SPECIAL REPORT: How soon before commercial kitchens start looking like the inside of The Starship Enterprise?

Monika temperature monitoring

The notion of a commercial kitchen where everything is internet-connected and operators have a detailed view of their equipment estate sounds like a dream come true for multi-site foodservice operators. But could it be undermined by concerns over platform standardisation and data security? FEJ investigates.

Imagine a world where restaurant operators can upload new cooking settings to every site in their estate at the touch of a button, chefs have an instant 360-degree view of how their kit is performing and faults are immediately remedied remotely. According to a growing number of foodservice equipment manufacturers, this catering panacea is not that far away.

Today’s kitchens are more technologically advanced than ever before, with touchscreen interfaces and WiFi connectivity putting sophisticated computing power in the hands of chefs. In theory, operations managers will be able to monitor equipment more analytically than ever before and drive efficiencies as a result of the data at their disposal. Reduced downtime will be achieved through identifying products or components that are about to fail.

One company that knows all about technology in kitchens is Monika. It has built its business on utilising the latest wireless connectivity to optimise kitchen efficiency, specifically in terms of task and temperature monitoring systems.

UK director of sales Rag Hulait says: “In our experience, we’ve found that kitchen operations can vary considerably and, as such, the requirements for wireless connectivity can change between sites too. With this in mind, we see the term ‘connected kitchen’ to mean a way operators, F&B managers and regional head office teams easily identify information which is of importance to them. This should therefore be the main function of a connected kitchen. When it comes to the specifics of the information needed, we find that the majority of operators are looking for details on equipment performance, energy consumption, food safety and any faults or maintenance issues that can be rectified before they present a more significant issue.”

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Combi oven manufacturer Rational is another name heavily promoting the integrated kitchen message. Its new ‘ConnectedCooking’ strategy allows users to link their Rational SelfCookingCenters and Frima VarioCooking Centers to a network, and monitor their operation over the internet. Caterers can check on overnight cooking processes from home and managers can assess the operational efficiency of multiple units. For servicing, or if there are any issues, the manager can authorise Rational’s accredited service engineers to check a unit’s status remotely.

All notifications can be sent to a user’s smartphone or PC so they don’t even have to be present in the kitchen to track what’s happening. “Remote access will allow operators to manage all connected units and see exactly what settings are being applied and modify them by simply being able to select which cooking programmes to send to which unit,” says UK managing director, Simon Lohse. “In the unit overview, operators can use the residual time and the current climate to quickly find a unit that would suit the product needing to be cooked or to see which unit will be free next.”

Combi ovens are certainly high up the list of appliances leading the way when it comes to modern technology. Unox’s flagship ChefTop and BakerTop Mind.Maps ovens can be connected to the internet with either Ethernet, WiFi or 3G. UK managing director, Gary Nunn, believes that connecting to the internet delivers three primary benefits to operators: data collection and analysis; recipe sending and uniformity; and remote service diagnostics.

“With Unox Data Driven Cooking, the operator can collect data on energy, water and detergent consumption, cooking times, door opening times and washing activity, which is then transformed into measurable and useful information to help eliminate waste and increase daily profit. Sending recipes over the internet to ovens within a foodservice chain is an obvious benefit, as well as having the peace of mind of remote service diagnostics that will pick up on any potential problems with the oven and report them to the Unox technical team where they can be dealt with before they become an issue.”

connected kitchens

The service benefits of internet-connected appliances are certainly being laboured hard by manufacturers. But there is a reason for this: if operators are given the tools to look after their equipment better, it will break down less and incur fewer costs.

“The vision is that all equipment can be monitored to see how well it is performing. This is from energy usage to reliability. When an item is not performing the manufacturer and the customer will be alerted,” says Kenny Smith, managing director of Middleby UK, whose Turbochef and Houno ovens are WiFi-enabled. “This will reduce downtime and faults can be identified prior to a breakdown and engineers will be able to attend with the correct parts, improving first-time fix.”

