Special Report: Smart machines

Operators invest in efficient, multitasking equipment to cut costs, boost sales

Achieving efficiencies of all sorts is the name of the game when it comes to today’s hot restaurant equipment.


From heat-reclaiming dishwashers to so-called smart kitchens and voice-recognition technology, restaurateurs are looking for equipment that reduces waste, saves money, speeds operations, increases accuracy, eliminates guesswork and opens the door to new opportunities.


Here are five trends fueling the industry’s equipment advances and a look at how the resulting tools are helping operators achieve all types of efficiencies:


1 Energy reduction 


More restaurant operators across all segments are embracing the mission of reducing both waste and costs with the growing crop of energy-efficient equipment. Among the options are Energy Star-qualified fryers, heat-recovery dishwashers, demand-controlled ventilation systems and LED lighting.


“Many more operators are now cognizant of energy-efficient choices, such as Energy Star-qualified cooking equipment, whereas before they tended to rely mainly on manufacturers’ claims,” said David Zabrowski, senior engineer of the Food Service Technology Center, or FSTC, in San Ramon, Calif. 


One of the more promising pieces to hit kitchens is the heat-recovery dishwasher, which recaptures steam from the wash or rinse cycle to preheat the incoming water for the next cycle, and does not require a vent hood.


“Cold water is preheated, say from a 60 degrees Fahrenheit inlet temperature, to 110 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees Fahrenheit,” said FSTC project engineer Amin Delagah. “So there are a lot of energy savings.” 


Such a machine is in use at LYFE Kitchen, an environmentally conscious fast-casual restaurant concept in Palo Alto, Calif. 


“We thought it was a little pricey, but realized it’s actually going to be cheaper because we don’t have to put an exhaust system on it,” said LYFE Kitchen foodservice designer Bob Kuchinski. “Utility wise, we figure this thing will save us $1,500 a year, so we’re already ahead.”


Other high-efficiency pieces at LYFE Kitchen include the chrome-finished griddle, which minimizes radiant heat and is 30 percent more efficient than conventional griddles, and a cheese melter that heats up only when a plate is sensed on the shelf. 


Demand-controlled ventilation systems, which adjust the speed of kitchen exhaust fans to the amount of cooking emissions to save energy and conditioned air, are gaining traction with cost-conscious chain restaurants. 


“We expect these to evolve more and more,” said Richard Young, FSTC senior engineer and director of education. “The numbers are so positive for some of the chains that within the next few years it will move toward standard practice.” 


LED lighting is another fast-advancing technology. It offers restaurants high-quality, dimmable lighting, while lowering their electric bills, Young noted.


“We’re seeing more people, especially in the chain world, looking at their energy bills and trying to knock off a few percentage points,” he said.


With LED lighting, he added, “the color rendering is great — reds look red; greens look green. Things pop out. And you can work with a manufacturer to create a certain color of light.” 


2 “Smart” operations


“Smart” kitchen technology — equipment that “thinks” for operators — offers numerous benefits by automating difficult tasks, removing guesswork from operations and reducing costs.


In the “smart” kitchen applications that some major chains are adopting, kitchen equipment pieces communicate with one another on a network with which store managers and chain officials at headquarters also interact. McDonald’s, for example, has networked kitchen equipment with the goal of greater control over energy consumption and operational efficiency.


Luihn Food Systems, or LFS, a 62-unit KFC franchisee in Morrisville, N.C., uses a digitally based production-management system to free managers from the tedious task of inventory and to maintain a stock of fresh, hot chicken in the store, all the while reducing food costs. 


LFS president Jody Luihn said he saves $40 per day in wasted food in each of his 62 KFC stores in the Southeast using the production-management system. It wirelessly networks his cooking equipment to track the inventory and serviceable life of his fried chicken and other menu items, and tells staff when to prepare more, keeping just enough fresh, ready-to-serve food on hand to meet sales demands.


According to Luihn, the system eliminates the manual food inventories and projections that were sometimes inaccurate and often led to wasted product or product shortages.


When a batch of chicken goes in the fryer, the computer counts down the cooking cycle. When that is done, it tracks the holding time. When a customer order is entered in the point-of-sale system, it subtracts that chicken from the inventory. Video monitors in the kitchen show the real-time inventory of all menu items along with the number of minutes those items can be served. The system also alerts staff when to prepare more food so the store doesn’t run out. 


“If you are having a busier day, there are algorithms built in to increase production, and if you are having a slower day, there are algorithms that lessen production,” Luihn said. “It is close to 99-percent correct, unless you have an anomaly, like a bus pulling up.” 


For managerial accountability, Luihn can monitor online to see if a store serves expired chicken or runs out of chicken, neither of which should happen with the system in place. 


In addition to reducing food cost in Luihn’s stores, the system has drastically reduced out-of-stock incidents and helped boost customer satisfaction scores, Luihn said. 


“I am all for making it easier on our teams and taking the guesswork out, so they can just focus on serving good, hot food and taking care of the customer,” he said. 


3 Multiuse equipment


Once found mainly in high-end U.S. kitchens, multiuse equipment such as combi oven-steamers and accelerated-cooking ovens are migrating into the dining mainstream everywhere from big chain concepts like Chili’s Grill & Bar to aspiring concepts like LYFE Kitchen. 


