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To Electrify Kitchens or Not: The Debate Continues

With the National Restaurant Show almost upon us, we expect to see a plethora of new technologies and innovations. One thing we know we’ll see is an influx of electric equipment.

OrlandoEspinosaOrlando Espinosa IIIFor the last year or so, we’ve watched some states and municipalities around the country announce that they’re in the process of implementing or considering bans on the use of natural gas in new building projects now and into the future. The topic of all-electric kitchens appeared in The Specifier last July (spoiler alert: Food Service Technology Center’s David Zabrowski told everyone not to panic). Still, as more businesses and chains like Chipotle announce they’re switching to all-electric kitchens, the conversation continues.

The pros and cons of an all-electric kitchen remain up to debate — and have even sparked political rumblings. Some say the current electric infrastructure in this country might not be able to handle such a massive switch. Others argue more should be done to reduce businesses’ overall carbon footprint—and gas reduction is part of that. (Check out this study indicating gas stoves might have more impact on climate change than previously thought.) Not to mention, many contend electric kitchens tend to create safer, more comfortable work environments for culinary staff.

The changes and innovations driven by all-electric will certainly have an impact on kitchen design and equipment selection in the future. Orlando Espinosa III, founder of Orlando Espinosa + Associates, with offices in Philadelphia, Miami and San Francisco, says a couple clients he’s working with right now have committed to the renovation and building of all-electric kitchens. “One client of mine that has a significant campus with multiple full-service restaurants recently came up with a mandate that they want 70% of all facilities converted to electric by 2025,” he says.

Such a switch may not be feasible in all parts of the country, and a good blend of electric and gas still makes sense for many operators. “Major companies might be able to handle the expenses associated with all-electric kitchens, but that’s more difficult for mom and pops and even smaller chains,” Espinosa says.

Regardless, Espinosa says, it’s the consultants’ responsibility to navigate the conversation about electric in order to educate themselves, their clients and even others in the foodservice industry. Here’s a look at some of the steps Espinosa takes when consulting clients on gas vs. electric.

Step 1: Research local rates, infrastructure and rebates.

“If you ask [clients] if they have a preference of gas or electric, most will say gas,” says Espinosa. “But I think we need to at least educate them about the benefits of electric equipment so they can make a decision what’s best for them and the environment over the long run.”

Part of that means looking at the client’s location and local infrastructure to see what’s more readily available, and determine if any plans exist to update electric grids in the area. “You can get most of the information you need from local utility companies that serve your clients; ask them about the rates for gas versus electric, and if there are any tax credits or rebates for using electricity,” Espinosa says. Those incentives could drive a client to make the switch — especially for new-build projects.

Step 2: Conduct a cost analysis and present it to the client.

Some clients might be up to the challenge of a switch, but does it make financial sense? “I had one client spend $700,000 to bring electric into a building that was already set up for gas,” Espinosa says. “That’s a huge expense and half the cost of the new kitchen equipment, but the corporate culture was that committed to doing good for the Earth.”

Espinosa will price out equipment and utility costs based on the current model (if it includes gas), and present comparisons with all electric equipment or a blend of both gas and electric equipment options. “It’s all about educating the client,” he says. “There might be cases where you need to bring in more power lines, and that’s another major expense. I think clients building new facilities or major renovations are more abt to go with electric. Smaller chains or operators will probably consider some electric items but not do a whole change to electric just based on costs alone.”

Baby steps are OK, in that regard. “We’re working with a small school client right now and they have a gas booster heater for their dishwasher,” Espinosa says. “We presented them with the cost of an all-electric and an all-gas setup with projected energy usage in a year, and there’s a compelling case to go all-electric because of the cost savings.”

Step 3: Work the electric costs and considerations into an overall sustainability plan.

Energy usage makes up just one part of a company’s overall effort to reduce carbon footprint. “Water usage, waste — that’s all part of the overall equation,” Espinosa says.

Part of this robust plan might include exploring alternate sources of energy — beyond the controversial electric versus gas versus coal-fired electric versus natural gas versus nuclear debate. “I was at a catering facility in Southern California and the owner was paying $16,000 a month in electricity bills,” Espinosa says. “He invested $1.5 million in solar panels to power the majority of the electricity in the building and now pays $3,500 a month. He believes he’ll recoup his investment in just three to five years.”

Wind works too; another client of Espinosa’s, a centralized kitchen on the West Coast plans to invest in 26,000 square feet of solar panels and wind turbines with an expected utility cost savings of 70% to 75% by working off the grid this way.

Step 4: Research new innovations by manufacturers

Many commercial kitchen equipment manufacturers continue to pour major bucks into innovating in the electric space. “On the manufacturing side, there are some companies addressing this pretty hard,” Espinosa says, pointing out that some have come out with all-electric suites and series proven to perform just as well, if not better, than gas-fired equipment in terms of cooking consistency and temperature control.

When it comes to specifying gas versus electric pieces, “it’s important to identify what the intent is, what’s the style of service, what’s the menu, and then look at the equipment available that can meet those needs,” Espinosa says.

Step 5: Train culinary staff on how to use electric equipment to prepare for the future.

“There are chef consultants who can be part of an overall project to go all-electric and help with the startup education and training,” says Espinosa. “Many times I’ll get test pieces like electric induction ranges that I can ship to a location and have the manufacturer’s chef come out and train staff so they’re more comfortable with everything.”

The old-school notion that electric equipment doesn’t come up to temp fast enough and is hard to control continues to fade as younger chefs and culinary students train on electric and induction equipment in schools and even abroad, where electric kitchens are much more prevalent.

“I’ve seen induction cookers boil water in less than 30 seconds, and then hold that temperature consistently,” says Espinosa.

Espinosa says the foodservice industry is still probably 10 to 15 years away from a move toward all-electric, and gas will likely still play a role in projects moving forward in the near term. Right now, though, “the role of the consultant has changed dramatically because of the tremendous amount of education we need to help our clients — not just when it comes to equipment,” he says. “We have to look at total energy usage, functionality, and long-term projections to help our clients make the right decisions for the future.”