The presence of equipment that is capable of displaying real-time energy usage, logs usage behaviour and communicates faults is all well and good but kitchens contain dozens of pieces of equipment from disparate brands. It’s not unreasonable to suggest operators could find themselves facing a huge IT headache as they struggle to manage multiple systems that talk to themselves in different ways.

The call for some form of standardisation is only going to grow louder, agrees Monika’s Rag Hulait. “As the desire for more information, provided in real-time grows, more and more manufacturers are likely to include an element of connectivity in their new product launches. Going forward, we expect to see some of the market-leading brands pushing for a more coherent system where multiple manufacturers agree to use technology which provides a certain element of standardisation, benefiting the operator as much as the manufacturer.”

He says there is one possible solution at the moment: “By making use of cloud hosted services, operators can reduce their immediate IT headaches by enabling a range of non-standard formats to be accessed in one place and in an easily understandable form.”

The benefits of new technology are now even evident in parts of the kitchen that you wouldn’t ordinarily imagine. Winterhalter’s Connected Wash system, currently available on its UC Series of undercounter machines, allows its warewashers to be networked. The system is designed to keep them working at optimum efficiency by letting operators know when anything goes wrong.

Rational Connected Cooking 2.0

The data is also sent to Winterhalter for analysis and can, if required, be converted into recommended actions for the customer. For example, if a machine reports a critical error, the system instantly sends a push notification to the nominated person’s smartphone or tablet. The speed of the system means customers can react quickly to warewash issues, minimising machine disruptions and increasing operational efficiency. It will even warn customers when a detergent refill is needed.

“Connected Wash is part of Winterhalter’s Next Level Solutions programme, which exploits the latest digital and online technologies to develop new warewash concepts for its customers,” explains marketing development manager Paul Crowley. “Connected Wash warewashers are networked via LAN or WLAN and send machine data to a server, virtually in real time. Using a computer, tablet or smartphone, customers can monitor machine functions around the clock, via the Connected Wash app, from anywhere in the world.”

Winterhalter will soon be extending it to other product ranges like passthrough machines, so that customers can see the full benefit of the technology in their restaurants. Beyond that, it will be looking at how it can develop the technology to pull as well as push — so that, for example, it can change programme settings remotely.

“What we don’t want is a situation where caterers have to run lots of different apps”

But as our experiences in our own homes and workplaces will tell us, technology doesn’t always work the way you want it to. Factors such as IT security and network availability pose two major barriers to the pace with which the connected kitchen concept takes off, while data ownership and data collection laws are also set to get tougher in the next couple of years.

“The main issue will be from the internet provider and in areas where speed is an issue there may be a problem. As speeds increase, so will the ability to have a truly connected kitchen,” says Kenny Smith at Middleby.

Some chains have already spotted the opportunity that web-enabled equipment offers. At Nando’s, kitchen and equipment development manager, Adele Hing, recently expressed her admiration for some of the equipment management systems that manufacturers are beginning to introduce and can see how a multi-site operation of Nando’s size can potentially benefit.

“A lot of the suppliers are coming out in the market with really good systems to back up equipment. For example, Rational has launched ConnectedCooking — how we work with that to improve how our operators use the equipment, what can we see as a central team on our equipment, how can that help maintenance. A lot of other suppliers are doing it — you’ve got coffee machines telemetry and all that kind of stuff, which is great to a certain extent. A lot of it is around the efficiency of an operation.”

connected

Standardisation is a major issue where this is concerned. Hings own experiences of machine telemetry — the process of transferring data from an item of equipment wirelessly to a remote device —have taught her that it’s an area that needs to approached carefeully.

“I’ve looked at telemetry in the last few years with other businesses and it’s more about how does it work with all your other bits of kit because you don’t want to get to a place where you have got everything connected by WiFi and a huge dashboard of all this great stuff but actually you’ve got to log into 10 things to get to what you actually need. It is just about managing that and thinking about how the technology will work for you in future, and keeping it simple because ultimately we don’t want it to be complicated, we want it to easy.”

It’s an issue that has already caught the attention of industry trade body CESA. Current serving chair, Glenn Roberts, says: “The connected kitchen is going to be a huge bonus for caterers. It’ll reduce downtime, maximise efficiency, enhance safety and reduce running costs. The problem is, which method of connecting is best? What we don’t want is a situation where caterers have to run lots of different apps, with each monitoring different brands of equipment. A common standard is the ideal, where one app will cover all equipment.”

