On the Cutting Edge

The NAFEM Show, which took place in Orlando in February, attracted 643 exhibiting companies and more than 22,000 registrants.

Responding to a changing industry, innovative foodservice manufacturers continue to launch equipment and products that help operators thrive

By Sara Perez Webber

More people than ever attended The NAFEM Show in February, checking out the latest in foodservice equipment and supplies. The record-breaking show—put on by the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM)—attracted 643 exhibiting companies and more than 22,000 registrants, while occupying more than 378,000 square feet at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

It’s easy to understand the appeal. At The NAFEM Show, attendees can see first-hand the latest and greatest options for outfitting their kitchens. “They can see how the equipment works, and they’re dealing directly with the senior management team of the exhibiting company, so they can ask questions of all the right people to know how that product is going to benefit their operations,” explains Deirdre Flynn, executive vice president of NAFEM. Foodservice operators spend big bucks on commercial kitchen equipment—a growing market that’s expected to reach $112.47 billion by 2025, according to consulting firm Grand View Research. Executives from restaurants, catering companies, hotels and other facilities want to make sure their investments are wise.

So what are the features that operators are looking for in their foodservice equipment? For one, they want products that enable their kitchens to do more with less. “As the footprint of restaurants and the back-of-the-house gets smaller, versatility of equipment is becoming more important,” says David Henkes, senior principal at Technomic, a leading food industry research firm. “Operators are looking for equipment that can do multiple things.” Combi ovens are a prime example, with their ability to cook with convected heat, pressureless steam or both. Increasingly, adds Henkes, restaurants need the flexibility to create and hold food that can be served both in-house and for takeout.

RATIONAL demonstrated its SelfCookingCenter at the NAFEM pop-up restaurant Bistro R, serving more than 900 guests with three combi ovens in 44 square feet of space.

In fact, booming off-premise and delivery business—which Technomic’s 2019 foodservice forecast says is “changing the calculus across all segments” of the industry—is playing a key role in how kitchens are being set up. “You’re seeing more limited seating in the design of restaurants,” notes Flynn. “They’ll have maybe 40 seats instead of 70 seats because a certain percentage of the menu is getting delivered or prepared for takeout.”

Consumers’ changing food preferences are also affecting the type of equipment that’s sought-after for professional kitchens. “There’s great interest in refrigeration and holding equipment that keeps products fresher for longer,” says Flynn.

Indeed, says Henkes, “refrigeration is growing because of the demand for fresh food, while fryers are on the decline.” Consumers are also looking for fresh and healthy drink options, and “beverage remains a growth driver for a lot of operators,” adds Henkes. He points to Panera Bread’s new Craft Beverage lineup as an example of this trend, where diners can create their own custom beverage from a variety of iced teas, lemonades and frescas—all in visually appealing clear dispensers. High-end specialty coffee and espresso machines are also on trend, he adds.

Labor challenges in the industry make smart equipment appealing. “With recipes that are built in and easy to use, you don’t necessarily need a skilled sous chef or skilled chef—you can allow the equipment to do it,” notes Henkes.

More sophisticated technology means machines aren’t just filling human positions in the back of the house; electronic ordering kiosks are becoming more common, as well as food lockers for picking up orders when ready. As an example of the growing robotics trend, Chowbotics has launched Sally the Robot—a vending machine that creates made-to-order salads with up to eight ingredients in less than a minute. By the next NAFEM Show, in 2121, “I think we will see a lot more robotics added to the floor, because the marketplace will drive it,” predicts Flynn. “This industry has always been labeled as low-tech, high-touch, but that’s coming into balance; we’re seeing technology is ingrained in equipment in a different kind of way.”

NAFEM Show attendees can see how equipment works and talk with senior-level executives from the manufacturing companies.

A highlight of The NAFEM Show are its four galleries called “WHAT’S HOT! WHAT’S COOL! What Works!”. This year, 23 products were chosen for the galleries—out of 40 that applied—and for each, exhibitors needed “to tell the story of how the product benefited an operation,” says Flynn, by helping the company save money, become more efficient or deliver a better product. In the end, those are the qualities foodservice operators are looking for when they invest in new equipment.

“It’s all about efficiencies—how to contain and control food and labor costs, how to deliver the experience in a more timely manner, how to have greater flexibility as their menus change,” says Flynn. “They need to have the right kind of equipment to adapt, to help keep them fresh and innovative, efficient and profitable…. It’s all about speed of service without sacrificing quality and flavor and ingenuity, so that the chef and culinary team still have the ability to be incredibly artistic in what they do.”