Faster Cooking, Less Labor

As technology improves, foodservice operators are finding equipment that can save time and enhance menus.

To paraphrase the ‘70s hit The Six Million Dollar Man, evolving foodservice technology is producing equipment that is “better, stronger, faster.”

“The best innovation that has come along in recent years has been the ability to cook at the line,” says Tom MacDermott, president of The Clarion Group in Kingston, NH. “You assemble your raw product and only [prepare] it to order, so waste is cut substantially—I’d say by at least 75%.”

It also means the operator is “not tying up someone back in the kitchen,” MacDermott continues, “so it reduces kitchen production labor by perhaps half. The actual cooking of the food is done by one person who combines the chef’s job with the server’s job. By far, that’s the most efficient way. I suspect it’s eventually going to become the standard way of producing meals, particularly in corporate and college cafeterias.”

MacDermott also hails ventless cooking equipment for its efficiency and flexibility. “You can even get a deep-fat fryer that doesn’t require venting. The trapping of the grease occurs right inside the hood built into the unit.” It also gives the operator the ability to place equipment almost anywhere without having to tie into a hood system. “You are no longer anchored to the ventilation system. That is not for the heavy-duty work; it’s for the comparatively light-duty work.”

The freedom to put ventless or other types of equipment behind the counter cuts the need for a kitchen “about in half,” MacDermott estimates. “Your design and capital costs are halved. And it does double duty because it creates something visual for the customer. It is the most effective way to say that your food is fresh—and fresh equals quality. People define quality and freshness as ‘made while I watch.’ The facilities that we get involved in designing are bringing up front almost all the cooking that can be done there.”

MacDermott also likes the expanding use of blast chillers, which he says “enable you to bring the temperatures of food down from whatever they were when you took them off the line to a safe temperature without freezing them. It does it in a very few minutes, which seriously reduces your food safety risk, which in turn reduces costs because you have less spoilage.” While they are not widely used yet, he adds, they are “getting there.”

Proven and durable: “Besides all of the wonderful things that you want with equipment, you want as much flexibility as possible,” says Shawn Noseworthy, nutrition services administrative director for Florida Hospital in Orlando. Topping her list of priorities is that new equipment be proven and durable. “All of the pieces we have are standard equipment. We aren’t using any super new techno stuff that’s hot off the presses. Most of our stuff is basic, tried-and-true equipment.”

Florida Hospital’s six kitchens (one of its seven buildings has only a kitchenette that processes trays before delivery) range in age from 10 to 30 years. A brand new kitchen serving a 150-seat dining area—there are 38 more seats on an outdoor patio—debuted in May. The workhorses of the facility’s kitchens include steamers, convection ovens and tilting braising pans, Noseworthy says. “We are moving a few of those pieces from an old kitchen into the new one.”

Her operation recently replaced traditional steam wells with hot-surface technology on the serving line. “We wanted to get away from the water and the plumbing, and try to have a more sophisticated look with a hot surface and the display equipment,” she explains. She has also added a rotisserie and a brick oven. 

“When we did the dish room, we reduced the amount of stainless-steel conveyors and troughs by over 50%,” Noseworthy reports. The operation has stopped working in batches, she adds. “We are going through this whole lean, process-improvement program where we are moving away from batching wherever we can. We’re into one-piece flow. We did that with our dish room.”

Production speed: “The big advance that I see is speed in production—getting that cooking time faster so we’re not waiting forever to cook things,” says Georgie Shockey, FCSI, principal of Ruck-Shockey Associates, Inc., The Woodlands, Texas. “It’s speedier ovens, ovens that microwave and combi-cook all at the same time. Those are some good pieces.”

With ventilation, Shockey says, the question has become, “How do we turn equipment under the hood on and off, and then the hood itself?” A great feature is the ability to preprogram those functions “so that if you know your cooking day starts at 5:30 [a.m.] these three pieces can be set to come on [at that time]. The hood will go on first, and maybe as the day goes you’re starting to program more and more equipment to come on at peak times. I see a lot of that starting to happen. It’s going to take some technology to get that all integrated, but I know pieces, the component ovens, can be preprogrammed to come on at certain times.” Hood technology is also “coming along with its capabilities of detecting and shutting off when there’s nothing going on underneath the hood. That’s saving not only time but obviously energy and money.”

Something Shockey says she has not yet seen on the noncommercial side but has “a sneaky feeling we might see it at NAFEM” is equipment controls that run through a PC. “Burger King came out with a PC-compatible program that is preprogrammed on its cooking systems—how long to cook a Whopper during peak production, how many should they be cooking? All of it is integrated into a software program that beeps at the employee to, say, put on 20 more burger patties because this is the peak time when they need them.”


