The Smart Restaurant
We have smartphones, smart watches, and even smart homes. Guess what? The smart restaurant is just around the corner. We’ve already reported how internet-connected devices can make a big impact in the front of the house. Now the digital technologies designed to make our lives more connected and convenient are showing up in commercial kitchens as well.
We’re not talking about burger-flipping robots or fast-food vending machines. We’re talking about kitchen equipment that’s built with the same familiar technology we use every day to communicate with our friends and to be more productive – the ones built into our computers and mobile devices. Those technologies are becoming increasingly more integrated into the very pieces of restaurant equipment that do the baking, searing, boiling, and steaming that puts food on the plates of hungry restaurant patrons.
In the Beginning, There Was USB
The march towards computerized cooking equipment began years ago as a solution to an important and perfectly mundane need to keep records. Manufacturers began building equipment with technology that would track and store data like the holding temperature of refrigeration equipment and HACCP records from equipment ranging from refrigerators to cook-and-hold ovens.
The North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers has developed a standard for how data should be structured to help promote consistency across operations. A number of technologies have been used to transfer those records, but USB has nearly completely replaced all alternatives as the standard of choice.
Using technology to log data like temperatures is a no-brainer, but as digital technology has simultaneously become more affordable and more sophisticated, digital interfaces have evolved to do much more than just keep records.
Nowadays, USB interfaces allow operators to change the very ways equipment is used. Take for example manufacturers like MerryChef, TurboChef, and Amana, all of which now equip many high-speed ovens with software that allows chefs to program custom cooking procedures into the equipment.
Those procedures often include many steps that specify the intensity and type of heat that should be applied during each stage. For example, a procedure could call for three minutes of microwave power at 80 percent and two more minutes of 20 percent microwave and 80 percent impingement. Menu items can be recalled at the press of a button so that anyone in the kitchen, regardless of experience, can cook each dish to perfection every time.
Everything from combi ovens to blast chillers is now being built with similar features. Even some modern blenders can be programmed with specific recipe procedures. Blendtec offers the Blend Wizard program that lets operators use their computers to create a custom blending cycle for each drink on the menu, then transfer those to the blender.
Digital restaurant equipment is even being used to teach staff how to use the equipment. Pitco fryers with Infinity and Eclipse controls can be customized so their LCD screens display photographs and training videos that can teach staff how to use equipment on the spot.
The World of Wi-Fi
USB provides some powerful opportunities for chefs and operators to customize equipment, but it’s obviously limited in its convenience since it requires someone to physically retrieve the data and transfer it to a computer. The logical next step for connected kitchen technology is going wireless, and that’s just the trend that’s beginning to emerge among cutting-edge cooking equipment.
As with the implementation of USB technology, the use of Wi-Fi in restaurant equipment was originally applied to tracking and transferring temperature and HACCP data.
Thermometer companies like Comark offer Wi-Fi thermometers that can be installed in coolers to provide a constant stream of temperature and humidity information, all accessible on a webpage from any internet-connected device. That convenience lets operators make sure their equipment is holding safe temperatures even when they’re far away from their restaurant.
Master-Bilt has taken the concept of wirelessly monitoring equipment to the next level with its Master Controller walk-in cooler controls that not only allow operators to monitor the performance of their walk-ins, but also to remotely change the equipment’s settings. They can monitor temperature, change set points, clear alarms, and manually defrost the system from their desktop browser or smart phone.
A New Meaning to “Internet Café”
The true internet of kitchen things revolution is just beginning, and it’s got a strong foothold in a place that may surprise you: the coffee shop. Coffee machines, a category that once comprised only humble brewers, has evolved to include some of the most complex pieces of equipment on the market. Manufacturers Franke and Bunn now offer superautomatic espresso brewers with internet-connected technology that keeps operators informed of everything from the popularity of individual drinks to how often employees are cleaning the machine.
Bunn’s BUNNlink® wellness program maintains a direct link with Bunn’s intelligence center and constantly streams diagnostic information to detect and preempt problems with the machine’s performance before operators even know there’s an issue. That can be a huge time and money saver, preventing significant downtime and costly emergency repair calls, since the traditional first sign of many issues is the machine not operating. Technicians at BUNN headquarters can monitor the performance of each individual machine and know exactly when it’s time to provide the maintenance that will avoid crises.
The BUNNlink® technology won Bunn a Gold Award for Remote Equipment Management at Connected World Awards, which recognizes internet-of-things excellence across multiple industries.
These two coffee brewer technologies are golden examples of what IOT restaurant technology can provide: consistency, customization, and access to valuable diagnostic information. The future of digital kitchen technology will come down to providing those three things, and you can expect to see many other types of equipment become integrated with IOT technologies in the coming years.
Imagine a fryer that automatically reports oil quality and tells staff when it’s time to filter, a soda fountain that can be programmed with new recipes from halfway across the globe, or hot wells that let operators dial in the precise holding temperature for each product through a simple touchscreen. Thanks to the internet of kitchen things, technologies like this are becoming reality.