Typically able to replace several individual cooking pieces, these workhorses enable smaller footprints and lower construction costs, important in an age of pricey real estate and scarce prime locations. Moreover, equipment that handles multiple tasks helps operators feed menu innovation to keep up with fast-changing food trends.


At LYFE Kitchen, a combination oven-steamer is a key element of the equipment package. The combi cooks with steam, convection heat or a combination of the two modes, making it “a very flexible piece of equipment,” Kuchinski said. 


“It can do so many different things. I think as chefs in the U.S. are exposed to it, they all [will] want it.”


Also key at LYFE Kitchen are two stacked accelerated-cooking ovens that use high-speed hot air and microwaves to quickly prepare items such as the crisp baked sweet-potato fries that the concept promotes as a lighter alternative to deep-fried potatoes. The versatility of the combi and the accelerated-cooking ovens allows the restaurant to do without a charbroiler and deep fryer, making for lower initial costs and greater overall efficiency.


Chili’s also is using the combi oven to replace other kitchen gear. The “kitchen of the future” retrofit of the chain, as parent Brinker International Inc. calls it, is intended to help reduce labor costs and pave the way for menu expansion and increased sales. 


Brad Ludington, a KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. restaurant securities analyst who toured a fully retrofitted Chili’s unit in Raleigh, N.C., reported that the combi oven replaced both a smoker and a tilt skillet that previously were used to prepare such products as ribs, mashed potatoes and pasta. 


“The combi oven provides a much higher-quality product at a more consistent pace by cutting much of the human error that previously resulted from preparing multiple products at multiple stations,” Ludington wrote in a post-tour report.


4 Custom equipment


For some operators, if the equipment in the catalog doesn’t fill the bill, they make it themselves.


Hans Hess, founder and chief executive of Elevation Burger, did just that by outsourcing the engineering and fabrication of a new conveyor-style custom burger griddle he designed. 


“There is actually a tradition of custom equipment in the industry,” Hess said. “McDonald’s has done it since day one.”


Customers are captivated by the parade of organic beef patties on the moving cast-iron plates of the 20-foot-long horizontal griddle at Elevation Burger in Germantown, Md., one of 24 locations of the Arlington, Va.-based chain.


Hess’ so-called “super griddle” is intended to address the bane of better-burger operators — the slow service that ensues when orders pile up. His brainchild can produce 2.5 times more product per hour than a conventional griddle and is easier to control, Hess said. 


The patent-pending device, set to be installed in three more stores this winter, cooks a burger in about four minutes, compared with six to eight minutes on a conventional griddle, Hess said. The four-minute cook time stays constant even at the unit’s busiest times. In comparison, customers could wait as long as 20 minutes at peak times when the former griddle was used. 


The griddle was custom engineered and produced not by a foodservice equipment manufacturer, but by technicians Hess found at Elance.com, an outsourcing website. 


Hess said he decided not to bring the griddle idea to a manufacturer because he feared losing control of the intellectual property.


“When I realized how I could do it basically myself, fairly reasonably in terms of cost, I took it on myself,” he said. 


At The Melt, a four-unit fast-casual chain based in San Francisco, the quest for the perfect grilled cheese sandwich led founder Jonathan Kaplan to develop a custom infrared sandwich press with a major equipment manufacturer. 


Grilling a sandwich may sound simple, but it is not, according to Paul Coletta, The Melt’s chief marketing officer.


The custom press is calibrated to the thickness of the bread, so that it crisps on the outside and melts on the inside, without squeezing out the cheese, all in 60 seconds or less, Coletta said. 


5 Mobile ordering


Location-based mobile technology, quick-response codes and voice-recognition technology are making takeout faster and more convenient. 


Some 7 percent to 10 percent of The Melt’s customers don’t bother waiting in line for fresh, hot, grilled cheese sandwiches, soups and combos to go. They simply use the concept’s innovative and proprietary “scan and skip” technology to remotely order and pay for food with their smartphone or computer. 


The system generates a QR barcode that can be scanned at any of the chain’s four city locations to have the order prepared within minutes. A digital ordering screen at the counter shows the customer’s initials and indicates when their order is ready for pickup. 


“Unlike a lot of other mobile ordering systems that require you to call out which store you are picking up at, and then try to time your order, we don’t make your food until you scan the code, so it is always fresh,” Coletta said. 


Depending on time and day, the system could save a customer five to 10 minutes of waiting, Coletta said. 


“Without the 60-second cook time, we wouldn’t be able to make that work,” he said.


Also due for a digital makeover is the drive-thru ordering experience, said foodservice consultant Dennis Lombardi of WD Partners in Dublin, Ohio. He pointed to the evolution of voice-recognition technology in everything from voicemail to dictation software to 911 service as signs of evolution. 


“Think about how voicemail has improved over the last five to seven years, and project that forward five years, 10 years or 12 years into the future,” Lombardi said. “It is clear that there will be at least one slam-dunk application in foodservice. The best example is the drive-thru ordering process for QSRs.” 


The day is coming when customers routinely will send drive-thru orders from their mobile devices directly into a restaurant’s POS system, Lombardi said. The system will understand multiple languages and possibly even multiple dialects of languages, he added.


Restaurant ordering systems will remember a customer’s phone number and favorite orders anywhere in the system. 


“McDonald’s will know my favorite coffee order whether I’m ordering in Columbus, Ohio, or San Francisco,” Lombardi said. “There are an awful lot of opportunities down the road.”