How foodservice equipment manufacturers are meeting the demand for products that save time and energy while boosting profits
By Sara Perez Webber
They say too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth. But what about too many appliances in the kitchen?
The wrong type or size of foodservice equipment can certainly hinder performance, affecting output and profits. That’s why savvy operators seek to outfit their kitchens and bars with problem-solving tools—products and equipment that save time, energy and money. Manufacturers are heeding the call, introducing smarter and sleeker devices designed to prevent problems rather than create them.
Eighteen such innovative products recently won the 2020 Kitchen Innovations (KI) Award, an honor bestowed by the National Restaurant Association Show. The award-winning products address operator concerns such as labor, inventory management, cleanliness, energy efficiency, food safety, sanitation, cross-functionality and space-saving measures. (Normally, winners would be displayed at the interactive Kitchen Innovations Showroom at the National Restaurant Association Show, which was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For a complete list of winners, see p. 46.)
A panel of judges with expertise in foodservice equipment selects the recipients, including Dan Bendall, principal at FoodStrategy, Inc. According to Bendall, the judges analyze and discuss entries, deciding what’s truly innovative versus what’s simply an improvement on an existing product. “Sometimes it’s a fine line,” he says. “If something has a function that wasn’t out there before, or significantly improves the time it takes to do something, that would be classified more as an innovation.”
Take, for example, Hoshizaki’s Sphere Ice Machine. The first of its kind in North America, this KI Award winner can drive bar sales, notes Bendall, by enhancing the appearance of cocktails with a large ball of ice rather than cubes. Currently bars serving spherical ice cubes—which also melt more slowly, so drinks don’t get watered down—have to create them using molds. Hoshizaki’s undercounter ice machine produces 500 ice spheres daily.
Equipment that helps operators cut down on labor fulfills a need in the market, says Bendall. “If you ask any restaurant operator what’s the biggest challenge that you face, it’s always going to be labor—getting the right help, getting trained help, getting any help at all,” he says. Manufacturers have focused on labor-saving equipment in the last couple of years, notes Bendall.
Another example is the KI Award-winning Auto Burn Technology for ice bin melting from Omni-Rinse. The new product, either integrated in the bin or in portable form, delivers a hot water stream to an ice bin, breaking up the ice more rapidly than manual efforts. Making it easier for operators to perform a necessary task, “this is a labor-saver,” says Bendall.
Multifunctional equipment is another trend reflected in the KI Award winners. Beverage-Air’s Cross Temp can serve as a refrigerator or a freezer, switching between the two typically within an hour. “It’s a convenience item, a space-saver and a cost-saver,” notes Bendall. “You wouldn’t need to have a refrigerator with a freezer right next to it; you could have just one piece of equipment.”
Even seemingly simple innovations can have an impact on the bottom line. Bendall points to True Manufacturing’s Reversing Condenser Fan Motor, another KI Award winner. The patented system reverses the condenser fan motor for 15 to 20 seconds each time the fan cycles on, blowing the dirt off the coil. The cleaner coils save energy, while staff needs to clean them less and service calls decrease.
“It’s one of those things that a customer will never see, but from the operator’s point of view, that’s going to save them money,” says Bendall.
Responding to the Market
We asked six food-and-beverage equipment manufacturers what their clients are asking for, how they identify needs in the market, and how the products they offer are meeting those needs. Here’s what they told us.
Tortilla Masters Equipment
Innovative foodservice equipment fulfills a need in the market, as Javier Alatorre demonstrated with Tortilla Masters Equipment’s Ventura Flex Tabletop Corn Tortilla Machine. When Alatorre—who was already in the tortilla-making supply business—noticed that no one was selling a tabletop machine that made corn tortillas in the U.S. market, he developed one.
