Shortages in labour and the spectre of rising operational costs will leave operators more dependent on autonomous kitchen equipment in the future than they are now.
That’s according to leading kitchen project house Catering Equipment Solutions (CES), which provides kitchens and related services to hotel groups, fast food chains, restaurants, schools and care homes.
Professional kitchen designers always need to have one eye on what the kitchens of tomorrow might look like and for managing director Anna McNamara that means exploring how clients are going to cope with challenges such as the lack of labour in the industry.
“We need to start thinking quite seriously about how operators are going to automate or change the processes in their kitchens. There is a shortage of staff now, let alone when we get out of the EU, and that is going to become even more of a challenge for those running kitchens,” she said.
Mrs McNamara, whose company manages the servicing and PPM of Rational ovens across KFC’s UK store network, fears a dramatic change in mindset will be necessary if operators are to avoid being caught cold. She thinks many simply aren’t examining their processes closely enough.
“They are all still looking at traditional methods of how to prepare food. The chains are a lot more automated but still not to the degree of where they are probably going to have to be in a few years time. But certainly the ‘normal’ operators are not really looking at how to automate their businesses to deal with the lack of human resources in that area.”
Taking her theory to its natural conclusion, if operators don’t automate more they are going to have to hike menu prices to achieve the turnover they are used to.
“At the moment you are either high volume-reasonable priced, or you are higher priced with a lower volume. And if you are higher volume and you haven’t got that automation then how are you going to manage that process in future? I think the lower to medium end of the market will be more challenged than the upper end. It’s the chains that could suffer most.”
Mrs McNamara said she could think of one well-known national restaurant chain whose kitchen operations are based on a wide range of manual equipment in its kitchens when there are other potentially more effective options available to it.
“This chain currently uses deck ovens to make pizza but if they really want to automate that process they need a conveyor. Now that’s not a new technology but they need to start thinking about looking at equipment that is going to partially or automate their processes. And at the moment they cook everything from fresh on the grill. There is equipment out there that would cook all their product to the highest quality and could be finished on a chargrill and sent out, but they are not doing any of that at the minute.
“There is going to be less and less labour, and until they start looking at their concepts and how they can minimise the amount of labour they need to produce what they need to produce, there is always going to be an issue.”
Last week FEJ revealed how a restaurant chain in the US has become the first in the world to install a robot burger chef. Although the system encountered teething problems on its first shift, it’s an early glimpse of what a truly automated future could look like for some operators.