Restaurant equipment is undergoing an evolutionary creep that is providing economy for operators.
Equipment innovations are providing broader options for operators in both the front and back of the house. The right equipment choices can increase labor savings, accommodate dietary-restriction food prep and lead to more efficient footprints.
“It’s an interesting time for restaurants when it comes to equipment,” said Charlie Souhrada, vice president for regulatory and technical affairs, North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers.
“Labor is definitely at the forefront of everyone’s minds because of the difficulty of finding people to do the work but also in the cost of labor and healthcare benefits,” Souhrada said.
“We’re seeing more and more tools to try to do jobs more efficiently, faster and better.”
Bojangles’ Inc spent more than a year planning out a Greenville, S.C., prototype to ensure the design would hold up years into the future. That especially included the equipment choices, said Randy Icard, Bojangles vice president of construction and development.
Equipment got a starring role. The 699-unit Charlotte, N.C.-based quick-service company created a “Biscuit Theater” to showcase its signature product — the in-house biscuits made every 20 minutes throughout the day — and the equipment was part of that stage.
“We’ve really designed this Bojangles to take us into the future,” Icard told NRN. “We started in the kitchen, because Bojangles is all about the food.”
The company paid careful attention to the kitchen design before the prototype launched in January.
“The biscuit-making and baking were moved to become the centerpiece,” he said. “We’ve made biscuits from scratch since we started in 1977, and we felt like we were known for that in a lot of markets.”
While the restaurant didn’t make many changes to the biscuit-making equipment, it moved that function into the “theater” area behind the order counter, which allowed Bojangles room to make strides in kitchen design, Icard said.
The restaurant moved a six-burner stove with separate egg grill and griddle top for breakfast menu items and fryers under a dual-sided venting hood. Menu items prepared there now shift into a double-side T-shaped line for order preparation. The design was incorporated after the company made a number of time-and-motion studies.
“During high volume periods, there’s a line for drive-thru production and there’s also a line for front-line production,” Icard said. “During lower-volume times, they can be combined as needed.”
As Bojangles streamlined the back of the house, it also updated the so-called “middle of the house,” or the counter service area.
“Our food used to be in steam tables there, so it was basically being held in standard one-third size pans,” Icard said. “From a holding perspective, you can tend to overcook food, even if you think you have temperature set correctly.”
A new system of custom-manufactured round, multi-colored crocks provides visual rustic appeal and maintains the temperature for holding, Icard said.
Digital menu boards have been in test for two years, and the new Bojangles prototype offers what the company plans to use going forward. “We’ll put digital menu boards in all the stores that we build,” Icard said. “Being able to manage all the updates offsite was very important for us.
A significant shift in the Bojangles prototype has been in the lighting throughout the restaurants — moving from incandescent to more energy efficient light-emitting diode fixtures.
“This new prototype is almost exclusively LED, especially in the kitchen,” he said. Bojangles now uses digital timers throughout the restaurant, and LED lighting is used in all exterior fixtures, he said.
The restaurant company phased in tankless hot water systems into many Bojangles units as well, he said.
“As equipment and technology in equipment as changed, we’ve tried to stay on top of it,” Icard said. “We may not be the first adopter, but we’ll invest in what will best suit what we need in our restaurants.”
Equipment for labor savings
NAFEM’s Souhrada said manufacturers are embedding more technology into their equipment to provide labor savings, both for monitoring and maintenance.
“More companies are emphasizing labor savings, but it’s usually something that’s multi-use equipment or something that can reduce food or prep cooking times,” Souhrada said. “There’s also a much greater emphasis on simplicity in terms of training or servicing the equipment.”
When the Richardson, Texas-based Golden Franchising Corp., owner of the 165-unit Golden Chick brand, redesigned its prototype restaurant in 2011, it especially looked for equipment that would reduce labor in maintenance.
Brian Gilbert, Golden Chick’s director of development, said the company sought out equipment that would easy to clean or self-cleaning.
“Part of it is in saving time,” Gilbert said, but another piece was knowing the cleaning maintenance was built in. “We know it will get done,” he added.
The chain is adding new combi ovens, said Matthew Parmerlee, Golden Franchising’s construction manager.
“It can cook six pans of roasts rather than the one that we traditionally had,” said Parmerlee. Mark Parmerlee, Golden Franchising’s chairman, added that roasted chicken menu items have been a growing part of the chain’s menu mix, so expanding roasting capabilities was required to meet consumer trends.
Menu trends and diet changes always mean equipment has to adapt, Souhrada said.
“There’s always a concern about making sure equipment can focus on dietary restrictions that have become more prevalent,” he said. “Can it be label uniquely in a gluten-free or allergy-free zone? There are increased codings. We’re seeing equipment move beyond allergen-free cutting boards to knife handles and allergen kits that are colored purple.”
Equipment manufacturers and operators are also looking at ways to do more with less space, especially as real estate costs increase.
“Space savings is probably the most creative category in equipment,” Souhrada said. “It’s incredibly important. It’s not just equipment like a rapid-cook oven with a small footprint. It’s also stacking condiment guns in a tower so that it takes up less space on a cook or prep line. Operators are using the air above the prep tables.”
Gilbert said Golden Chick, in the most recent unit that opened in Dallas in January, made use of the space above the double-sided prep line to store paper goods in the 975-square-foot kitchen.
“We always look at cost effectiveness,” Gilbert said. “It’s much more cost effective to add a foot or two of ceiling height than add square footage, especially as materials costs have gone through the roof.”
Green equipment moves
Another category of innovation in kitchen equipment has been to make it more environmentally friendly.
“That reaches back to the early 2000s when NAFEM members worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop the Energy Star program for commercial foodservice equipment,” Souhrada said.
“It has been growing in importance over the past five years, thought there isn’t really a threshold. Operators have been looking at energy for a while, but it has been getting a lot of attention and regulatory restrictions.”
The latest changes have been in refrigeration equipment, he said, with manufacturers moving to the use of natural refrigerants like versions of propane.
“We put a lot of time and energy into our new prototype,” said Icard of Bojangles. “We’ve reached a milestone, but there’s always something new on horizon in equipment. You just have to be open to taking the blinders off and looking at the possibilities.”
Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]
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