panini sandwiches (1)

Machine Age

Research sheds light on how and why operators will upgrade kitchens with the latest equipment and supplies in 2007.

Chef-owner Joe Truex no longer needs to blanch vegetables the old-fashioned way at Repast, his year-old American bistro in Atlanta. In a fraction of the time, he can steam them in a perforated pan, shock them with ice and spray them down with cold water with a single piece of equipment: a programmable combination oven with seven distinct cooking modes.

The state-of-the-art device tackles three of Truex’s top operational priorities: It saves time, occupies a relatively small footprint in the kitchen and handles an impressive array of products–from lamb shanks braised overnight to steamed bread pudding and pâte heated in equal parts steam and dry heat.

“These ovens have an infinite number of possibilities with the cooking process, and that’s my edge,” Truex says.

From high-tech appliances to smaller, specialized tools, equipment that breeds efficiency, safety and great-tasting food lies at the core of all well-run kitchens. Budgets for such equipment and supplies are expected to increase for more than one-third of foodservice operators in the year ahead, while only 14% anticipate a decline, according to the 2007 Industry Forecast Operator Report from Foodservice Equipment & Supplies (FE&S ), an R&I sister publication.

How operators plan to allocate these resources–as well as the individual interests and considerations behind such crucial purchasing decisions–are explored in depth in this exclusive FE&S research, conducted in October 2006 with 666 operators to examine a process essential to the advancement of any business.

Why They Buy

While nearly half of those boosting purchasing budgets in 2007 cite the need to replace old or broken machines as the main factor, 16% attribute the increase to planned restaurant renovations and remodels, a strong signal that the industry continues to move forward and revitalize.

Other top factors driving budget increases are rising costs for food, equipment and energy or inflation in general (14%); the need to purchase additional or new equipment to keep up with trends or customer demands (11%); and adding new operations or locations (10%).

Overall, a plurality of operators, 32%, will spend significant resources–more than $200,000–on equipment and supplies over the next 12 months. This figure rises to 45% for chains versus 24% for independents and to 35% for noncommercial respondents compared with 30% of commercial operators.

About one-fifth of total respondents will spend between $20,000 and $50,000, and 12% will spend between $50,000 and $100,000, according to the FE&S report.

Though budget almost always is a factor, Corporate Executive Chef Christian Fischer of Woodbury, N.Y.-based contractor Lackmann Culinary Services says price doesn’t rank among his highest concerns when selecting equipment for business-and-industry and college/university accounts.

“I look at space, speed and versatility. If I can buy a piece of equipment that gives me four different choices of how to prepare food and it eliminates three other pieces of equipment, then cost isn’t really an issue,” he says.

Nevertheless, the FE&S report reveals that price is indeed the No. 1 influence in buying decisions, with the majority of operators, 62%, ranking it among their top two concerns (outside of energy efficiency; see chart above). Significantly more noncommercial operators, 71%, say cost is a key consideration, compared to 55% of commercial respondents.

Nearly half of operators list perceived quality as the next-most-important influence on purchases, while the ability to increase production volume, their experience with the manufacturer, and relationships with specific dealers round out the top five.

Other factors guiding equipment choices relate to operators’ individual needs. Matt Morgan, foodservice director for the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, looks for options that will reduce labor needs and not only increase production, but also keep productivity ahead of where it needs to be currently so he can be prepared for the district’s continued growth.

“It comes down to creating efficiencies,” he says. “There’s a return on investment there. If I can reduce my labor requirements by 40% and increase my capacity by 75%, I’ll do it.”

Chef-owner Michael Castell finds different reasons to appreciate the favored equipment in his kitchen at Bistro Toulouse in Houston. An upright broiler, for example, meets two important needs by positioning a finishing oven directly over the broiler drawer. Having both pieces in one place creates less crossover traffic, and the oven’s height allows Castell to finish items such as his signature Creole Crawfish Cakes without having to bend down repeatedly.

“The first things to go on chefs are their backs or their knees,” he notes.

Menu-Driven Decisions

Some chefs find that keeping their menus current can require an upfront investment in equipment.

