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issue: February 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Commercial Foodservice Equipment
Dishing Up Efficiency


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by Jill Russell, Senior Associate Editor

In the foodservice industry, commercial equipment manufacturers are aiming to decrease cooking times and unit footprints while increasing ease-of-use and reliability to give owners more bang for their buck.

Electrolux Professional North America, after first entering the North American market in 2004, said it aims to be a top supplier of commercial foodservice equipment by 2009 and is moving toward its goal with numerous product introductions. These include the company's new line of commercial refrigerators, which, in addition to featuring a control and memory system for added reliability, is also energy efficient with the use of its cyclopentane insulating foam. According to Scott Applebee, director of marketing and product management for the company, the foam has no environmental impact and does not contain any air bubbles, and, therefore, increxases its insulating capabilities.

In its most recent restaurant activity index, the U.S. National Restaurant Association reported its Restaurant Performance Index hit 101.5 in November 2005 after increasing 1.2 percent from 100.2 in September. The number, unchanged from October, marks the 31st consecutive month above 100 and, according to the association, represents expansion as same-store sales and customer traffic both experienced growth in the 1-month period. And according to the Restaurant Association's Restaurant Industry Forecast, the upward trend is set to follow the upswing in the economy and continue through 2006 with sales increasing 5.1 percent and reaching a record of U.S. $511 billion—marking the first time industry sales will pass more than a half-trillion dollars.

With consumers carrying more cash in their pocketbooks, foodservice owners know there is more money to be spent on fast and easy options. Foodservice operators are seeking multi-faceted, and energy-, time- and space-efficient equipment to serve up orders quickly—and with a reduced labor force.

According Charlie Souhrada, director of member services for the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM), motivating factors for more time- and space-efficient equipment include higher real estate prices, higher energy prices and a reduced labor pool. "The type of equipment that we need to provide to operators needs to be easy to operate and provide multiple uses," he tells APPLIANCE. "Equipment also needs to fit into an increasingly smaller work area so that owners can dedicate more area to the revenue-generating front of the house."

To help buyers achieve high-quality product results with limited space and time, food equipment manufacturers are providing commercial equipment integrated with unique technologies.

Quick Speed for a Quick Serve

OEMs are focusing on the speed and functionality of commercial cooking equipment. Buyers, already faced with limited space restraints, want one unit that can pretty much do it all—and do it quickly. In other words, buyers want efficient equipment, but not just in the traditional sense.

Offering induction technology as an efficient, one-stop solution is Chicago, Illinois, U.S.-based CookTek, Inc. According to Warren Graber, director of engineering, induction cooking technology is 93-percent energy efficient, compared to gas or electric cooking methods, which both rate in at only about 55 percent. Using a magnetic field to create heat directly in the metal material of the cook pan, Graber says the technology is so efficient because there is no wasted energy—whatever induction energy is created is directly transferred to the pan. "There is no energy lost heating the air or heating the cooktop," he tells APPLIANCE. "What comes out of the wall as electricity literally ends up in the pan."

The company recently introduced a new buffet system as part of its Apogee line of cooktops that feature LCD displays and microprocessor technology, which performs self diagnostic checks 120 times per second and shuts down the unit if a problem is detected. Equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, named SmarTag™ Technology by CookTek, the cooktop wirelessly communicates with the pan and adjusts the cooking according to user specifications. CookTek says an RFID tag in the pan sends its temperature to the appliance, which then adjusts automatically to the desired temperature, ensuring an even cooking process. For example, the chafing dishes on the company's buffet system can signal the unit to maintain a "keep-warm" setting. More than 100 settings are available.

The company says because the cooktop is an induction system, it offers a variety of safety benefits over other buffet methods, such as canned fuel or steam tables, and provides enhanced control over the final product, in addition to providing fast and precise heat-up times.

Amana Commercial Products is also helping to meet the need of fast, efficient service with its line of combination cooking products. The units are said to offer cooking times that are 12 times as fast, which Amana enabled by combining three cooking technologies in one unit. The Amana, Iowa, U.S.-based company's Amana® Veloci High Speed Convection Oven combines infrared radiant technology. The unit is equipped with a catalytic converter, which is KLNZ-approved by UL and doesn't need an exhaust system so it can be installed virtually anywhere in the kitchen.

According to Kami Poppen, new product manager for Amana Commercial Products, the unit is also equipped with an auto voltage sensor to further ease installation. "Of the two standard voltages the oven can operate—either 208 V or 230 V—the oven will actually sense what voltage is there and operate properly," she explains. "There is no real thinking about where to install it or what kind of voltage there is. You just install it by plugging it in." Additionally, the Veloci features a four-stage cooking option that defrosts, cooks or holds items at the touch of a button and users are able to program up to 100 menu items for one-button operation in the future.

First entering the North American commercial market in 2004, Sweden-based appliance maker Electrolux has made some waves with its commercial equipment. Scott Applebee, director of marketing and product management for Electrolux Professional, says buyers are continually asking for more space-efficient, modular and flexible equipment for their kitchens.

One solution the company provided was its pressure-braising pan. Considered to be "must have" in Europe, the appliance has been slower to catch on elsewhere, but is now gaining in popularity. According to the company, cooking times are reduced 50 percent as foods are cooked under the pressure of steam instead of water. "The primary benefit is that it cooks very quickly and it doesn't change the form of the food," Applebee says. Additionally, Electrolux says the technology allows several foods to be cooked simultaneously as there is no taste transfer by the water vapor utilized in the process.

