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Six Restaurant-Specific Equipment and Technology Trends Spotted at The NAFEM Show 2023

That’s a wrap! Four years after COVID-19 put the pause button on The NAFEM Show, foodservice equipment and supplies industry professionals were able to reunite with friends and colleagues, make new connections and see and learn about new equipment and technologies on the market. As this year’s The NAFEM Show illustrated, a lot has changed.

specifier hsFor Mark Moeller, founder of The Recipe of Success, a consultancy primarily serving the hospitality segment, this year’s show proved even more exciting because it was his first experience with the show and many of the new equipment and technology innovations seem to be more applicable (and affordable) for the fast-casual and full-service restaurants and hotels he serves in the East Coast market.

A lot of the equipment on the market is not new, “but they were always more accessible to larger-scale operations that had the space and could afford them,” Moeller says. “The good news is that now these [pieces] are more streamlined, smaller and less cumbersome so they’re more accessible at the restaurant and hospitality level, especially where space is getting constrained. [These new pieces] still have all the good features, but some specifically address what restaurants deal with the most: health inspections and labor challenges.”

Here are six equipment technologies/solutions Moeller spotted at the show that he can’t wait to tell his clients about.

1. Robots for Service

While robotic arms are in place for back-of-the-house needs like frying fries and tossing salads, some companies are exploring robots for front-of-the-house usage, too. The operator simply enters the table and seat numbers and the robots “can map out their pathway and meet the server at table 14, for example, and it might even note which dishes go to which seat numbers so the server doesn’t have to remember or write those things down,” Moeller says. “Silent service is key for full-service restaurants to really stand out, so any technology that helps with that is a win-win for both the restaurant and the guest.”

2. More Compact Combis

Once considered expensive and fitting only for large-volume operators, full-service, fast-casual and quick-serve restaurants continue to find more uses for combi ovens than ever before, thanks to smaller, more nimble and less costly pieces on the market. “You can easily put them in a coffee bar to make eggs or use them to offer small pizzas and flatbreads and there’s no second-guessing with staff,” says Moeller. “A high school student can easily make five pizzas at once with just opening and closing a door and pressing a button.”

3. Salad Dispensers

Moeller says he spotted some refrigerated salad serving units that not only hold product at cold temperatures, they also dispense precise amounts of various ingredients. “You can put cheese on one and lettuce, onions and tomatoes in the others and everything is dispensed the same way every time,” he says. This piece offers yet another labor-savings and quality control/consistency solution for restaurants of all types, he adds.

4. Smaller Composters

In the past, larger universities and healthcare operators were the biggest buyers for on-site composting machines and even then, some of these machines only dehydrated and ground up product that would still need to go to a composter off-site. Nowadays, manufacturers are introducing all-in-one, much smaller and compact composters for kitchens of any size. “When leaving for the night you can simply press a button and in six hours the composter turns all the food waste from the day into soil that can be used for an on-site garden or even sold or offered to community gardens,” Moeller says, noting that he saw both floor and countertop units with just 5-gallon buckets for sealing and storing the composted soil. “These are much smaller solution and at a much more reasonable cost than in the past.”

5. Monitoring and Tracking Solutions

Once limited to digital thermometers and walk-in coolers, more equipment pieces feature temperature-tracking technology — a huge plus for restaurants dealing with frequent health department inspections, especially in the New York area that Moeller services. “Everything is tied to your HACCP program, and managers and owners can get alerts on their phone at any time,” Moeller says. “The technology is smaller and more efficient. There are refrigerators that not only track temperature but also upcoming expiration dates to make inventory management easier and take more of the guesswork away from employees.” Moeller says he also saw dishwashers that not only track water temperatures and energy usage but also detergent usage. “I can’t tell you how many times a health inspector walked in and saw that the detergent wasn’t hooked up to the dishwasher and the staff didn’t notice that. Now, with everything more automated, the restaurant can have access to all these data points to be able to prevent problems like that. Having the ability to see everything in an app on your phone gives operators that piece of mind they really need.”

6. Food Lockers

There were at least four manufacturers of food lockers Moeller spotted on The NAFEM show floor and plenty of crowds at those booths. “All throughout COVID, I had clients considering using these lockers, but some were unhappy with the first iterations because they were basically hot boxes that created steam,” he says. “It seems like the newer versions I saw at the show had some heat but not to the level of creating steam that could damage the quality of the food. One even had self-sanitizing ability as another labor-savings solution. These lockers are great for fast-casual and quick-serve operators offering food to-go, but there’s an opportunity for full-service restaurants to get creative in their use of the lockers as well.” Case in point: Moeller had a plant-based restaurant client explore building a small row of lockers into an outside wall to offer quicker grab-and-go with less staffing needs. “I can see that technology being used more and more in the future,” he says.