Keeping the foodservice equipment marketplace up to date with the latest menu and concept trends.


What Makes a Kitchen Smart?

The notion of designing a smart kitchen is not a new one. What is new, though, is how the evolution of foodservice technology affects the way the industry defines a smart kitchen today.

For decades now, foodservice professionals have debated what kitchens of the future will look like. While the details varied by individual, oftentimes foodservice professionals' formed a Space Age vision of commercial kitchens, meaning these operations would be highly automated, if not completely void of human involvement. These "Jetsons"-like scenarios would confine people to the singular role of consumer, with intelligent equipment of a foodservice operation handling most everything else.

Much like the paperless office, such kitchens have failed to fully materialize and the foodservice industry seems unlikely to lessen its need for human involvement with preparation, cooking and sanitation processes anytime soon. In fact, one could easily argue that due to today's sophisticated equipment, foodservice operators place an even greater emphasis on skilled labor than ever before.

While early Space Age visions might have changed, that's not to say that today's commercial kitchen is less smart than its predecessors. "If we really look at where we were 20 years ago, the kind of products available today are Jetsons-like," says Jim Webb, principal of Webb Design. "Today we have cooking systems that are so precise that they can mix steam and dry heat, cooking more efficiently and completely than ever. We can sit on a beach and check and adjust the temperatures on refrigeration, have alarms come to us to let us know when something is out of compliance or even adjust an operation's HVAC."

While foodservice equipment in general now uses energy more efficiently and incorporates multiple cooking methods, it has not developed as quickly in other areas. "The slower evolution has been in equipment pieces talking to each other, and even less in doing things without the need to have an employee start the process," says Juan Martinez, principal of Profitality, a Florida-based consulting firm.

Still, most foodservice professionals would agree that today's equipment is far more sophisticated than previous generations. "The industry has raised the bar when it comes to foodservice technology," Webb continues. "We sit here thinking we are not in the "Jetsons" era. But it is important to understand how our perspectives have changed. For example, we used to think that a 286mhz PC was amazing and today it could not even run our standard operating systems. So from a technology perspective, our expectations and abilities have evolved."

As industry technology has evolved, so, too, must the way foodservice professionals perceive and define smart kitchens. "The smart kitchen of today is a vastly expanded concept that includes not only the machinery you use to automate processes, but also focuses on just what it takes to have the best experience for your customers, your staff and the world you live in," says Jim Sukenik, president and principal of The Baker Group, a Michigan-based consulting firm. "So today we consider smart kitchens in a different context than years past."

Defining a Smart Kitchen
When describing what actually constitutes a smart kitchen, foodservice professionals now take a more philosophical approach. Overall efficiency is key. "Smart kitchen practices include a focus on how equipment can reduce the time and hassle of menu production," Sukenik says. "However, smart kitchen practices also address many other very important operator interests."

Chief among some of these other interests are energy usage, return on investment and flexibility. "Smart kitchen design centers on the efficiency of labor and throughput and it features a design that's easy, fun and efficient to use, clean and maintain. It's a place that you are proud to be in and it respects the culinary arts," Webb says. "A smart kitchen gives the foodservice operation the ability to grow and flex with business cycles and environmental concerns."

Of course, it's easy to be dazzled by the technological prowess of today's foodservice equipment, but does simply having high-tech equipment alone make a kitchen smart? Webb does not think so. "High-tech is good but it must be fun, easy to use and work well with the environment around it. A smart kitchen is not a place that has a whole bunch of gizmos the staff does not use."

Instead of getting caught up in the individual items that comprise a kitchen, perhaps it is more important to look at how they function as a whole in supporting the way an individual foodservice operation meets the needs of its customers. "The equipment and design must withstand the tests of time," Webb says. "This may seem a little basic but it's not uncommon to walk into a new kitchen that's poorly lit, which impedes the staff's ability to be successful. So smart-kitchen designs pay close attention to employee utilization and economics centered on ROI. In doing so, these designs create a place that's fun to work."

So does the definition of what makes a kitchen smart differ by type of operation? "Certainly...and then, again, not so much. Our college and university projects are often echoing many of the same characteristics that you might find with our restaurant clients," Sukenik says. "Food prepared for you – often in front of you – is a common scenario in both project types. Personal service, while almost always anticipated in restaurant dining environments, is also an operator commitment we see many college and university foodservice operators providing. The point here is that the most common differences will hinge on what a smart kitchen means to those serving 5,000 meals in one facility versus those that are serving 300 covers in a retail environment.