At one sixty blue in Chicago, Executive Chef Martial Noguier budgeted for a bain-marie and circulator to prepare meat, fish and vegetables sous vide for his menu. “When you braise, the meat is very good. But using sous vide is better because you keep the flavor in the bag and the product becomes very tender,” he explains.

Noguier isn’t alone when it comes to investing in equipment as a means to bring new menu items to the table. Nearly 40% of FE&S respondents say they plan to purchase equipment in 2007 as a result of a new menu item.

Roasted, toasted and grilled menu items have driven operators to budget for new ovens, combination ovens, grills and toasters. Ovens are especially in demand in the QSR segment where nearly half of QSR respondents will purchase ovens and toasters due to menu additions. In addition, convenience still remains an important consideration in menu-driven equipment sales. Forty-five percent of FE&S respondents say they will buy a microwave oven this year and 40% will purchase a food processor.

Don’t Stop the Presses

There’s one piece of equipment that combines the trend toward toasting as well as the need for speed. In response to the continuing popularity of pressed panini sandwiches in all segments, more than one-third (34%) of survey respondents will purchase the best panini press this year.

At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Associate Director and Executive Chef Ken Cardone endorses the equipment as a healthful way to grill hot sandwiches without adding additional fat. And while healthy is one side of the picture, another is convenience. At busy campus restaurant The Greenhouse, Harvard University Dining Services grills its quesanini, a hybrid quesadilla and panini sandwich, in its panini press. The equipment allows for the preparation of a hot, handheld meal that also keeps up with Harvard’s lunch rush.

Beverage programs are also driving operators to invest in new equipment. When Beaverton, Ore.-based Shari’s Restaurant & Pie Bakery upgraded coffee, it did more than purchase a better bean. The 98-unit chain installed new brewing systems with insulated urns to keep coffee hot without scalding it. It also purchased insulated carafes to improve coffee service.

Like Shari’s, other operators are investing in their beverage programs. On average, a quarter of the operators surveyed plan to purchase new coffee brewers in 2007. Beverage blenders are even more in demand, with nearly a third of FE&S respondents (32%) looking to purchase them in 2007. Beverage-equipment interest is more significant for commercial foodservice operations, particularly with independents, 40% of whom plan to invest in a beverage blender.

While blenders may boost beverage sales, Executive Chef Rachel Klein of Om Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., would like more blending gadgets for her kitchen. “I really want to get the new handheld blender with temperature control. You can emulsify sauces and it heats up the food you’re working with,” she says, thus saving time and burner space. She’d also like to look into purchasing a food-processing system that freezes ice cream bases faster than an ice cream maker, but is currently limited by the space in her kitchen.

While lack of space can limit equipment purchases, remodeling projects and new construction give some operators a venue to try out gear. In 2006, more than a third of equipment purchased by FE&S respondents was destined for renovation and new construction projects. Cypress-Fairbanks’ recent expansion of its central production facility added 10,000 square feet of production space, allowing Morgan to double his cook-chill capacity and increase cold storage to keep up with the school district’s demand for fresh preparations such as salads.

It’s a Blast

Cozymel’s Mexican Grill Corporate Executive Chef Tudie Frank-Johnson also took advantage of a new space to keep cool. When looking for equipment for Cozymel’s new Pan-Latin sister restaurant, Wapango, in Chesterfield, Mo., Frank-Johnson bought a blast chiller. She’s been thrilled with the results, explaining that it cools hot items more effectively than ice baths. “For food-safety purposes, I’d like to purchase them for every Cozymel’s location,” she says. Still, the steep per-unit cost prevents her from adding more chillers to her 2007 equipment budget.

Likewise, most operators surveyed are staying away from purchasing pricey refrigeration units. Operators surveyed say the biggest chunk of their equipment budget (16%) will go to primary cooking equipment, followed by paper goods (14%), food-preparation equipment (11%) and smallwares (11%).

Even in this digital age, respondents estimate that less than 10% of their equipment purchases will come from a combination of distributor and nondistributor Web sites and auction sites. Instead, most will stay with the familiar: 52% of respondents will make purchases through an equipment and supply dealer, followed by 40% who say they will buy directly through a manufacturer. And especially when investing in big-ticket items, operators are likely to take it upon themselves to do some homework. “We really had to do a lot of research,” Morgan acknowledges.