Foodservice directors faced with the challenge of having to create quick restaurant-quality meals in order to satisfy demanding clients and customers have been turning to a combination of creative thinking and equipment innovation that helps them meet bottom line objectives and cut down on food waste, energy usage and labor costs simultaneously.As a result, equipment manufacturers are answering the call by offering much-improved products that are hitting the mainstream market in a big way.
Everything from ventless exhaust hood systems to wireless blast chillers to combi ovens, paging systems and composting pulpers are now available and finding their way into the back of the house, where user excitement is palpable.
Open to change: According to Jim Sukenik, principal of The Baker Group, a foodservice consultancy based in Grand Rapids, Mich., there are a couple of reasons for the need and implementation of the updated technology. “It is based on two elements,” he says. “One is the desire on the part of the customer to experience restaurant-quality food, and the other is the operator’s need to minimize labor, energy and the cost of preparing the meals.”
Sukenik says that automated equipment, in particular, is one area where big technological improvements are being made.
“The high-tech machinery of the past often took an hour and a half to clean,” Sukenik says. “It would have to be disassembled and that was very labor intensive. Now, however, it takes five minutes to clean. We certainly are seeing that in slicing and cold-food processing equipment as well as in some of the baking lines.”
Sukenik says the increased technology of those items has been designed to help operators reduce rising labor costs.
“For as long as I can remember, there has always been a focus on the amount of labor required to produce a meal,” he says. “Inevitably, managers are going to become more aware of pieces of equipment that require a lot of maintenance and replace them with items that don’t require so much attention.”
At San Antonio University Health System in Texas, Mary Jaskowski, director of nutrition and food services, has been gearing up for a $6 million, 46-month kitchen renovation at the 412-bed acute care hospital. The redesign, which is expected to begin in December will include a redo of the hospital’s retail operations as well as the addition of patient room service delivery, which will require the installation of various, highly efficient and long-lasting pieces of equipment, she says.
“With capital dollars so tight, we have had to be very wise with the choices we make,” she says. “We have selected things that not only have long life expectancy but also are multifunctional.”
One of those items, she says, is a brand new cook-chill system that cooks and cools food and also bags meat, cooks it in hot water, and then drains and refills itself.
“Obviously, you always want your equipment to be easy to clean and technologically sound,” she says. “Today, with more computerization and more electronic controls, you also want to make sure [the equipment is] going to last and not be so expensive to replace.”
Speed of service: For many healthcare foodservice providers, ramping up speed of service and controlling food waste are the driving forces behind the implementation of room service delivery and utilization of high-tech equipment in the kitchen. Foodservice directors say those adjustments will ultimately aid in improving the overall patient experience and subsequent satisfaction scores.
Jaskowski says she constantly is looking for ways to increase speed of service at her hospital and to that end she recently purchased several new turbo microwaves specifically designed to prepare high-quality food fast.
“We’re segmenting the kitchen so we have the quick-prepare food line for the patients versus what we do for our retail spaces,” she says. “The microwaves will be used specifically on the room service line, and the food will be delivered to the patient within 45 minutes from the time his or her meal is ordered. We’re looking not only to increase satisfaction but also incorporate current trends onto the room-service menu.” By using this kind of equipment, she adds, “you can tweak your menus rapidly and also have new menus in your patients’ rooms quickly.”
Jaskowski says she expects the addition of the turbo microwaves to help her cut the department’s food costs significantly since everything will be prepared on a patient-by-patient basis.
“It is [well known] you can reduce food costs by cooking to order,” she says. “If a patient gets a meal when he or she is not hungry, that food tends to get wasted. This way there won’t be a lot of leftovers or waste and the nutritional outcome will improve as well.”
At Oregon Health and Sciences University Hospital in Portland, Ore., Steve Hiatt, director of food and nutrition services, says patient satisfaction scores at the 550-bed acute care facility have improved significantly since it began operating room service delivery in February 2010. The increased scores are due mainly to improved speed of service and delivery times, he says, and he attributes this to the new two-way paging system he has put into place.
“We’ve seen a big jump in patient satisfaction, from the bottom third to the top 20% among our competitors,” he says.
