The underlying theme throughout the National Restaurant Association Show floor as it related to equipment trends was "energy efficiency." This wasn't so much the case in past years. (Click here to see photos.)
Sarah Puls, business unit manager at Hobart, said consumers initially drove the "green" trend, but operators balked because of costs. Now, operators are driving the movement.
"Operators are starting to realize there is an ROI (to energy efficiency) and that Energy Star is credible," Puls said. "The recession sort of started this move toward standardization because people had to save money down to the last penny. And now, operators are looking for ways to offset additional costs such as Obamacare."
Thanks to the saturation of data software companies, equipment manufacturers are also held more accountable these days. Arby's, for example, uses Ecova to gauge the energy usage in its kitchens. In 2011, the chain experienced an overall increase in KiloWatt usage, while the QSR industry had a decrease. After analyzing data, executives realized the culprit was one single piece of equipment, which was promptly replaced, according to Scott Boatwright, senior vice president of Operations.
"Having a company like Ecova really helps you understand energy opportunities. Last year, we had a 6 percent reduction in energy costs just from behavior. Energy-efficient equipment is now the standard and it should be because of the payback," he said.
The standardization was underscored at this year's KI pavilion (check out a slideshow here), which featured 21 pieces of equipment, many of which boasted energy-efficient features. For example, Master-Bilt's Parallel Glycol Rack System refrigerates food through glycol loop technology, which adjusts temperatures to lower energy consumption by up to 25 percent.
Manitowoc Kolpak's ArticFox is an on-demand defrost control that activates only when needed. KE2's Evaporator Efficiency's refrigeration control technology significantly reduces energy consumption and temperature fluctuation by triggering defrost cycles only when necessary.
Hobart's Advansys LXeR Undercounter warewasher recycles hot water vapor to preheat incoming cold water, which reduces steam release when the door is opened after cycles, and lowers overall energy consumption. And so on and so forth.
"This year's Kitchen Innovations Awards recipients address today's leading commercial kitchen equipment challenges with advancements in energy efficiency and sustainability," said Jeffery W. Davis, convention chair for show. "These innovations will have a substantial impact on the efficiency and success of restaurant kitchens, as well as the profitability of the restaurant itself."
In addition to energy-saving features, time-saving and data-mining were also central themes throughout the pavilion.
For example, Ovention's Matchbox oven self-loads and unloads by using two alternating cook surfaces. It doesn't require a hood and enables food items to be cooked one after another.
Middleby Marshall's WOW 2 Oven allows operators to control bake temperatures and conveyor speed, plus adjust airflow to the top and bottom impingement ports independently for faster, consistent baking and menu flexibility.
And, Technologies Coffea Inc.'s vacuum brewing system allows for a programmable bean-to-cup brew process for fast extraction.
"Big data" is quickly becoming a necessity for operators who want to better manage their bottom lines. There are now a few solutions to help them gauge kitchen efficiencies, such as Pentair's Everpure SimpliFlow Water Management System, which keeps water lines organized, accessible and easily identifiable to save time and reduce error.
Frontline International's M3 Data Management System is used for waste oil systems, delivering detailed reports/analysis, diagnostic and "tank full" status alerts, and real-time monitoring.
And, Ecolab's Smart Care Program was designed for critical kitchen equipment that includes proprietary asset management/reporting technology, customer-facing online tracking tools, equipment cleaning and sanitation products. It also features preprogrammed critical parts on technician service vehicles for same-day emergency fixes, reduced operating costs and maximum asset ROI.
Outside of the pavilion
The equipment featured in the KI pavilion certainly was sexy, but there was plenty going on throughout the rest of the floor as well.
Oil filtration/recycling seems to be picking up interest, as evidenced by Vito USA's Mohamed Makawai's estimation that his company received about 17,000 leads during the show. "This is huge right now because companies care about cleanliness and employee safety," he said.
Henny Penny also showcased its Evolution Elite, which the company claims cooks the same amount of food using 40 percent less oil than traditional open fryers. The equipment also extends the oil life through a 4-minute filtration. This is important for many reasons, namely because oil is the second highest expense in a restaurant featuring fried foods – behind labor.
As the Coca-Cola Freestyle deployment continues to move at a staggering pace, Ice-O-Matic has "solved a big problem" regarding the machine's dimensions, which are different than a traditional fountain. Ice-O-Matic's ice machine for Coca-Cola Freestyle hits the market on June 3 and the first week is already sold, according to Scott Deschetler.
"The top of the Freestyle is 26 inches wide, so it takes a 22-inch cuber to sit on top. But the Freestyle needs a robust machine that can recover quickly ice and this machine solves that void. And Freestyle is expanding in the marketplace, you need a machine that is robust with a lot of ice," he said.
Speaking of savvy beverage dispense technologies, Xylem unveiled the BevJet Compact system, designed for tight spaces and smaller footprints; and the V-Jet series rotary vane pump, which is ideal for specialty carbonation or hot beverages.
"The BevJet Compact is optimal for the spatial constraints presented by today's dining architecture. The V-Jet series pump head offers a smooth-running solution that drives balanced carbonation or hot drink applications," said Peter Wright, director, global product management, specialty products for Xylem.
As more operators diversify their high-margin beverage lineup, Vitamix has launched its Modular Blending System, ideal for frozen drinks and smoothie creation in a fast-paced restaurant. The blender is quiet and compact and blends consistently every time. It was specifically created for high volume, drive-thru quick-service restaurants.
"When it comes to making smoothies and frozen treats, every second counts," said Lisa Klein, vice president of commercial sales, Vitamix. "The Modular Blending System has been designed to outperform competitive machines in speed, precision and cost-efficiency to achieve even greater profit margins for any frozen beverage program."
Slideshow by Cherryh Butler.
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Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.