Number one: The cost of space keeps going up. Number two: Every time the government comes in with new adjustments to ADA or whatever, that squeezes the available sellable space, which causes you to keep the back of house smaller. But it’s important to understand when we design, we look at how to make sure there’s enough room and enough efficiency to upsize labor, but also the ability to minimize labor when it’s slow.
Chaplick: The trend toward smaller equipment has to do more with not necessarily being smaller in size but less space in the kitchen. It’s more about [equipment that] takes up less footprint or less hood space and does multiple things in a single footprint and using less space in the kitchen area.
Lennon: On some of our projects, we suggest to the client designing and specifying the equipment around a certain pan or container size. For instance, don’t go with anything bigger than a half-sheet or hotel pan. That offers the ability for smaller hoods and smaller support equipment, like warewashing — [you can] go to an undercounter warewasher instead of a typical pass-through. That doesn’t work for all operations, but exploring the approach can reduce the overall capital investment.
O’Donoghue: Kitchen design continues to shrink the back of house (the cost side of the business) in trade-off for expanding the front of house (the revenue-producing side). Some chains, due to their experience with COVID, are putting more emphasis on how they handle online, pickup and delivery orders more efficiently. In each instance, the flow of the kitchen has to be more efficient, with an emphasis on speed and reduction of operational bottlenecks.
Equipment has become more sophisticated than ever. What are savvy operators doing to capitalize on advanced features?
Bendas: You have to have a significantly increased amount of training so people really understand the capabilities of the piece of equipment and how they can optimize the sophistication to their advantage.
Lennon: A lot of times, these advanced features are like a touch-screen control on a fryer or convection oven. Those controls can now do more at a more precise temperature. Utilizing the sophistication of the equipment is obviously going to help provide a lot more efficiency. You can start to focus on other parts of your operation and let that piece of equipment really drive that efficiency.
O’Donoghue: From what I see, operators usually are not using all the advanced features available and are getting the job done with less versus more. When it comes to operational sophistication, I would say advances in POS systems have probably had a greater impact on the operator than equipment.
Does the average kitchen crew member know how to operate all the functions on a piece of equipment? What needs to happen to get them up to speed?
Bendas: Everything you can do to educate the team, the operator and the owner on how to use the equipment, how to take care of the equipment, and how to mitigate a fear or lack of confidence in the equipment is really important.
Chaplick: We do our best to make sure once equipment is started up that proper training is also scheduled. We obviously share operation manuals, and there are training videos available online through the manufacturers. However, the operator needs to also have a good training program in place.
Lennon: Obviously, more and more equipment is coming standard with touch-screen controls. If [crew members] are digital natives, say, born after 1990, then they tend not to have as much trouble operating these functions because they’re used to operating smartphones. They may not know all the functions right from the get-go, but they know how to use the platform, and the process becomes a little more intuitive. If they’re an older team member, such as a Baby Boomer, this can be more of an uphill battle.
What’s the one feature on any piece of equipment you wish people would use more often?
Chaplick: Self-cleaning or self-diagnosing equipment. Equipment that tells you it’s time to change your oil or clean the condenser.
Lennon: I’m a big fan of slow cooking. So if anything is braised or sous vide or basically cooked with steam infused in the cooking process, I’m a pretty happy camper. I’m a very big fan of that feature on any piece of equipment.
O’Donoghue: The one feature I’d love to see used more often is the operator’s manual. Too often, this gets filed without a review.