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Power Shift: All-Electric Kitchens

The momentum behind all-electric kitchens grows, but it’s no simple switch.

It takes a lot of energy to feed the beast. But as the climate crisis deepens and understanding of how to combat that crisis grows, operators are deploying multiple strategies to shrink their energy consumption and their carbon footprints. Among the most potentially impactful of those strategies is transitioning to equipment powered by clean, sustainably produced electricity.

Why? Because natural gas-powered equipment emits greenhouse gases and wastes a significant amount of heat energy. Because a small but growing number of mandates now ban or restrict fossil fuel use in new construction, commercial and residential, as cities and states work toward net-zero emissions goals. And because hitting aggressive corporate sustainability targets simply requires doing things differently.

There’s a lot of momentum building for electrification. “What started in California with a handful of municipal mandates is spreading to Washington, New York, Massachusetts and other areas of the country,” notes Chris Galarza, a chef who in 2019 founded Verona, Penn.-based Forward Dining Solutions, a consulting firm that helps foodservice operators decarbonize their kitchens. “It’s starting with revised building codes for new construction, but there will be more far-reaching change ahead. Mandates aside, however, we’re in a state of discovery. A lot of people are beginning to understand that the way we cook has a big impact on the environment and on our own health. Conversations are happening across the country, and a transition is underway toward better ways of cooking. It won’t be an easy transition or a quick one, but the question is no longer if it will happen. The only question is when.”

Richard Young, director of outreach at the Frontier Energy Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) in Pleasanton, Calif., agrees that all-electric kitchens are coming — they’re already here in some instances. He points in particular to early adapters, many in the tech sector, including corporate dining operations at Microsoft, Google, Intel and others, all of which have developed robust sustainability programs and net-zero carbon goals. All-electric kitchens are central to hitting those targets. Likewise, sustainability driven universities, hospitals, school districts and even a few restaurant chains are embracing electrified kitchens.

Chick-fil-A, Young notes, has always had electric cooklines. And last spring, Chipotle debuted an all-electric pilot unit with plans to develop 100 such units in 2024. Designed to maximize energy efficiency in its equipment and systems, the new Chipotle units operate on 100% renewable energy from wind power and solar through the purchase of certified renewable energy credits. According to the company, the pilot will help Chipotle “progress toward its science-based targets, established in alignment with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), to reduce direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 compared to a 2019 baseline.”

“It’s not some kind of unicorn to have an all-electric operation,” Young says. “And it’s not rocket science to create one. Electric — induction in particular — is the norm now in kitchens all across Europe and Asia. People have been doing it forever here in skyscrapers and other situations where you can’t get gas — or in locations where electricity was really low-cost. But we’re now seeing more commercial and noncommercial operators, with the economic power to do so, beginning to dabble with it. If they can get the systems down, get these kitchens working like they want them to and make the economics look good, there’s nothing stopping them from replicating that in other new builds across the country. And, in states like Washington and New York, and in much of California, where codes now mandate all-electric in new construction, brands looking to develop new units there will have to cross that line anyway.”

Young emphasizes, however, that while the tide is turning toward electrification, there’s no need for operators to fear being suddenly required to make the switch. “This first level of mandates banning natural gas may sound radical, but they’re not actually something most operators will have to worry about because they apply only to new construction,” he says. “At what point will that change expand to cover retrofits, as well? We don’t know. But there’s no need to panic; it’s going to be gradual, transitional change.”

Scott Lang, director of contract sales at Southern California Restaurant Design Group in Escondido, says even in California, where nearly 70 cities and counties have banned or discouraged natural gas in new buildings, he has seen no sense of urgency to transition to electric kitchens among his customer base. Lang, who services a diverse portfolio of schools, hotels, casinos, small local chains and independent restaurants notes, “There’s a lot of chatter about it, but so far, no over-arching push for all-electric kitchens. Of nearly 100 bids in 2023, none were for 100% electric or were even noticeably leaning that way. It does seem like there will be change eventually, but right now, there’s a lot of battling back and forth between gas and electric utility companies and legislatures. There’s very little clarity around the issue.”