"Specific pieces of equipment can help in the preparation of large quantities of food. Some examples of these are divider/rounders, which can easily divide and make dough balls at a rate of 144 dozen per hour; or automated slicers that can process 13,000 slices of meats or vegetables in an hour," Sukenik adds. "Obviously, a restaurant would not find any reason to purchase these machines. However, the restaurant operator can participate in many of the other smart kitchen concepts."

Indeed, making decisions that could affect energy management, customer service, safe food handling, local-food sourcing and other smart-kitchen-related decisions should be collaborative endeavors that involve the management, operations and design teams. "These decisions are generally made by the political environment within the actual foodservice operation," Webb says. "It's really more of a top-down approach that makes a difference. The industry can certainly help drive the decisions in a manner that is proactive instead of reactive."

This proactive approach is particularly appropriate when a project requires some value engineering to stay within budget parameters. "Before we simply slash costs by buying lower-quality items or eliminating others completely, let's understand how this decision will affect the foodservice operation from an energy use or cost perspective each year. Some people will feel smart because they lowered the initial purchase price; will they feel that way a year or two after it is open?

"If, after reviewing the effect these steps will have on the foodservice operation, you still want to pull the trigger on that decision, then so be it," Webb says. "But viewing these decisions through such parameters as life-cycle costing, return on investment and staff efficiency opens the door to proactive design."

Smart-Kitchen Design's Support of the Menu
Any smart kitchen will support an operation's core menu and be flexible enough to evolve with customers' tastes and requirements over time, Martinez says. "Many of the newer pieces of equipment have in them the right control mechanisms to manage the multiple cooking cycles and conditions to help the foodservice operators deliver the high-quality product they desire."

"While there are specialized pieces of equipment we use for various menu styles, the equipment today is versatile enough to cook many different items," Webb says. "It's how the equipment is utilized to produce the menu that makes the difference."

Sukenik sees the menu's role differently. "I think it is not so much how smart kitchens relate to their menus, but how those menu needs either help or hinder a smart-kitchen focus," he says. "While every operator can focus on smart-kitchen practices, each operation will have a different story to tell of how easy or challenging they were. That said, all operators should recognize that a focus on smart kitchen practices will make their operations better. It's all about studying your operation and making decisions about the processes that you will use to improve the control of many differing aspects of your operation--most importantly, your menu."

In addition, the pursuit of LEED status and the push toward sustainable foodservice operations continue to affect smart-kitchen design. "Every foodservice operator wants to be green, but that can become expensive, particularly when it comes to the upfront costs," Martinez says.

While pursuit of LEED and sustainable initiatives are not without their challenges, their importance will grow in the years to come. "These issues are not simply cultural trends but, in fact, design and operational decisions with a monetary payback," Sukenik points out. "That is why LEED and cost-of-operation decisions are a part of every project we design. We know that you may be able to purchase the car of your dreams. However, we want to know that you can also afford to put gas in it, and maintain it."

As an example, Sukenik points to a large student center that his firm helped design. This facility will use 30 percent less energy today than it would have five years ago, Sukenik says. "Natural light, on-demand hood ventilation, use-sensing cooking equipment, finish and material selections that minimize carbon footprint, and even special light fixtures that use less than 15 percent of their peer fixtures all make a difference," he says. "LEED and sustainability are not fads – but opportunities for all of us to be better at what we do."

One aspect of kitchen design that will remain relevant is being able to balance the cost of the entire design, including specific pieces of equipment, with the overall benefit. "It is getting to the point where we can quantify and model energy use in kitchens and develop our own baselines," Webb says "This allows us to develop a prescriptive path to reduce energy consumption and develop life-cycle costing. You have to be aware of all the technology that is available so you can make informed decisions.

"In ten years, life-cycle costing will be standard and computerized technology will become more prevalent and easier to use," Webb predicts. "Energy efficiency will become more refined and a point of emphasis for all foodservice equipment manufacturers. Future designs will place a greater emphasis on the working environment in terms of lighting and surfaces to encourage employee productivity and pride. It's an attempt to create an environment that says valuable people work here preparing meals."

Despite man's seemingly never-ending aspiration to completely eliminate the need for employees, it is highly unlikely that total automation in the foodservice industry will ever come to fruition. "Machines do quite well at many of the things that support the preparation and service, but do not replace it," Sukenik says. "At the end of the day, though, our human desire for new and better experiences in the foods we eat compels us to consider that a smart kitchen is not so much a collection of machines, but of machines whose capabilities are fully utilized by a smart operator."