Nine High-Tech Trends Reshaping Restaurant Kitchens

By Lisa Terry, Contributing Editor | April 08, 2011

Imagine this: you make an online restaurant reservation, noting that you’ll be celebrating a birthday. Instantly that reservation is linked to your loyalty file with your other preferences and history.
 
When you arrive, the host seats you at your favorite table and your server wishes you a happy birthday, asks if you want your favorite drink and notes that last time you were here, your order came out incorrect, and offers a complimentary appetizer. You order that plus an intriguing new menu item, while your companion orders a salad. Your order whisks from the server’s handwriting-enabled handheld to the kitchen system, which calculates the timing and coursing, including your complex, multi-station entrée and a special molten cupcake dessert, and sends it to digital displays. One worker runs a quick video from the corporate server to remind him of the cooking process for that new entree.
 
As ingredients are used in your dish, the restaurant’s inventory is automatically being debited while the labor system tracks each kitchen worker’s performance. A large screen near the expeditor and a message to the server’s handheld tells her exactly when your full order will be ready, saving steps. Meanwhile, you’re appetizer has arrived and you’re rating its quality on a tabletop tablet device...

The truth is, many of these innovations are available, or technically possible, now. But just as few people imagined one day being dependent upon a smartphone, restaurateurs resisting automation in their kitchens today will come to rely on it to be competitive, productive and profitable. Here, Hospitality Technology covers nine high-tech trends that will enable next-gen kitchens.
 
1. Integration. Information is key for visibility and control, and data not generated in the kitchen must come from the software around it: POS, table management, Web and kiosk ordering, inventory, labor management, etc. Restaurateurs dream of better APIs and (gasp!) even industry data standards to enable access to more detailed data. Radiant Systems (www.radiantsystems.com) is among those already delivering bi-directional communication between the kitchen display system (KDS) and other applications.
 
Brian Pearson, CIO of Stacked Restaurants, a casual chain opening this spring, envisions KDS integrated with labor and POS even for smaller chains, so managers can measure worker performance on specific tasks without having to pull multiple reports. A well-controlled, correctly staffed kitchen is not only more efficient, but can run with a less-experienced expediter, saving money, Pearson says.
 
Kitchen data will also enhance CRM, says Derek Boyd, director of IT at Joey Restaurants (www.joeyrestaurants.com). Imagine the customer satisfaction from this: “I see the kitchen missed your build-time by five minutes last time you were here, please accept this free appetizer,” Boyd says.
 
2. Visibility. Once everything is linked together, operators can get reports and real-time snapshots of nearly every facet of the operation: what’s happening to Web orders? Reservations? Inventory levels? Sales to forecast? How will that impact kitchen demand? Managers can make changes on the fly, before problems hit the bottom line.
 
3. KDS for prep, and the bar. More people will use prep versions of KDS, and these systems will be more “aware” of what’s ideal for cooking processes. “A lot of times restaurants fail in prep because there is too much emotion in it,” says Rusty Winkstern, owner of The Monument Café (www.themonumentcafe.com). His vision: a prep system that considers historical data, suggested PAR levels, recipes and forecasts, and creates cooler/pantry pick lists and a series of tasks for each prep worker, including chef sign-off on each task.
 
4. Web connectivity. In tomorrow’s kitchen lots of info will come from corporate systems or the cloud, from cook time updates to Web orders to HD prep videos, which are especially valuable since more restaurants will train on the job. Posera (www.maitredpos.com) expects to be delivering the big files necessary to deliver things like prep images within 24 months as operators’ high speed Internet access improves.
 
Kitchens will develop their own algorithms to determine what volume they can handle from each channel (Web, POS, catering, kiosk, drive-through) and estimate order-ready times accordingly. Integration with the Web is a big focus for QSR Automations (www.qsrautomations.com).
 
And KDS will be served on lower-cost, non-Windows controllers such as those running Linux, and delivered via reliable and easy to install, remotely supported wireless networks, if the direction of Logic Controls’ (www.logiccontrols.com) product development continues on its current path.
 
5. Nutrition and allergy info. More jurisdictions will require nutritional and allergy labeling, including table service. That gets tricky with custom orders, so kitchens will track each dish on the plate and provide custom labels for takeout containers. KDS makers such as Digital Dining (www.digitaldining.com) have already tested making nutritional profiles available to seated guests, via server or perhaps even guest devices.
 
6. More communication with the front of the house. Communication will rely less on the feet and voice and more on devices, whether that’s conveying messages or preventing their need in the first place. Interfaces will be less invasive: handwriting? Speech to text? ESP Systems (www.espconnects.com) anticipates customers one day using its tabletop devices to provide feedback on food quality, helping operators detect things like quality variances among shifts.
In the future more restaurants will hang a big, flat-panel, color-coded dashboard in the kitchen tied to the KDS, such as the one offered by Revention (www.revention.com), to help staff members instantly see all the key performance indicators and order stats.
 
7. Convergence with food equipment. Steam tables, grills, coolers; they’re all getting smarter. “If the fryer oil is too hot, if the oven timer is going off and no one is doing anything about it, if the freezer just quit, that needs to be on the expo screen where the expeditor sits,” says Joey’s Boyd.
 
8. Sustainability. Paper will be long gone, and energy saving will be a priority. The KDS will display levels and alerts for out-of-expected energy use. Some pizzerias already automatically set back oven temperatures in slow times.
 
9. Inventory. The movement of a plate or ingredient or bottle tracked via RFID chip would mean always-accurate inventory and reduced theft. Monument’s Winkstein wants to track waste not just on meats, but veggies as well.
Pearson wants to gain visibility to ingredients as they move through prep. “With pizza sauce, we know when the raw components come in, but once the recipe is made, we lose visibility. Integrating production information with the assembly of prepared products would really signal the evolution of the KDS products on the market today.”
 
Inventing technology is one thing. Adopting it is another. Unique brand attitudes and differing priorities will ultimately determine what gets adopted and what’s just another interesting but unused idea.

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