Lang adds that even as electrification gains traction, he anticipates significant pushback from mainstream operators for whom traditional cooklines with gas-powered ranges have long been mission critical. “They might agree to go electric in some categories, such as fryers, griddles and convection ovens, all of which have proven to work really well,” he says. “But when it comes to ranges, that’s a real sticking point. Most chefs prefer to cook on gas. Open-flame gas burners are what they know, it’s what they’re comfortable cooking on, and they don’t want to change.”

Wisconsin-based Boelter’s Steve Stern, director of contract and design, has also seen little operator, architect or builder demand for going all-electric, even in recent projects for K-12, the Business and Industry (B&I) segment, senior living and sports arena clients. He, too, cites the simple issue of operator preference and familiarity as key factors.

Buzz around the topic of electrification, however, and emphasis on it from the manufacturer community, keeps ramping up, Stern says. “We are seeing that this is a topic that’s on the forefront with our manufacturers and reps,” he notes. “They’re definitely saying, ‘Hey, this is something that we need to start getting out in front of.’ And progress made in some categories, such as ventless technology and programmable, multifunction equipment, is making it easier for customers to embrace the fact that there are great solutions that don’t depend on gas. We’ve seen this with smaller hospitality type accounts as well as in B&I and K-12, where new menu options are added to existing facilities thanks to these technologies.”

As early adopters continue to test the waters and start specifying all-electric kitchens, Stern expects the tide will slowly begin to turn toward electrification on a broader scale, even in markets like his where support for natural gas remains strong. Microsoft, for example, which in June 2022 debuted an all-electric food hall at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., recently purchased land in Mount Pleasant, Wis. There, the company has said it will invest some $1 billion to build new data centers. “I would not be at all surprised when the bid documents come out for those facilities to see requests for all-electric,” Stern says.

High Hurdles Slow Adoption

From a sustainability standpoint alone, transitioning from natural gas to electricity for cooking equipment appears to be a simple, logical solution. But transitioning isn’t simply a plug-and-play decision. That’s true for a variety of complex reasons that have nothing to do with availability of quality, comparably priced electric alternatives. Such alternatives are widely available in virtually every equipment category. Rather, education, infrastructure and cost all factor heavily in, as well.

In Galarza’s view, the biggest kitchen electrification hurdle in the U.S. is inertia fed by lack of knowledge. “When people think of electric cooking, they think of Grandma’s old stove with the spiral burners, right? But that’s not what this is at all,” he says. “There’s a lot of education and training that need to happen in the industry around electrification. When you boil it down, the conversation is about how to get a piece of metal hot. Do you want to get it hot the old way, which is with fire that can warp that metal, that creates hot and cold spots, emits greenhouse gasses, overheats kitchens [and] requires excess water, chemicals, time and labor to clean? Or do you want to heat that metal with something that’s much faster, has a better recovery rate, emits no carbon dioxide or methane [and] requires far less water, chemicals and time to maintain — and ultimately increases operational efficiency? Do you want to cook on a gas range, which can cook around 38.6 pounds of food per hour or on an induction range, which can nearly double that throughput per hour? We have to start chipping away at preconceived notions about electric being an impediment to how we cook.”

An example Galarza uses to illustrate how far induction has come is woks, a category in which gas-fired, open-flame heat has been the gold standard. With advanced induction technology, however, even that standard is being challenged.

“A gas wok uses about 100,000 Btus at 20% efficiency,” Galarza notes. “You’re only getting about 20,000 Btus to your food, and the rest of that energy is wasted. The induction wok, on the low end, is 12 kilowatts, but you can get about 35,000 Btus to your food. It cooks faster, your production capacity increases, and you’re saving a lot of water because you’re not constantly having to cool the metal down with water like you do with gas-fired woks. Restaurants opening up all over China are now all-electric. If the motherland for wok cooking is electrifying, what’s the issue here?”

Indeed, as early adopters here in the U.S. test and embrace all-electric operations, they’re helping to spread the word about what they’re learning and the benefits they’re realizing — benefits that go well beyond the fundamental objective of cutting energy use and carbon emissions. After debuting its largest electric kitchen at its Bay View campus near San Francisco in March 2022, Google Chef and Food Program Manager Scott Giambastiani wrote a blog post about key learnings from the experience.

