Hotel kitchen operations may be putting some new equipment purchases on the back burner for the time being. Yet the past year-and-a-half is proving to be a wakeup call for how kitchens are being managed on a day-to-day basis. Rather than talking the latest technology investments, current conversations are centered around flexibility, downsizing and better utilization of existing resources.
“COVID has forced us to re-think the way kitchens design their operations,” says foodservice consultant John Radchenko of Van Velzen + Radchenko Design Associates Ltd. in Toronto. “They’re thinking more about versatility and the ability to change things up as necessary. In some cases, they’re diminishing the menus they have and creating more space in their kitchens.”
Where investments are being made, Radchenko lists induction equipment, combi-ovens, sous vide and rapid-cooking appliances among top items on operators’ agendas. “Rapid-cook ovens are especially helpful for room-service items. The speed is phenomenal and prices are going down. Vacuum packaging is also popular as it allows chefs to prepare quality meals ahead of time.”
Greg Smith, senior director, Food and Beverage at the Halifax Convention Centre, says even though business is picking up considerably in terms of bookings, some of the changes that have been implemented during COVID-19 will be here to stay.
As a relatively new facility (it opened three-and-a-half years ago), the Centre’s kitchen operations occupy 11,100 sq. ft. plus 1,800 sq. ft. for the dishwashing area. Total inventory includes 14 Rational combi-ovens, 11 walk-in refrigerators and six freezers from Norbec, as well as two blast chillers from American Controls. More recently, they purchased a curing machine and a Suzumo sushi roller. “It was a decision based on economics,” says Smith. “We were using third-party suppliers for sushi, but when we looked at the numbers it made sense to bring it in-house.”
Now that business is picking up, the Centre is getting ready to meet growing demand. “We have more than 50 events booked over the next three months, so it looks like some confidence is coming back,” says Smith. “Right now, we’re testing and firing up the equipment to make sure everything is good to go.”
For Fairmont Royal York executive chef JW Foster, the arrival of the pandemic may have suspended his wish list of new items, but it also provided an opportunity to re-vamp the hotel’s approach to foodservice. “We were set to buy a new proofer and baking oven to bring bread production in house, as well as more urban cultivators to start plants for our garden. They were all on the docket for this year.”
The foodservice operations were fortunate enough to stay open throughout the pandemic, he adds. Today he estimates the banquet operations are running at 15 to 20 per cent of previous highs, while in-room and restaurant dining is around 40 to 50 per cent.
Over the past months, he says, they have had ample time to look at every aspect of operations. “We looked at what we really needed, much like when you downsize your home. We had massive kitchens all over the place and wondered how efficient that was and how we would support our team better and make things more nimble.”
In some areas, there was no longer a need for large walk-in freezers, for example, he notes. “It just didn’t make sense. So, we moved our banquet production space to the main production area, which made it easier on the team. Like many businesses, we wanted to make operations as tight as possible.”
They also downsized some of the dishwashers. “Certain areas didn’t need the giant-size ones anymore.”
One important change that Foster thinks will remain over the long term is ramping up cooking from scratch. “One thing coming out of COVID is that hotel chefs and cooks have had a great opportunity to re-focus and re-look at making meals from scratch, much like smaller restaurants do. With that philosophy, we only bring in what we need. That’s been a positive in terms of how we cook.”
That also means a heavier emphasis on sous-vide equipment, smokers and cultivators. “It’s more sustainable to smoke our own fish rather than buying smoked salmon,” he says.
When volumes do come back, Foster’s plan is to work through his original wish list slowly but surely. “We’re looking at our 2022 budget at this point. The first item will be the proofer and production oven for the pastry shop. It all goes with our in-house production vision. Then maybe we’ll think about cultivators, blast chillers and smokers. It’s always nice to have a wish list.”
Even if one did have the budget and the green light to order equipment, supply could very likely be a challenge. Corinne Lund, general manager at Alt Hotel in Saskatoon, which opened in February 2019, found out things weren’t that simple when they decided to build a bar area to complement its food-and-beverage operations. “We have some great food service through our servery, which includes a combi-oven, refrigeration and cooktops. We just needed some great beverages to go with it.”
They started the project in May 2021, thinking it would be easy to order the keg fridges, draught tower and sinks, she adds. “We were incorrect. We couldn’t get the equipment or contractors. It wasn’t the fault of the suppliers. It’s simply the fact that so many aspects of the supply chain seem to be broken. The biggest thing was we couldn’t get fridges because of a fibreglass shortage.”
Currently, the bar is scheduled for completion in February 2022. One bright spot was that through some diligent searching, they managed to get one keg fridge for the beginning of December. “Serving pints is an integral part of Saskatchewan,” says Lund. “I guess the story does end well.”
Whatever the challenges have been, Foster believes the industry will come out smarter and stronger in terms of understanding what they really need versus what they simply would like. “We just need to do it right and do it well. Cooking will be much better for what we’ve gone through.”
By Denise Deveau