Online Exclusive: The Most Influential Equipment

Customer demand leads to innovative menus; equipment technology makes that innovation possible.

Electronic ordering system at Vanderbilt University.

People aren’t the only element influencing non-commercial foodservice. Equipment and technology have gone a long way toward influencing how menus are being developed and presented. With the help of Tom O’Brien, the equipment writer for our sister publication Restaurant Business, along with several consultants and chefs we talked with, we have compiled a list of 10 examples of equipment and technology that have done much to change the face of non-commercial foodservice.

Blast chillers: The idea of cook-chill has been prevalent in the foodservice industry since the 1970s. But the technology “still has steam” today, as one consultant stated. Blast chilling serves multiple purposes, such as enhancing food safety and saving labor, and the technology is such that today's blast-chillers are available in several sizes, from floor models that can handle an entire rack of cooked foods straight from the oven to under-the-counter versions.

Combi-ovens: Another piece of equipment that has evolved over time as foodservice needs have changed, Tom O’Brien says these ovens have “revolutionized high-volume food preparation and holding.” They are versatile and flexible, with a variety of cooking modes, and the ability to pre-program them by storing recipes and cooking instructions have made them easier than ever to operate.

Electronic ordering systems: Whether in kiosks in front of a counter in a restaurant or food court, or simply an app you can download to your smartphone or tablet, these systems have enhanced customer service by reducing service lines and wait times by allowing customers to order their meals ahead of time—sometimes before they’ve even left their offices or classrooms.

Heat recovery systems: This “green” technology has been able to serve a dual purpose, consultants say. By reclaiming the heat that large pieces of equipment such as dishwashers, refrigerators and freezers generate, operators are able to reduce their energy bills and their repair bills; heat recovery has the added benefit of helping compressors run cooler, which adds months or years to the life of this critical piece of equipment.

Induction cooking equipment: Induction burners offer several benefits to foodservice operators, including fast heat and quick cool-down and the removal of flames from the cooking equation. That, coupled with their portability, makes induction burners ideal for action stations or other demonstration cooking set-ups.

“Less oil” fryers: A prime example of technology developed in response to a need; in this case, the desire to make fried foods more healthful. “Expect to see more of these,” says O’Brien, “as nutrition continues to be a factor in menu development.

Panini grills: “Twenty years ago, no one in the U.S. had heard of panini, let alone eaten one,” O’Brien recalls. “Now, just about every foodservice operation has a panini grill—or two or more.”

Turbo-chef-type ovens: Especially in limited menu environments, these high-speed ovens have helped tremendously in speeding through-put while adding touches such as crisping and browning more easily than a microwave oven can. In larger operations, they also have helped chefs expand their menu variety.

Sous vide technology: Sous vide, developed in France in the early 1970s, is the process of cooking food in vacuum sealed packaging in a low temperature water bath, typically the temperature in which the food is intended to be served. Proponents of the technology say this slow-cooking method allows chefs to achieve desired results without inflicting the “damage”, such as loss of moisture, that high-heat cooking methods do. “How much of a long-term effect it will have on the industry remains to be seen,” says O’Brien. “But it definitely is changing the way chefs think about food prep.”

Waste reduction equipment: Whether they are compactors, dehydrators, composters or recyclers, “green” equipment “will become increasingly important as waste removal costs continue to increase,” says O’Brien. In non-commercial foodservice, of equal importance is the desire of operators to make their facilities more environmentally friendly.