Hiatt says the hospital adopted the same room service system employed at the Gaylord Hotel in Washington, D.C., which consists of orders delivered via motorized carts. In order to keep the deliveries orderly and on schedule, Hiatt’s staff wear special paging devices around their necks so they can be reached at all times.
“Basically, the device alerts you to incoming calls,” he says. “All of our room service associates use the system, which allows them to communicate among themselves. They can call down and ask the estimated time of arrival for a particular meal, or if a meal needs to be altered or changed, that can be done quickly, too.”
But despite its resounding success, Hiatt indicated the system does have some technological glitches that need to be worked out.
“We always want to invest wisely and leverage technology whenever we can,” he says. “Sometimes the [paging device] doesn’t work that well. This is an old building and there are blockages at times.”
Exhaust systems: One area in which numerous improvements have been made is in the production of air exhaust systems, says Bill Eaton, chairman of Cini-Little, a Germantown, Md.-based foodservice consultancy.
“There is a lot of innovation going on and in aggressive fashion,” he says. “New equipment reduces the amount of air exhausted as well as the energy used so the operator is benefiting from lower utility costs and the planet is benefiting from less, but higher quality air, being exhausted.”
Additionally, Eaton says there is a new system on the market that captures exhaust from cooking in the flues. It is then used to reheat water for various other processes in the kitchen. He also says there has been “considerable improvement in ventless hoods, including one system that captures the air normally exhausted from the range fryer or cooking devices, treats it and then returns it to the kitchen as clean air.” That particular piece has not yet been rolled out but was on display at this year’s National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel & Restaurant Show in Chicago last month.
Installing the proper exhaust system is particularly important to foodservice operations housed in hospitals, says Drew Patterson, assistant director of nutrition services at Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. OSMU, which also began renovating its kitchen facilities, recently purchased new hoods to be placed over its ovens that “recondition, filter and purify the air,” Patterson says. “Since we don’t use any grease at all, the hoods are able to recondition and send the air back into the space. Doing this helps us to not have to run exhaust hoods throughout the hospital.”
Besides offering improved air quality and flow, these improved exhaust systems also are more energy efficient than ever before.
Paula Amols, assistant director of dining at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is practically giddy over the amount of money her department has saved in energy costs since installing a new hood system in 2009 at the school’s Robert Purcell Community Center. According to Amols, the hood monitors energy output based on actual activity.
“Hoods are the biggest energy hog in the kitchen,” she says. “Our system has sensors that [monitor the amount of] smoke or heat and adjusts the speed of its fan based on need. It won’t go full tilt when you’re cooking something that is not throwing off a lot of heat or steam. That’s a huge energy savings. We’ve reduced the use of our hoods by 30%. Instead of running it 24 hours a day, we’ve cut [usage by] six to seven hours a day, saving us close to $50,000 a year on electricity—and that’s at just one location.”
The university completed installation of the new hoods at all of its kitchen facilities earlier this year, Amols says.
Despite the myriad pieces of new equipment to choose from, consultants and operators agree that some of the best kitchen technology comes in the guise of the combi oven, a combination convection oven/steam cooker that produces dry or moist heat at various temperatures. The oven bakes, roasts, grills, steams, braises, blanches and poaches in quicker cook times than traditional ovens, thus streamlining prep time and improving efficiency. Not only that, the oven’s high-tech, computerized memory function allows input and storage of recipes that allow for uniform quality at the touch of a button.
“A lot of these ovens are computer controlled,” says Paul Hysen, principal of the Hysen Group, a consulting firm in Northville, Mich. “If you are baking bread, for example, you could control the steam and dry heat cycles, and you could do the same when cooking meats—control the dry heat and high humidity cycles for specific products or temperatures and get a more uniform level of cooking throughout.”
According to Sam Bennett, director of hospitality services for Texas Tech University in Lubbock, the combi oven “is the wave of the future or at least it should be because it has so many advantages.” The university, which is in the midst of a kitchen renovation, has installed the ovens at its catering division and is planning to add them to its food court facilities this summer.
“Basically, its an oven and steamer that offers a combination of wet and dry heat,” he says. “With the old type of cooking system, our staff would be laboring on pre-prep day, before and even on the day of. With this new system, we can do things a day out, making it a lot easier on the kitchen. Long story short, our efficiency, quality of product and speed of service have improved tremendously.”