He sold the first working prototype to Facebook, which utilizes it in a taco bar for employees, in 2018. A month later, Alatorre and his wife Leticia Alatorre, who helps with sales and operations, were visiting The Venetian in Las Vegas. Alatorre showed a video of the machine to a chef at the hotel’s Cañonita restaurant and sold another. Sales followed to small taquerias, hotels, taco trucks, large restaurant chains and corporations, such as Nike, Yahoo and TripAdvisor.
Still the only tabletop corn tortilla machine on the market, the Ventura Flex makes 840 ready-to-cook corn tortillas an hour. With stainless-still construction and food grade plastic rollers, the 2-foot-by-2-foot machine was designed to require little to no maintenance. “I don’t want to receive calls that the machine is not working,” says Alatorre. The NSF- and ETL-certified Ventura Flex connects to any outlet (115v).
“Now restaurants know how to make tortillas,” says Alatorre, who adds that Ventura Flex users like the freshly made flavor so much that they’re buying corn grinders from Tortilla Depot, Tortilla Masters’ sister company. “Instead of buying packaged tortillas, people are looking to do the whole process,” he says.
When it comes to purchasing food-and-beverage equipment, “safety for both staff and customers is an important trend,” says George Shepherd, owner and president of Bar Maid Corp. “Food and beverage operations of all types are trying to reduce glassware handling, glass breakage and associated injuries. Safety is the number-one reason operators say they are purchasing the Bar Maid GP-100 Commercial Glass Polisher.” The GP-100 is a lightweight portable glass polisher that polishes up to 350 glasses, inside and out, per hour. It utilizes soft microfiber twine, minimizing stress on glassware and reducing potential for breakage. The soft polishing heads provide a sanitary and consistent polish all the way to the bottom of the glass.
Safety is also a selling point for Bar Maid’s Citrus Wedger, which cuts lemons or limes into eight or 16 perfect wedges in one easy motion. The time-saving wedger reduces the potential for knife injuries.
“Labor costs are increasing and smart operators are trying to do more with less,” says Shepherd. Products such as the CP-3000 and CP-7000 Cutlery Polishers maximize efficiency, drying and polishing thousands of pieces of cutlery per hour (up to 3,000 and 7,000 pieces, respectively). Warm, wet cutlery is taken from the dishwasher and inserted into the polisher’s chute. Polished, dry, sanitized cutlery exits from the side chute into a clean bus pan or rack.
Shepherd notes that more customers require third-party testing and look for products with little to no maintenance. All Bar Maid glass polishers and cutlery polishers (as well as other products) are ETL-certified and backed by warranty.
At Perlick, which manufactures food-and-beverage storage and serving solutions, demand is high for customization, according to Heather Shannon, senior brand marketing manager. “From a design perspective, we are seeing a lot of customized draft towers used for beer, wine, cocktails and cold brew coffee on tap,” she says. “Our customers want the towers designed to fit the exact look and feel of their space, so each custom tower is different. Many of the towers that are hot right now are ‘mixed towers,’ meaning they can dispense multiple types of beverages from the same tower.”
Shannon notes that Perlick’s cold-brew coffee on tap systems are growing in popularity, as there’s “a trend towards younger generations drinking less alcohol, and looking for alternative beverage options while out at bars and restaurants.” Millennials are also looking for quality over quantity. “They want better, fresher, sustainable-type ingredients,” she says. “This is true for beer, cocktails, wine and non-alcoholic drinks.”
Operators are also emphasizing safety and efficiency when making purchases. “Several of our products, like the Tobin Ellis Signature Cocktail Station, put bartender health and bar efficiency first, ensuring that bartenders can make drinks more quickly and more easily without the health risks typically associated with bartending, making them more tips and helping the establishment’s bottom line,” says Shannon.
Perlick recently introduced the Quick Ship program, also designed to enhance their customers’ efficiency. The program offers next-day shipping on select replacement products, in the event a product breaks down, so operators can stay up and running.
People are snacking more than ever, with large snacks replacing meals, according to Edward Nunn, business development manager at Hatco Corp. “More than 80 percent of consumers snack at least once per day, and over 50 percent snack more than once,” he says.
