The availability of smart kitchen equipment has grown dramatically in recent years, but experts say the restaurant industry has been relatively slow to embrace the connected gadgets craze.
The smart appliances market is projected to reach $2.7 billion by 2022, which would be an 83% increase in just one decade, according to Transparency Market Research. Still, adoption has been gradual.
“In 1998, we wrote a report predicting that in 10 years the entire foodservice industry would have smart kitchens. In 2008, we said, ‘Okay, in 10 years from now everyone will have it,” Richard Young, senior director of education for the Food Service Technology Center said. “Now we’re looking around thinking, ‘Well, it’s still pretty slim.’”
“Restaurants have gotten technical in front of the house but as for kitchen equipment, it’s still lagging,” he added.
Young said the most common technology upgrades in commercial kitchens are smart thermostats and HVAC systems, but connecting an entire kitchen’s worth of equipment is a tedious investment since there is no “one size fits all” system that that allows appliances to connect to and all speak the same language.
But that hasn’t stopped tech-forward brands from adopting these tools to cut waste, save labor and improve operations. Here’s a closer look at how two brands are implementing smart equipment in the back-of-the-house.
Arby’s: Less waste, more savings
Arby’s Restaurant Group is in the midst of rolling out smart kitchen technologies across its 1,140 company-owned locations — or about a quarter of its 4,400-unit system — including a mobile app-connected HVAC system, an automated cook and hold oven, and Bluetooth-connected ovens that can sense when the roast beef is perfectly cooked.
Arby’s parent company, Inspire Brands, began its technology upgrade in 2011 when the company was looking for ways to cut operations costs. The Atlanta-based company partnered with Powerhouse Dynamics, which makes smart energy management systems, to install app-connected HVAC systems with wireless thermostats that can be controlled remotely and create monthly energy usage reports to spot weakness areas.
“We paid for the installation costs of the platform in less than a year’s time with our energy savings,” Peter Cryan, senior director of equipment innovation said. “From there, we were like, ‘Wow! This is great! What else can we do?’”
Next, Cryan’s team turned their attention to automated cook and hold systems which would automatically switch ovens to “hold” once the cooked meat had reached the desired temperature. Cryan said the cook and hold ovens improved beef yields and saved restaurants an average of 67% in energy usage annually. That added up to thousands of dollars in savings per location and less overcooked roast beef.
The next step was to automate time and temperature recordings and other kitchen activities by transforming kitchen equipment already in use at Arby’s restaurants into smart devices. The team worked with Powerhouse Dynamics to install sPODs — hardware that allows “dumb” equipment to upload time, temperature and cooking data to the cloud.
“With the manual process, our managers were going around with their clipboards checking temperatures 60 to 70 times a day,” Cryan said. “We were wasting a couple of hours of labor every day. Now we’ve improved speed, efficiency and order accuracy.”
Although the sandwich chain is still rolling out these technologies — the systemwide transformation is projected to be finished in about three years — Arby’s is already seeing significant results. The company said it has saved $45 million in energy costs since 2011.
“Installing the entire platform costs $1,000 to $1,500 per restaurant,” Cryan said. “You think that platform pays for itself in a year? It does, and with more to spare. If you had to spend $1,500 to save $3,600 every year, why wouldn’t you?”
One notable challenge is getting the appliances to synchronize with one another. Smart appliance connectivity is rarely universal, so it’s nearly impossible to get appliances of all different brands, ages, and capabilities to “talk” to one another, Cryan said. To eliminate this problem, his team used the sPODs, along with Bluetooth thermometer probes to allow all of their equipment to easily upload data into the cloud — no synchronization or equipment upgrades needed.
Cryan said this syncing hiccup is a significant factor that’s holding back restaurants from installing smart technology.
“Think about Bluetooth — no matter what brand of device you have, it can all connect to Bluetooth,” he said. “If we can do that for kitchen equipment, the industry will really take off.”
Stoner’s Pizza: Becoming a delivery machine
Savannah, Ga.-based Stoner’s Pizza Joint has ambitious growth plans, and executives say a strong technology foundation will be essential to its success. Under new owner HospitalityX, which acquired the brand last year, the 12-unit pizza chain, which markets toward college kids and Millennials, plans 100 new locations in the next four years. But not without first rethinking its systems.
“What was most attractive about Stoner’s was how antiquated it was, with managers writing everything down manually on clipboards,” Nick Bergelt, partner at HospitalityX and chief concept officer at Stoner’s Pizza said. “It has been a completely blank canvas for us to reconfigure and retool the restaurants with modern equipment. Now we really look at ourselves as a technology-first company.”
Front-of-the-house innovations like POPIQ — customer facial recognition technology — and Clink, which allows customers to place phone orders with artificial intelligence, are flashy customer-facing additions for Stoner’s Pizza. But it’s the new back-of-the-house smart technology that allows Stoner’s Pizza to improve delivery order accuracy and speed — a delivery joint’s bread and butter.
Over the past year, Stoner’s has been installing smart thermostats that warn managers when the freezer is rising above a safe temperature, Wi-Fi-enabled smokers that can sense when a roast is ready, and smart ovens that can sense the difference between cooking chicken and beef. All of these pieces of equipment connect to the cloud and are able to spit out time and temperature data.
“This technology helps to connect the dots and equips us with another layer of understanding,” Bergelt said. “So if we know that the pizza left the oven at X time and the delivery driver picked it up within 60 seconds but it took the customer 35 minutes to get there, we know where to look to spot-check. Being informed through data was the goal.”
When a pizza — priced at $11 per large pie — goes into the oven, the smart technology will automatically link the order to the closest delivery driver. Along with inefficiency troubleshooting, this allows cooks, managers, and drivers to shave off minutes from delivery time, leading to happier customers, Bergelt said.
To transform each Stoner’s Pizza Joint location, HospitalityX began a six-month audit of the stores in 2018, and then started working on in-house software that would allow its equipment to extrapolate the data needed. By implementing the technology themselves, the team was able to bypass the challenge of diverse systems not syncing.
Now about a year into the process, each of Stoner’s Pizza Joint’s locations are at various stages of technology integration. A target date to have all stores fully integrated was not disclosed.
“There are so many technologies within reach now that previously would have been reserved for the bigger guys, but now competition has leveled the playing field,” Bergelt said. “This was a significant investment, but it was of the utmost importance to us. I believe in the next few years, a lot of this technology will be more commonplace. Right now, it’s exciting because we are the future.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]