Among them, Giambastini said, was that cooking on electric induction equipment is significantly faster and more efficient than traditional open-flame cooking; burn risks are reduced, as there’s very little heat transfer once a vessel is removed from an induction unit; there’s no compromise in the flavor or quality of food produced, and recipes can easily be adapted to electric equipment; great equipment matching every piece of gas equipment is available and increasingly affordable, including skillets, chargrills, woks and pizza ovens; and fire isn’t necessary to get great results in the kitchen.

Giambastiani noted that across Google’s cafes, the company’s culinary teams are leaning heavily into electric kitchen training sessions to share best practices and ensure proficiency. Bottom line, he said, Google’s experience with electrification has shown that “you don’t have to choose between creating something delicious and protecting the planet — you can do both.”

Even as chefs and operators begin to warm up to broader kitchen electrification, however, limits on electrical supply and costs associated with upgrading capacity to accommodate commercial equipment remain major sticking points. While FSTC’s Young agrees lack of education around electrification is a big issue, he sees infrastructure limitations as an even bigger impediment to change.

“For existing buildings, that’s the No. 1 challenge,” Young says. “Kitchens are very energy intensive, and most existing buildings weren’t designed with electrical systems that have the capacity to meet that load. Most of the heavy lifting is done by gas, so when you suddenly say you’re going to shift the heavy lifting to electric, that comes with a host of challenges. Chances are very good you’ll need to spend a lot of time and multiple thousands of dollars making the necessary upgrades. I had an operator tell me recently that he wanted to drop a single outlet into a demo kitchen, and that cost them $6,000 — a third of which was just for the copper needed. It didn’t even involve upgrading the electrical panel or circuitry.”

Beyond the cost to bring in the necessary power for heavy electric equipment, Young says small businesses already facing significant economic pressures are unlikely to embrace electrification and the higher utility bills it brings. “It depends on where you are, but here in California, it can be twice as much to run an all-electric line,” he says. “For larger operators, or brands like Starbucks not doing a significant amount of cooking, it’s doable. But the independent Chinese restaurant down the street with a full range, woks and fryers would really feel that. Even if the cost of the equipment is comparable, which in most cases it is, the operating cost can be much higher for electric.”

Young adds that an important message for operators in existing buildings with gas is to think not in terms of all or nothing. Where full electrification is financially and logistically out of the question, he says, transitioning to high-efficiency equipment, whether gas or electric, is the next-best strategy. Referencing studies that the FSTC has done with hotel, hospital, restaurant and grocery store operators to replace low-efficiency gas ovens with high-efficiency version, he notes, “In every case, doing so cut energy use and carbon emissions in half or better and significantly improved operations. High-efficiency gas is still gas, but it’s advanced technology and a very cost-effective way to see immediate benefits.”

Another important message for dealers and operators, alike, Young says, is that valuable rebates are available through states and utility companies to help defray the costs of equipment upgrades and electrification. The California Foodservice Instant Rebates program, for instance, provides discounts at the POS for qualifying high-efficiency natural gas or electric commercial foodservice equipment from participating dealers. And Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection offers a program called Cooking in Healthy Electrified Commercial Kitchens (CHECK), which provides up to $8,500 in rebate funding to help operators switch to induction and other electric equipment.

Ultimately, given rising demand for renewable, electric energy across major industries, there’s much work to be done to lower some of the major hurdles blocking the way to commercial kitchen electrification. Ken Schwartz, president and CEO of Tampa, Fla.-based SSA Foodservice Design + Consulting, feels true progress toward electrified kitchens won’t likely be made without more and better collaboration between electric companies and the foodservice industry.

“Electricity may be the future of foodservice, but right now the primary involvement of electric companies in our industry is not proactive or collaborative,” Schwartz comments. “It costs a lot to bring power into these buildings, and rates just keep going up. I’d like to see the utilities start getting involved, showing up and becoming viable partners. We’re now looking at cities and states mandating that everything be electric, but there’s not enough infrastructure to handle the growing demand they already have from advancements like electric vehicles. Now you want to layer on commercial kitchens, which, if all-electric, are huge consumers. The technology is there, the equipment is there for us to do it, but do we have the supply to meet the demand? That is the single biggest question and challenge.”