Robot Kitchen food equipment
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By Sarah B. Hood

In hotel kitchens, as in foodservice outlets of all kinds, the landscape has changed. The challenges that were in play 10 or 15 years ago, such as staffing shortages and high ingredient costs, have only intensified. Sustainability has become a priority rather than a frill. Dining habits have changed, expanding demand for prepared meals and takeout.

The good news is that technologies that were in their infancy in 2020 are beginning to generate novel solutions to longstanding challenges. New kitchen equipment and new uses for traditional appliances have been enabled by robotics and AI, which have become practical tools that are transforming kitchens and solving problems.

An analysis of this year’s hospitality trends by the commerce platform Lightspeed predicts that “we’re likely to see AI topping the list of hospitality trends for the foreseeable future.” Among the areas where AI can be helpful are inventory, where digital apps can track and predict demand and reduce waste, and ordering, where digital menus can upsell based on previous customer choices.

At the 2023 Hospitality Show in the U.S., KEENON Robotics showcased seven hotel and restaurant robots that could greet guests and hand out information flyers. Their KEENON BUTLERBOT W3 is programmed for room delivery and can even use an elevator. KEENON also visited the RC Show in Toronto in April to show off their new multi-functional delivery robot, the Dinerbot T10.

Based in Oakville, Ont., Gastronomous is developing a network of interconnected smart appliances, such as robot arms designed to save labour, standardize results and reduce costs. They even have a hamburger robot.

You may feel dismayed to imagine line cooks with rivets and bolts where their aprons should be, but where these technologies are truly making themselves felt is in small, clever tweaks to existing equipment, such as the familiar combi oven.

Like many hospitality businesses, Germain Hotels has felt the scarcity of skilled labour, especially at properties in more remote locations, such as Charlevoix, Que. Some staff may be new to kitchen work, with modest knife skills and much to learn. One way to maintain a high kitchen standard while training new staff is to take advantage of all the functions of programmable equipment.

“We’re using them even more for what they’re capable of doing, such as being able to start the cooking three or four hours later,” says Jacky Bruchez, Germain Hotels’ national director of F&B. Food can be set up to cook at a designated time, or kept at point on a steaming mode, he says, enabling even beginner staff to turn out high-quality fare by following a few simple steps.

Of course, digital programming is nothing new for the hospitality industry, but it has gradually been gaining traction, says Bruchez, “through airlines, then cruises, then hotels.” 

While Bruchez says RATIONAL “is one of the leaders in Canada,” he has also been impressed by Unox equipment, in particular, its SPEED-X, an innovative self-washing combi speed oven. Using microwave technology and controlled humidity, it offers extremely fast cooking times. “Something that would take six hours in a combi is going to take an hour and a half in this equipment,” he says.

Another area that’s not necessarily new, but where there has been interesting progress over the past few years, is coffee service. A good barista is a rare commodity, and an excellent coffee takes time to make.

“What we’re looking at more and more is new equipment where it’s automatized. There aren’t a lot of them that are able to match a barista, but there’s one company that stands out: Eversys,” says Bruchez. “They’re a Swiss company, and they’ve been there for quite a while.” The Eversys line commands a high price point but is durable and “keeps a constant high-quality coffee standard.”

Bruchez points out there’s a wide choice of coffee machines on the market, but “as soon as you have a high volume, it’s hard to keep consistent quality.” With a dependable high-volume coffee machine, staff costs drop and ROI comes more quickly.

To combat the high price of ingredients, Bruchez stretches every dollar by finding creative uses for vegetable trimmings and other kitchen byproducts using a dehydrator. “It could be carrot peels just to bring some extra texture. When we’re doing a bisque, we’ll take all the lobster shells and use them first to do the reduction. After, instead of throwing away the shells, we dehydrate them and do a little crumble to add on top, maybe mixing it up with a bit of bread. It would bring this crispy texture. Instead of using 70 per cent of the lobster, we’re using approximately 95 per cent.”

Omcan is a brand he’s using lately but he says there are many options, and the machine doesn’t have to be very large to be useful. For example, small quantities of fruit left over from assembling a buffet can be dried for use as cocktail garnishes. Like the programmable ovens, these can be set up to work overnight to save space during busy daytime hours.

Space is at a premium. During COVID, when dining rooms were shuttered, food prep could move into empty dining rooms, and take-out or delivery meals could be packaged in a luxuriously roomy environment. But now, every extra chair in the dining room once again represents potential revenue, and kitchens have to shrink to make room. Multi-function machines and programmability are helping to solve the space crunch.

Apart from the cost of investing in new equipment, the only barrier is acceptance. “When you say a machine is going to do exactly the same thing as you’ve been doing, and maybe even better, it goes against the ego, but you have to understand we don’t necessarily need to stand there and stir it all the time,” Bruchez says. “If you’re looking to be more efficient, there are good tools out there to be more efficient.”  


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