Amols, who so far has purchased 18 combi ovens for Cornell, indicated the machine’s versatility and consistency are two of its biggest selling points.
“We use them to make chicken, pasta and even baked goods and fried foods,” she says. “We got rid of the fryers we had in the back because the ovens do french fries and other fried products amazingly well, and they’re made with much less oil. We also are using four of the ovens for baking and my baker just loves them. It’s all about consistency and quality, plus you can’t overlook the speed factor especially when you are feeding thousands of customers a day.”
Despite all of the positives, Amols acknowledged that the ovens require significant training in order to ensure her staff uses them properly.
“The hardest part for us has been training and teaching staff not to use them as just glorified steamers,” she says. “We’ve been struggling with that a little. When they use it as a steamer or regular oven, they’re not looking at all of the things they can cook on it instead of using tilt skillets, fryers and kettles. It can be a frustration to see them not using the equipment to its fullest potential. We have had some intensive training classes, but it also takes constant reinforcement and you have to have good buy-in from the staff.”
While it is clear that manufacturers are working to improve technology in order to keep up with client requests, it is not all that surprising that Microsoft Corp. prides itself on leading the charge when it comes to replacing its own outdated equipment with new, higher tech versions that feature the latest improvements in computerization. According to Mark Freeman, employee services senior manager, the company recently installed a brand new blast chiller that stores HACCP data wirelessly.
“Essentially it is a data logger with a computer module built into the unit itself that transmits the data wirelessly to your PC,” Freeman says. “It records the food in the chiller so you have a complete log of what took place, albeit virtually. The blast-chill process is a huge part of the foodservice operation here, and this helps us make sure we’ve got a HACCP trail on proper food management.”
Freeman notes that Microsoft is turning the technology tables on equipment manufacturers by developing a software program he says could help them compete more effectively in the marketplace.
“We’ve talked to a couple of manufacturers and started to explore how we can bring technology to them,” he says. “One of the things we have is a product called Tags, which basically [operates as] a second bar code. Right now we use it in the front of the house [to promote specials] or explain nutritional information. When you [photograph the bar code] with your phone it takes you to a web page. We see potential for this with back-of-the-house manuals. A repair person can snap the bar code on the inside of the machine door and have access to all manuals.”
Going “green:” But amid all of these advances, some of the biggest breakthroughs are coming in the form of “green” technology. According to consultants, energy saving and environmentally friendly equipment are extremely popular with operators.
“What’s happening mostly is the ‘greening’ of kitchens,” says Mark Romano, principal of foodservice consultant Romano-Gatland, based in Lindenhurst, N.Y. “Operators are much more conscious about where waste is going and how they are generating it.
Cini-Little’s Eaton echoed those assertions, saying, “Composting certainly is a direction we are and will continue to be focused on, mostly in pulping and extracting the liquid.”
Romano further notes that a lot of attention is being paid to energy systems and savings. “We’re seeing a definite push toward [the purchase of] Energy Star equipment,” he says.
Microsoft’s Freeman says this year’s North American Food Equipment Manufacturers, or NAFEM, show featured numerous Energy Star products for operators to choose from.
“We were down in Orlando, and everything was Energy Star,” he says. “That definitely is a trend.”
With a primary goal of reducing energy costs and usage at her operation, Mary B. Gregoire, director of food and nutrition services at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says she has purchased quite a bit of Energy Star equipment recently. The new equipment will play a big role in the 676-bed hospital’s renovation of its three kitchens and the proposed build-out of new galley kitchens on eight floors in eight different units.
“We are always looking for energy and water savings when we [buy] any equipment,” she says. “We’ve moved over to Energy Star dish machines, for example, because they offer better water recirculation and use of chemicals. There are water, energy use and conservation issues that go into the purchasing of this kind of equipment.”
According to Eaton, several more developments in green equipment will debut soon, including energy efficient deep-fat fryers that increase production while reducing the amount of fat and energy used and a mobile hot-food holding cabinet with a solar panel that operates its controls.
“People are truly looking to make breakthrough discoveries and move us closer to a better environment and healthier planet,” he says.