Casual dining equipment buyers get ready for lift-off

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It seems like consumers are saying goodbye to full service, as the casual dining sector continues to boom. FEJ delves a little deeper to discover exactly what equipment foodservice operators will be purchasing as they bid to keep up with demand and innovate in a growing market.

The casual dining sector has been a hot talking point over the past year or so, and 2015 is set to reinforce its full acceptance into the mainstream. Figures released from The NPD Group demonstrate the sector’s boom over the last five years as Brits have opted for a more laidback approach to dining: results show the market has drawn an extra 47 million visits each year compared to 2009.

Many of the big name brands are contributing to this growth, with the likes of Nando’s, Wagamama, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Strada, Pizza Express and Yo! Sushi all benefiting from the increase in footfall. And it’s not just the price that’s seeing more customers turning their backs on full service restaurants. The NPD Group identified that it’s the combination of the ambiance and quality of food, teamed with speed and delivery that helps to attract diners to these quick service eateries.

All of that can only be achieved with the right back-of-house operation in place, as Robin Candy, brand director for Nisbets, notes: “In an increasingly competitive market place, the importance of investing in robust equipment that can withstand the needs of a commercial kitchen has become ever more apparent.

“As casual dining operators recognise that their menu requirements and levels of output are fast exceeding what is achievable with only light duty equipment, we’ve seen a real increase in those looking for heavy duty units that offer both high performance and value for money. Operators are looking for equipment that not only delivers now, but that also has the potential to grow with their business.”

Casual dining operators are recognising that their menu requirements and levels of output are fast exceeding what is achievable with only light duty equipment”

As more people choose to eat at various times throughout the day and shy away from the rigidity of set dining slots, this will undoubtedly affect the way a kitchen is expected to operate. And with higher demand comes an increased pressure on equipment to deliver high volumes both quickly and efficiently at all times.

“Based on our experience, there is evidence of a substantial investment in high quality, specialist equipment,” says John Nelson, managing director of Nelson Catering Equipment. “In fact, we recently created several kitchens for Ippudo — the first UK restaurant in this successful Japanese chain — and were impressed by the level of commitment demonstrated – even involving a specially created, temporary training kitchen enabling the Japanese chefs to test and try the UK-specified equipment that most closely resembled what they use in Japan,” he adds.

Visible food prep

Aside from creating a casual atmosphere, operators and chains have taken direction from other sectors of foodservice in order to create an engaging dining experience where the customer is captivated by the cooking process.

A move towards open plan theatre-style cooking has led to the need for casual dining establishments to make use of high quality equipment with high quality designs, says Michael Eyre, product director at Jestic Foodservice Equipment. “A push for open plan, visible and transparent food preparation areas within a casual dining restaurant setting has resulted in operators investing heavily in a wide range of superior equipment,” he says. “With menu innovation and creativity providing a key point of difference between individual outlets or chains, appliances that have been designed to provide something unique either in taste or visual approach can really help to ensure a site stands out from the competition.”

Nelson Catering Equipment kitchen

Kitchens in casual dining establishment are often defined by space, so the footprint that the kit will cover becomes a key consideration. The squeeze really comes when restaurants try to maximise the seating areas out the front.

Graham Kille, managing director of Frima UK believes this is where multifunctional products come into their own. He says: “One way of getting more out of kitchen space is to look at multifunctional cooking equipment. Multifunctional equipment relieves the pressure on space as one piece of equipment can do the job of several separate items.”

Simon Frost, chair of CESA, agrees that the need for kitchen equipment to be flexible is imperative within casual dining chains. “Manufacturers have now started looking at combining tilting bratt pan technology with that of deep fat fryers, boilers and pressure cookers to produce a single multifunctional unit. These are relatively new to the market, but they offer versatile cooking opportunities in a single footprint, making them very attractive to the casual dining sector.”

Buoyed by the expansion and development of both established companies and the debut of new brands, the casual dining sector remains heavily influenced by food trends, and this is having a knock-on effect for equipment choice. The emergence of Mexican-inspired dishes and street food styles has prompted a movement towards more specialist products.

A push for open plan, visible and transparent food preparation areas within a casual dining restaurant setting has resulted in operators investing heavily in a wide range of superior equipment

Karl Marriott, director of Marlin Catering Solutions, has seen an emerging pattern of casual dining operators developing unique, niche menu items that often require specialist equipment or cooking processes.

“Increasingly we are working with customers to find the perfect match of equipment for their new recipes,” he says, citing speed and consistency as integral factors in the buying process for operators. “The major trends are in energy efficient and multifunction equipment, such as hi-tech bratt pans and combi steamers. There’s also a significant move away from big gas cookers towards high-speed, single portion units, such as TurboChefs.”

Price and efficiency

Top of the list when it comes to equipment criteria for operators in the casual dining sector will predominately be price and efficiency, with buyers inclined to go the extra mile to ensure a product’s reliability. Rising energy costs and environmental regulations are also encouraging operators to buy ‘greener’ equipment too, making equipment efficiency another priority for group buyers and purchasers.

Marlin’s Marriott says: The way equipment is operated has a huge impact on energy consumption, not to mention cooking results and kitchen efficiency. For example, minor operational changes in how fryers, fridges, combis, warewashers and ovens are used can make significant savings, not only in energy but also other consumables such as oil. Slow cooking overnight not only makes use of lower cost electricity, it also frees up equipment in the morning.”

This is especially important when it comes to warewashers — an item of equipment that will be on the go throughout the day to deal with the constant stream of dirty dishes from continuous service. “All-day dining requires more ware and more ware means more cycles for warewashers, which can lead to an unwelcome spike in utility bills,” says Tim Bender, sales director at Hobart. “Machines that make the washing process quicker, more efficient and use markedly less energy are therefore worth their weight in gold and help operators to meet this burgeoning trend head-on.”

All-day dining requires more ware and more ware means more cycles for warewashers, which can lead to an unwelcome spike in utility bills

The rise of the street food movement and boost in the popularity of the burger, combined with a more relaxed attitude towards dining times among customers, is making for an exciting story in the casual dining sector.

Additionally, as customers also become more aware of their calorie consumption, manufacturers are working to reinvent some more traditional equipment types to fit better with diners’ eating habits and preferences.

Given the speed at which the casual dining sector moves, develops and adapts, operators of multiple sites will feel inclined to maintain their investment in new kitchen equipment if it can deliver the cutting edge they require. Staying ahead of the game in this rapidly-changing and effervescent market place depends on it.

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