Utility Player

by Katie Lee

Stretching menu options with flexible kitchen equipment.

By Carolyn Bilger

A confluence of changing tastes, rising commercial rents and increased labor costs is pushing small kitchens and institutional foodservice operations alike to become more flexible, rethinking everything from their menus and kitchen sizes to the equipment they use. 

From quick-service restaurants to full-service dine-ins, bakeries to institutional foodservice operations, flexibility in the kitchen has become crucial for keeping up with the changing tastes of customers. And as diners’ palates have become more refined, foodservice operations have to work harder, often in smaller spaces. How to do it?  A strong dose of menu creativity plus kitchen equipment that offers flexibility shows one potential path toward profitability.

Refined Palates, Rising Labor Costs & Smaller Kitchens

One of the strongest drivers of change for foodservice is coming from a new generation of diners. As is well documented, the Millennial generation, now the largest in America, has developed an increasing interest in food and dining that is making a significant impact on culinary trends. As a result, a majority of chefs and kitchen operators from a variety of foodservice categories report that growth in menu choices has become key to their daily operations.

Our industry research found that between 70% and 90% of foodservice operations in medical, senior living, hospitality and secondary and higher education institutions serve dynamic menus that change on a daily or weekly basis. And when including full-service and QSR operations, the average foodservice operation prepares about 80 different menu items per month, all in an effort to satisfy the expanding tastes of Millennials and the dining public at large.

At the same time, while dealing with the challenges of serving patrons fresh, exciting and seasonal menu options, kitchen operators also find themselves facing higher labor costs from rising minimum wages (14 states increased theirs at the start of 2016), insurance requirements mandated by the Affordable Care Act, and an overall tightening labor market. Combined, these developments require kitchens to find ways to do more with less. As one hospital foodservice manager responding to our research survey said: “We have had a significant decrease in our staff over the past few years, while at the same time we have really worked to improve our food service and presentation in order to improve our patient satisfaction scores. So we’re working a lot harder with a lot fewer people.”

Mixer HL200 wTray VS9 PanHalf wProd QRBut there is another factor pushing foodservice operators towards flexibility: real estate. As National Real Estate Investor magazine reported in April 2016, retail rents were expected to rise an average 4% for the year. This development comes on the heels of an even faster increase in rents in major metropolitan regions for the past several years. This trend has led the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration to make the case for smaller commercial kitchens. In a period of time when major metro economies are expanding and commercial rents are increasing, many restaurants are looking at smaller spaces that require fewer covers per hour to be financially feasible.

Flexible Kitchen Equipment

While dynamic menus and smaller kitchens can be a path to thriving in the current environment, the approach comes with a particular challenge: building an efficient kitchen that can handle changing, seasonal menus in fewer square feet. 

Recognizing that it isn’t realistic or feasible for many kitchens to purchase specialized equipment that is used in the creation of just a few menu items, manufacturers are building kitchen appliances that can justify every inch of the valuable space they take up. 

Combination food processors are one example of these kinds of products. Offering the flexibility of either bowl style or continuous feed processing, combination food processors provide the ability to slice, grind, cut, grate, dice and more. They also save time by freeing kitchen staff from chopping and slicing by hand, and they save on space by delivering two machines in one package.

If a kitchen doesn’t require the capacity of a heavy duty floor or spiral mixer, countertop mixers offer an option with the ability to double or triple their utility with by adding attachments like vegetable choppers and meat grinders. Unlike floor mixers, countertop mixers can be moved to where they are needed, and simple controls mean that everyone in the kitchen can learn how to use them.

Combi ovens are another good choice for kitchens looking to gain maximum utility from minimum square footage. A combi oven is an oven with three functions: convection, steam and combination cooking. In the convection mode, the oven circulates dry heat — ideal for pastries and breads. The steam mode injects water into the oven to poach fish, rice and vegetables. The true genius behind the combi oven is the combination mode, which uses both dry heat and steam to maintain exact humidity levels — thus providing greater control of the moisture levels in food. These levels are adjustable from 0 to 100% of possible maximum relative humidity. Combi ovens can help kitchens reduce shrinkage, save time and labor, eliminate flavor transfer from multiple foods cooked at the same time, deliver consistent results, enable sous vide cooking and do it with greater energy efficiency than traditional ovens.

As demand for dual purpose products increases, foodservice operators can expect equipment manufacturers will continue to develop hardworking products that squeeze maximum utility from every inch of the kitchen.


— Carolyn Bilger is senior marketing manager, ITW Food Equipment Group – Hobart Branded Food Machines. ITW Food Equipment Group is home to Hobart, Baxter, Traulsen and other leading kitchen equipment brands. Bilger may be reached at [email protected].

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