Suite spot: Oven manufacturers grapple for growth

Northcote, located in Blackburn. Electrolux photography case study. Picture by Shaun Fellows / Shine Pix

It has been the heartbeat of restaurant kitchens for decades, but is the profile of commercial cooking suites changing as new appliances emerge and operators face size constraints? FEJ goes in search of the answer.  

A recent report into catering equipment buying habits revealed that the humble cooking suite remains the most oft-replaced item.

Whether it’s down to operators running these kitchen workhorses into the ground, or simply the propensity to keep this core part of the equipment estate refreshed, sales of cooking suites remain on the rise.

This isn’t necessarily a surprise when you consider the number of new restaurants opening up, but by the same token there is a wide selection of alternative cooking methods for operators to choose from these days.

Kitchens incorporating wood burning ovens, yakitori grills and other standalone cooking systems to meet specialist menus have emerged as a definite challenger to the traditional kitchen suite, both in the performance and design stakes.

As far as chain and multi-site operators go, commentators still cite a preference for modular cooking suites due largely to the flexibility they bring.

The ease of replacing individual appliances and introducing more advanced equipment alongside traditional ovens, open top burners and chargrills offers operators the peace of mind that they won’t suddenly find their suites obsolete.

While it could be argued that cooking suites are under pressure from multifunctional cooking equipment, Simon Lilley, hot products category manager at Electrolux Professional — which offers the Thermaline ‘made to measure’ range (pictured above) — says that what operators and caterers need to bear in mind is that suites are designed to allow chefs to use traditional concepts and methods to deliver quality on a large scale.

“That is by no means to say that other technologies such as combi ovens fail to deliver on quality, but for chefs who enjoy using more traditional equipment such as braising pans, pressure pans, and ‘free cooking’ tops, there really is no substitute,” he insists.

For chefs who enjoy using more traditional equipment such as braising pans, pressure pans, and ‘free cooking’ tops, there really is no substitute for the cooking suite”

Wayne Cuomo, managing director of Charvet Premier Ranges, agrees, pointing out that one of the main reasons that chefs and operators want to cook using a range is that it provides versatility of cooking as well as promoting teamwork.

“Ranges are the first choice for high outputs, especially when working alongside combis. But the chains still want high quality, easy clean hygiene, reliability, a good working life and excellent technical support with that high productivity.”

The appetite for modularity among midrange chains, pub groups and other multi-site operators is tempting more suppliers into the market place. Earlier this year, catering equipment giant Nisbets introduced a range of gas appliances under the ‘Thor’ moniker, and brand director Robin Candy insists it meets demand for an affordable, streamlined kitchen operation.

“With restaurant sites becoming increasingly hard to find, and competition for the best locations rife, many chefs and restaurant operators are forced to be creative when choosing a venue.

“This can sometimes means accepting sites with less practical layouts — making a flexible, interchangeable cooking suite a must.”

Trevor Burke, managing director of Exclusive Ranges, UK supplier of established high-end names such as Rorgue and Menu System, believes the evolution of cook suites in the UK is mirroring the development of markets in Northern Europe. “We are seeing more electrical appliances and less gas, increased awareness of energy use, and more focus on efficiency,” he observes. “There is a higher priority on creating a comfortable working environments and building cooking suites that are easy to clean.”

Athanor

“Cooking suites are evolving, induction is becoming more commonplace and many kitchens are choosing to move away from gas in its entirety, according to Grande Cuisine, importer of Athanor oven ranges.

There are certainly some interesting discussions going on in the market as operators weigh up costs versus efficiencies.

“Steve Hobbs, managing director of Grande Cuisine, which markets the Athanor and Capic lines in the UK, notes: “Cooking suites are evolving, induction is becoming more commonplace — and many kitchens are choosing to move away from gas in its entirety. However, high performance electric appliances are more expensive in most cases.

“While many operators would like to move away from less efficient gas operations they’re used to, the capital investment cost is going to continue to be a barrier.”

One theme pertinent to all operators is the decreasing footprint of commercial kitchens. Sectors such as casual dining are showing strong appetite for compact units and manufacturers are expected to meet this demand without compromising on functionality. The increasing growth of highly adapatble multifunctional cooking systems has only added to the dynamic.

“A traditional kitchen used to include 10 pieces of equipment, but with the increase of multifunctional equipment we’re seeing cooklines which may now only have five or six pieces, so 40% to 50% less, meaning a big reduction in energy usage,” says Paul Godfrey, product manager of Hobart Cooking Solutions.

Godfrey is a firm believer that the ‘less is more’ attitude helps to future-proof kitchens and, as new technologies emerge, modular cooking suites are the best option when it comes to upgrading or replacing a piece of equipment.

He claims that a range like the Bonnet Advancia iTop at the higher end of the market bridges the gap between modular equipment and tailormade cooking suites. “It is extremely versatile to suit the kitchen design of all catering outlets: it can be fitted in a central island suite to increase the accessibility to modules or in a bridging suite for improved working ergonomics without compromising storage and cooking space,” he remarks.