A maker of induction cooktop systems, CookTek, Inc. says the technology is about 40 percent more efficient than traditional gas or electric cooking methods. Directly transferring energy to a cook pan to create heat, the company says an added benefit to induction cooking is the elimination of "extra" energy. Warren Graber, director of engineering for CookTek explains, "All the heat [with other methods] ends up in the air and ends up being handled by the air-conditioning. With induction cooking, there is no extra energy loss."

Conserving Energy

Besides needing efficient equipment in terms of cooking times, restaurant owners continue to be energy conscious and demand increasingly energy efficient equipment. Electrolux is providing energy efficient food preservation solutions with its commercial refrigerators. Equipped with probes near the evaporator coil, the company's Smart Refrigerator automatically detects ice build-up on the coil and defrosts accordingly—instead of periodically defrosting based on a pre-programmed and timed algorithm.

Applebee says the feature helps to save energy and extend the product's life as it is only defrosting when needed, at the first sign of ice build-up. "When you don't have this feature, it takes more energy to defrost because it runs the defrost cycle when it isn't needed or works harder to remove large amounts of ice that have built up. The probe system detects it early on in the process and defrosts right away, ultimately using less energy."

The refrigerator also features probes that manage ambient and internal storage temperatures that, along with condenser and evaporator temperatures, can monitor time and temperature history and can recall past data in order to run the unit for another

24 hours in the case of a power failure or malfunction of the unit. Another benefit of the memory, Electrolux says, is that it monitors Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) information. Applebee says that if the unit's temperatures were to rise or drop into a "danger" zone, an alarm would alert the operator, helping to ensure food is stored at the adequate temperatures.

Thinking Green

Although important, energy isn't the only resource equipment manufacturers are working to help restaurants conserve. Commercial dishwasher and warewasher maker Meiko is helping the foodservice industry save water with its K-Tronic conveyors that are said to wash and sanitize up to 310 racks per hour using only 0.28 gallons of water per rack.

According to Martin Schenk, president of Meiko, companies are starting to adopt more environmentally friendly products in the foodservice industry. "In general, customers today are much more aware of life cycle costing of a particular product," he notes. "While the up-front costs of product are still a concern, the long term costs of the product are being analyzed as part of the purchase. Customers want to be able to communicate and analyze a specific product and how it pertains to both energy and labor management."

In response, the Anaheim, California, U.S.-based company included a heat exchanger system on its K-Tronic Series to capture the heat produced from the unit, normally exhausted outside, and use it to heat the water for the final rinse cycle. The unit also helps to conserve water with its Auxiliary Rinse Zone that uses recycled water from the final rinse stage of the washer in addition to a fresh water rinse prior to the sanitizing rinse. The company says decreased energy use and water savings result from the reduced need of fresh water and energy spent heating it.

Commercial oven maker Lang integrated digital controls in its recent product introductions to increase reliability and fast service for the operator. Its ChefSeries™ convection oven features its EnviroStar™ controls that are programmed at the factory to operator specifications. According to the company, this eliminates the possibility of a user adjusting the cooktime and ensures a consistent food product.

A Standard Control

Besides literally making the units themselves more efficient, commercial foodservice equipment manufacturers are making their products easier to use and efficient by way of digital controls and interactive electronics.

To help increase the efficiency and reliability of its equipment, commercial oven manufacturer Lang (Everett, Washington, U.S.) recently redesigned its ChefSeries™ convection oven line and provided two new electronic control options. Mike Roff, vice president of business development for the company, says the EnviroStar™ control is programmed at the factory according to the product program the customer's own research and development department specifies. "This takes away any opportunity for the user at the site to affect the quality of the product with an ‘opinion' as to how it should be done," Roff explains.

In addition, the oven increases employee efficiency as it eliminates the need to rotate pans while baking. Utilizing a two-speed convection fan that alternates and reverses its flow every 90 seconds, it ensures even air flow for consistent baking, maintaining a temperature up to 525°F. "The reversing air flow pressurizes the cavity from two different directions so the product inside does not see air flow cross in one particular direction during the entire bake," Roff says. "Instead of moving the product around in the oven cavity, we move the air around the product."

Other OEMs are choosing digital technology to bring added benefits, including enhanced reliability. One such manufacturer is Springfield, Illinois, U.S.-based commercial coffee and tea maker Bunn Corporation, which employs RFID technology to make the product easier to use. The company's new Infusion Series™ Coffee Brewer uses its BrewWISE® technology to enable a multi-hopper grinder to communicate with the brewer regarding brew time and other pre-programmed information for up to 40 coffees.

Bunn says the technology is useful for restaurants that serve a wide variety of coffees. "They can store beans in the different hoppers and can use the RFID technology to name the hopper with the chip the is embedded in the hopper container," Doug Bishop, product manager of New Product Development for Bunn, explains. "Every time a different hopper is chosen and put in the grinder, it identifies itself and the grinder knows what specifications to use to grind those beans." The technology is also used to control pre-soaking of beans and actual brewing.

A Steady Appetite

Although manufacturers see the U.S. commercial foodservice industry as quite mature and saturated, they also agree the industry is set to experience growth in 2006, with most expecting a 2 percent to 4 percent overall increase. According to Poppen from Amana, the increase is attributed to the renovation and replacement business and says that, as the number of people choosing to eat at restaurants instead of home increases, so will demand for more commercial foodservice equipment. As far as the future of the commercial foodservice industry in concerned, new technologies will help continue raising the bar on efficiency, reliability and usability standards.

According to NAFEM's Souhrada, the foodservice equipment industry agrees future growth is shifting toward replacements and will remain that way for years to come. Anticipating growth of 1 percent to 2 percent, Souhrada says the industry is far from being in bad shape. "It is an industry that is not going to see hockey-stick type growth," he says. "However, people are still going out to eat in record numbers and, as long as that continues, our members will continue to sell commercial equipment."

 

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