Hatco teamed up with Suntec Corp. to respond to this growing trend. The Snack System, available with a single or dual electric baker, features replaceable plates that can be easily switched. The system comes with standard round Belgian waffle plates and an additional set of plates of the buyer’s choosing: freestyle, coffee bean, sandwich, panini, donut or chelky. It helps operators serve breakfast items, lunch foods and an assortment of snacks in between.
Responding to the all-day breakfast trend, Hatco and its commercial partner Krampouz offer Electric Waffle Makers.Operators can warm up pre-made frozen product or cook fresh waffles from their own batter. Insulated heating elements create an even heat distribution across the surface of the plates, and the innovative Easy Clean System allows for instant removal of the waffle irons.
According to Nunn, operators are also looking for kitchen equipment that boasts ease of use. “Labor is tight and costly, so anything to reduce it” is attractive to buyers, he says. Features such as the memory-retentive warming levels in Hatco’s Palletti Induction Warmers fit the bill. When the unit is powered back on after being turned off, it will automatically go to the last setting (the warmer features five precise warming levels to suit a variety of food types). The warmers also help meet the demand for live-action presentations. With safety features including no open flames and an automatic shut-off, the 600W countertop and built-in warmers have a greater power for larger volume applications, while the 360W countertop warmers allow multiple units to be interconnected to one electrical outlet.
According to Ken Adams, inside sales manager at MEIKO, customers choose the company’s dishwashers for their low water, chemical and energy consumption. “Smart booster heater, active filtration and dual wall insulated features all help achieve the maximum ROI,” he says.
MEIKO’s M-iQ fight-type dishwashers, for example, help customers achieve annual savings in detergent, water and energy. Its user-friendly features—such as the CC-Touch intuitive wash control system, with a high-resolution display that only shows the controls that can be used in each situation—also reduce labor costs.
User-friendly, labor-saving features are also present on such models as the M-iClean U small commercial dishwasher. For example, the M-iClean U features an LED handle that lights up to show whether the glass and dish washer is ready for use (blue), washing efficiently (green) or has an important message (red).
Mid-year, MEIKO is releasing in the U.S. the M-iClean U with ComfortAir technology. “This new technology will change the standards in the market with its reduction of steam and its drying results,” says Adams. It’s an undercounter dishwasher/glasswasher with a special design that captures steam before it can leave the machine, and then reuses it as a heat source, reducing energy costs. Moisture is reduced by 98 percent on plates and 75 percent on glassware, virtually eliminating the need for hand polishing (which saves on labor costs). Additional benefits include energy savings due to cooler kitchens, and the ability to unload dishes sooner, improving turnaround time.
“Ease of use, sanitation, longevity and reliability” are the most important features customers are looking for when buying equipment for their kitchens, says Kevin Keith, national project manager for Robot Coupe. “Reliable sales and service support are also very key when your operations depend on the equipment, which is why Robot Coupe is a strong brand name in the industry.”
A patented removable bell assembly for sanitation is one of the selling points of the company’s stick blender line. “With 20 models, we have the largest and most reliable selection of products in the market,” says Keith. The new MP 450 Turbo power mixer is specially designed for intensive use in commercial or institutional catering, and is ideal for blending soups, and pureeing fruit and vegetables.
“Since many schools, commissaries and corporate kitchens are doing large volumes, there is an uptrend in larger pieces of commercial foodservice equipment to be in a central location,” says Keith, such as Robot Coupe vegetable prep machines and vertical cutter mixers. “Our No Disc line of equipment, which is new this year, allows you to select your preferred disc packages to complement your individual needs.” The No Disc option allows buyers to choose the right CL vegetable prep machine for their business, followed by the right disc package, depending on their needs.
Additional new products include the J 80 Buffet juicer, which is “critical for maximum output and reliability,” says Keith. The J 80 is designed to make large quantities of fresh juice from any type of fruit and vegetable in just a few seconds.