To assume that there is some kind of struggle going on between conventional cooking suites and multifunctional equipment wouldn’t be strictly true, however. Neither has to be mutually exclusive, argues Graham Kille, managing director of Frima.

He says that its latest Frima 112T system is actually being incorporated into cooking suites, insisting it is indicative of a growing pattern. “Multifunctional Frima appliances with larger pans can be integrated into the end of cooking suites and used for bulk stock making. The option of units offering pressure cooking gives chefs additional flexibility and even more time saving,” he comments, adding that as pressure on kitchen space increases, the trend will only intensify.

Cost of ownership remains an important issue where cooking suites are concerned. While in previous years operators could have been seen opting for cheaper purchase costs, there is evidence that more are now looking long term and taking greater consideration of energy and time savings.

When an operator’s kitchen’s lifespan is three to five years, there’s understandably less of a focus on lifetime costs and a push for savings up front”

Grande Cuisine’s Steve Hobbs believes that price is still the biggest concern for companies buying cooking suites. “While many operators are keen to explore electric options and suites with lower ongoing lifetime costs — generally available with higher specification equipment — the increased capital investment means they’re not always willing to embrace this change. When an operator’s kitchen’s lifespan is three to five years, there’s understandably less of a focus on lifetime costs and a push for savings up front.”

So how much evolution is taking place in the market place at the moment? Can the boundaries be pushed much further? Manufacturers are certainly driven to meet operator demand for more power and durability in a smaller footprint, particularly as concepts are changing all the time. Seasonal promotions, daily specials and the introduction of new dishes that fit within the brand are key to maintaining customer interest, which requires a cooking suite that allows extra modules to be swapped or incorporated.

Hobart’s Paul Godfrey highlights a distinct trend towards all-electric cooking suites, which is being spearheaded by the growing popularity of induction hobs.

He says: “Induction hobs have emerged in the last decade and are continuing to thrive because chefs are realising the benefits. You can’t beat the cooking precision of an induction unit. I’d say you can probably replace four gas burners with two induction units because the time savings means you can cook twice as fast.”

Exclusive Ranges’ Trevor Burke concurs, adding that the introduction of more complementary specialist equipment, such as grills, ovens and wood-fired equipment, is also shaping the decisions that operators are making about prime cooking equipment. “The market we are working in wants managed innovation that is relevant to their operation and reliable,” he insists.

Hobart’s Paul Godfrey claims that a range like the Bonnet Advancia iTop at the higher end of the market perfectly bridges the gap between modular equipment and tailormade cooking suites.

Charvet’s Wayne Cuomo says that technical improvements in CAD design and manufacturing production techniques allow for much more precise engineering, which cuts the amount of material that needs to be used to make the range and hence reduces the cost. “The way forward is building energy efficient, sustainable ranges using the minimum of resources,” he suggests.

The reality of the situation is that as chefs’ needs evolves — not only in line with industry trends but also throughout the working day — manufacturers are being challenged to come up with adaptable and flexible suites.

“In a restaurant environment, the focus is shifting towards tailored solutions that chefs can specify according to their menu, staffing levels and desired output,” comments Electrolux’s Simon Lilley. “In a chain setting, the ability to create a bespoke suite configuration means brands can maintain consistency across multiple outlets.”

If operators were asked to select their ideal cooking suite then something that combined energy efficiency, hygiene, ergonomic design, high power and heavy duty construction with a small footprint would tick all the right boxes.

Manufacturers have already made commendable gains in all these areas — but that won’t prevent them from trying to set new benchmarks moving forward.

Trend report: Conventional suites are still flying high

Catering equipment trade body CESA believes that despite a host of new technologies vying for the budget, the conventional cooking suite is still popular, because it is familiar and versatile.

The association asserts that induction hobs in particular are growing in popularity due to a compelling combination of energy saving, temperature control, speed and safety.

“Beauty is a big trend,” states CESA chair Simon Frost. “Increasingly, manufacturers and kitchen designers are having to take account of looks as well as function.

“It’s not just a matter of making the workplace visually pleasing for staff — more and more kitchens are open to the customer’s view, so equipment has to look the part. Smooth lines, attractive handles, oversize, colourful control panels — they’re all part of the mix.”

The association believes that cooking suites lend themselves to this aesthetic, as they are often available in different colours to add ‘élan’ to a commercial kitchen. “Plus they’re a very flexible, practical way for a kitchen brigade to cook,” notes Frost.

Furthermore, with the increasing popularity of Asian cooking, the wok or Chinese range is becoming a common option. “It’s a great feature for theatre or front of house cooking and cook-to-order preparation,” comments Frost.

A wok range is designed to get to high temperatures of about 315°C. They often have a water bath under the burner area, which not only keeps the whole area cool but is also said to make it much easier to clean.

Frost concludes: “Cooking suites are amongst the biggest energy consuming appliances in the kitchen. Given rising energy prices, it’s well worth paying extra for a more energy efficient model. It will certainly repay the investment through lower running costs.”

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