High-volume kitchen operators drive efficiency through specific equipment, central kitchens and outsourcing prep.
The unique needs of noncommercial kitchens start with simply outputting food at high volume. Add to that the complications that come with the many special dietary needs kitchen staff need to address today, along with a growing number of service styles, and the tactical piece of efficiently running this kind of operation becomes even more complicated. Central kitchens serve as one way noncommercial foodservice operators look to address these dynamics, along with looking to new equipment applications that can help deliver on today’s expectations and improve efficiency.
Sometimes, making an operation more efficient involves rethinking what’s not needed.
As locally sourced and seasonal ingredients remain menu mainstays, these operators find a way to push the labor back to the suppliers. At a growing number of institutions, processing vegetables and slicing cheese and deli meats have become a thing of the past. While chopping vegetables and roasting turkey breasts on-site for deli meat can guarantee product quality, institutions’ relationships with food suppliers have reached the point where they can get the same guarantees without the labor factor.
“Our local produce vendor does all the chopping and slicing and dicing,” explains Martin Breslin, culinary director for Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS). “We are able to take those products out of the prep mix. We can spend our time building recipes, such as custom protein salads, instead of breaking down products.”
In similar fashion, the University of Notre Dame converted a large vegetable prep area into the Center for Culinary Excellence, where Executive Chef Donald Miller and his team work on recipe development. The space also houses finishing kitchens and a garde manger area for university catering.
At The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, the nutrition services department works with its produce vendor to ensure the processing of locally sourced fruits and vegetables before these food items reach the kitchen. Wexner takes an opposite approach, however, when it comes to proteins. For example, when the department purchases local turkey breasts, the supplier will bag the poultry, complete with seasonings specified by Wexner’s chefs. When they arrive, kitchen staff use the cook-chill systems to prepare the turkey breasts, which they slice and deliver to BistrOH! or use for patient meals.
Noncommercial operators can also reduce their functional footprint by combining processes whenever possible, notes Jay Brinkley, director of culinary services for Food Service Partners, a Maryland-based company that operates central kitchens for healthcare clients. “We are using kettles that both cook and chill, and then pump into a sealed casing,” says Brinkley. He notes that not only does this process save space, it also provides continuous documentation ability for food safety.
Technology can also make noncommercial kitchens more time- and labor-efficient. Computerization can automate processes that once required human intervention, says Georgie Shockey, principal at foodservice consulting firm Ruck-Shockey Associates Inc. “Anything you can do to make your equipment the most efficient it can be over an eight-hour period is valuable, and computers offer that ability,” she says. “You have ovens that turn on automatically at a designated time, such as 5 a.m., so they’re ready for staff to use when they arrive at 5:30. If you can get eight full hours out of a piece of equipment, that is optimal.”
Pushing the boundaries of equipment usage, though, can have consequences, adds Mike Folino, associate director of nutrition services at Wexner Medical Center. “When cooking equipment is designed, I don’t believe manufacturers expect that the equipment is going to be used from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. But that’s what we’re doing, and as a result, things tend to wear out more quickly.”
Staffing challenges also have a big impact on the types of equipment enhancement that operators value.
“We need equipment that is even easier to use, because it has become difficult to find chefs,” says Folino. “Having cooking equipment that can be programmed with one-button technology helps us maintain food quality and consistency and it doesn’t take a trained chef to operate.” He adds that such technology also provides flexibility, since operators can program the cooking panel for multiple tasks and easily modify it so that the equipment can function in several different ways.
Computerization of equipment now even taps into remote servers — the cloud. For example, FSP’s Brinkley says his organization equips its kitchen’s combi ovens using cloud-based technology that allows culinary staff to not only monitor but adjust cooking processes from anywhere cellular service is available.
Robotics adds another dimension to solving at least part of the labor challenge. Hospitals use robots to deliver carts of food from kitchens to patient floors. The industry can expect to see more of this, according to Shockey.
“Anywhere you can use robots instead of people, I think technology will adapt,” she says. “For example, moving product from loading dock to storage or from storage to production. You wouldn’t be replacing people serving the meal but reducing the need for staff in logistics.”
But making equipment more versatile and efficient is not the only way high-volume kitchen spaces are evolving. Some companies and institutions seek additional uses of their kitchen space to generate revenue. For example, the Oakland Unified School District in California rents out its kitchens to community groups for cooking functions. And companies such as FSP and Whitsons Culinary Group, a Long Island, N.Y.-based food management firm, have created private label packaged meals for sale to clients and, potentially, to retail. Whitsons calls its program Simply Classic, and FSP’s is Meals To Thrive.
When it comes to specific equipment in high-volume kitchens, speed and efficiency take precedence.
“Anywhere we can gain a speed advantage we will take it,” says Folino. “Whether it’s a high-speed panini press or a tilt skillet that is pressurized, these innovations benefit us.”
At Wexner Medical Center’s BistrOH! Café, which averages 5,000 transactions a day, keeping up with customer flow remains paramount. The high-speed panini press in the deli station puts out two toasted sandwiches in only 45 seconds, assuring that customers don’t have to wait long for freshly prepared food, Folino notes.
On college campuses, where students value fresh and want to see food prepared in front of them, operators increasingly use central kitchens to maintain quality and enhance productivity. In the central kitchen at Harvard University, one of the most useful pieces of equipment has become the ribbon blender. HUDS uses the blender to prepare all of the campus’s composed salads. “The ribbon blender can mix large quantities of product, and it mixes gently, so it doesn’t destroy the ingredients,” says Bob Leandro, director of operations. HUDS also uses a marinating tumbler; staff add the marinade and the protein to a bag and after 20 minutes of tumbling, the item is fully marinated with less marinade used and none being wasted. Staff then vacuum-pack it in smaller quantities.
The University of Notre Dame also has gone to a tumbler for its marinades. “It’s so easy to use,” says Miller. The university goes through 5,000 pounds of chicken tenders a week. “You drop in 200 pounds of chicken and 50 pounds of marinade, and tumble. It reduces the labor involved, and reduces the cost.”
School districts are another big user of chicken, albeit roasted instead of fried. In the Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, Colo., for example, Food Service Director Ann Cooper has automated the prep work for the oven fried chicken served in the district’s 52 schools.
Three automatic breading machines shortened the time it takes to coat the amount of chicken used in the schools from 72 labor hours — 12 staff taking six hours each to bread chicken thighs by hand — to one 24-hour period. That adds up to significant savings over the course of a school year since the item appears on school menus every other week. Additionally, it frees up labor to concentrate on making other items or developing new recipes.
Whether it’s adding equipment with emphasis on automation or high-speed cooking, technology certainly will continue to play into how high-volume noncommercial kitchen operators look to optimize their facilities. The underlying theme for what these operators choose to keep on-site and what they opt to move off-site, such as prep for example, all centers around labor and efficiency.