Displaying Technology

Advances in cooking equipment now make Harvard’s action stations sizzle.

FoodService Director - technology - saving time - Harvard - Stony Brook University HospitalChoosing the right technologies for action stations can be critical, especially when balancing the needs for safety, mobility, merchandising and speed of service.

Martin Breslin, director for culinary operations for Harvard University Dining Services, in Cambridge, MA, points out that display cooking stations need to be fast—not only to keep diners from waiting, but to attract them in the first place. “When students see action they tend to congregate towards it, so the menu needs to be good and fast, and easy to serve.”

Harvard operates 13 residential dining halls and 12 retail locations on campus. Each dining room is part of a residence, and all offer the same menu. Display stations are most often used during special or theme meals.
Induction burners, says Breslin, render action stations more efficient and safer, “especially in the historical buildings here at Harvard, where a naked flame in the dining room is a problem.” They also mean greater mobility. “They allow you to bring the action station into the dining room. That’s important.”

A piece of equipment that has boosted action station sales in one of Harvard’s retail outlets is a pizza station with a brick oven. “It certainly is very inviting for guests to see the pizza cooked right in front of them, especially in a brick oven. That piece of equipment draws people’s attention to pizza, calzones and strombolis, which we sell quite a lot of.”

One favorite menu item that gets great play from Harvard’s display stations is Bananas Foster. Crepes are cooked in advance in chafing dishes. The station is equipped with plates, bowls of pre-sliced bananas sautéed with brown butter, sugar and ground cloves. The mixture is heated on induction burners, then topped with ice cream.

Breslin draws a strong distinction between permanent and mobile display stations in a residential dining setting. “They are two completely different types of stations. For residential it has to be mobile, and it has to be multi-purpose so we can roll it in and out.” One piece of equipment with which Breslin has had success is the rotisserie. “There are some rotisserie ovens you can get that you can actually wheel out.”

One item on Breslin’s wish list is a hoodless vent system. “Those kinds of pieces are important for a mobile station so there is no issue with the fire department.”

“We’re not using them [because] they’re pretty costly now,” Breslin says. “But as they come on the market more and more the [cost is] improving. Things like that are important for a mobile action station.”


Retail Efficiency

State-of-the-art cooking equipment can spur revenue increases in retail foodservice operations as well.

FoodService Director - technology - saving time - Harvard - Stony Brook University HospitalPaul Hubbard, associate director of foodservice operations, Stony Brook University Hospital in Long Island, NY, talks about the impact new equipment has had on his retail business.

“We undertook a three-year renovation to our retail and production facilities, which was completed in large part in May 2005. However, the renovation work—I refer to it as refinement­­—is still ongoing. Since the Marketplace Cafe, our largest retail foodservice operation, and the Skyline Deli were completed, a smaller operation in the campus’s ambulatory care pavilion has also come on line with a retail location.

The one piece of equipment that has had the greatest impact has been the brick oven pizza unit in the Marketplace Café. The unit was intentionally located at the furthest corner from the main entrance, but in full view of those who are entering in order to entice customers to walk through. You can see the gas jets and the flames inside it when you walk in. We finished it with mosaic tiles on the outside, so it is very eye catching and it helps to draw traffic.

Refinements to the foodservice operation are ongoing. You never sit on your laurels with what’s there; you’re constantly looking at adjusting and tweaking what you serve.

In a couple of weeks we will get a new rotisserie, an important addition not just for the menu flexibility it will provide but for its visual aspect. You’re seeing a lot more roasted and fresh foods and meal replacements. That piece of equipment has a lot of versatility. It’s not just the chicken on a spit, so to speak. We can do anything from fish and chicken to (food on) skewers and (in) baskets. It will also allow us to provide another healthy selection for our customers. The industry generally has seen a transition towards more healthy food.

Our executive chef, Eric Ingoglia, is looking at purchasing a flat-top griddle that can be used on the grill so that we can offer more of a selection for breakfast. We felt that, today, 48 inches of griddle space is not enough to handle our volume. The operation handles around 5,400 covers a day.

My assistant director of retail services, Kristen Berry, and I are also actively pushing for more of the new equipment to be Energy Star rated for efficiency. There is a growing trend toward equipment that is more environmentally friendly. It is something that this department has made a strategic initiative. Years ago you were just happy that you could cook a piece of chicken in it, or that you got 50,000 BTUs. We are now looking at efficiencies for each piece of equipment.”