In a bid to get the ball rolling on this, the European Federation of Catering Equipment Manufacturers (EFCEM), which CESA is part of, has set up the ‘International Foodservice Equipment Connectivity Group’. “It’s a working party set up under the auspices of EFCEM and is run by EFCEM’s technical committee, which CESA chairs, and establishing what that common standard should be is its remit. The working party hopes to publish an initial report by the end of the year,” reveals Roberts.

“Group operators can see which points of sale are performing better and where costs are higher. They can then analyse the kitchen equipment data and make the necessary changes to sites that are underperforming.”

One of the more interesting aspects of this task will be how the group deals with the challenge of manufacturers reluctant to share proprietary knowledge about their systems and technology with third party businesses and competitors.

Manufacturers such as Winterhalter are watching with interest to see what the outcome of this will be. “There are varied and deep discussions about the whole connected kitchen landscape,” says Paul Crowley. “We know that for this technology to work, it must be simple to operate and must not over-complicate the kitchen environment. Creating a single platform that all of the data, from all of these pieces of equipment, can feed into is the key. This platform should enable operators to easily see how their kitchens are performing.”

Over at Welbilt, the company’s Merrychef ovens offer full WiFi and Ethernet connectivity if requested by the operators, although the majority of its customers still prefer to use a USB system to transfer data, such as cooking profiles and recipes, to and from the units.

Sales director Steve Hemsil thinks there will be some initial hurdles when it comes to the standardisation of connected kitchens, but is confident they will all be ironed out in time. “As equipment starts to become ever more software and technology based, it will be difficult at first to get to grips with the multitude of different brands and different pieces of software that will likely occur in any one kitchen,” he says.

connected kitchen 1

However, once it becomes more commonplace, there will be rationalisation within the industry and different systems will need to be compatible with one another. For manufactures, we see most equipment systems becoming integrated on cloud-based solutions which will have the ability to incorporate other pieces of equipment and brands, as required by customers, so that technology continues to be a help, not a hindrance.”

Rather like the adoption of mainstream technology in the consumer sector, the digitisation of kitchens is an inevitability that operators will need to confront head-on at one stage or another. The question is how involved they want to get with it.

“The term ‘connected kitchen’ seems very much the ‘kitchen of the future’, yet in many ways we are already there,” says Unox’s Gary Nunn. “The key is having a connected kitchen that actually benefits the operator in terms of real savings. For example, Unox Data Driven Cooking has been developed to give the operator a complete overview of the costs relating to the use of their combi ovens, and with the data it has collected it makes proposals on how the operator can make even better use of the oven and even suggests personalised recipes. In a wider context, a group operator can see which points of sale are performing better and where costs are higher. They can then analyse the kitchen equipment data and make the necessary changes to sites that are underperforming.”

Operators who can navigate the data, network and compatibility challenges posed by internet-connected kitchen appliances will find they have never had so much power in their hands.

Fast food operator has its fridges ‘hacked’

It used to be that the only thing an operator had to worry about when installing a new piece of equipment was whether there the right services and power supply were in place to make it work. But with many commercial kitchen appliances now connecting to the web, restaurants are increasingly being forced to make sure they also have provisions in place to ensure they don’t become victims of an attack.

According to a recent report in The Times earlier this year, one unnamed fast food operator had its IT system violated after hackers broke in via a refrigeration unit. The business had started using a “smart” refrigeration system that connects to the internet but hackers found a way of using it to gain control of the company’s data.

The brand of refrigeration was not disclosed, but cyber-security firm Darktrace, which revealed the attempted breach, said it spotted the incident and thwarted the attack before any damage was done. Chief executive, Nicole Eagan, said fridges aren’t the only appliances that hackers are trying to exploit. “We’ve seen attacks on internet-connected cappuccino makers, vending machines and smart lightbulbs,” she said. “Everything is connected these days, which means these things can be attacked and used to get into corporate networks and do harm.”

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