Industry News | September 23, 2005

NAFEM Exhibitors: Move Toward Integrated Kitchens Picking Up Speed

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The concept of an "integrated kitchen" has long been talked about in the quick-service restaurant industry, but according to exhibitors at the 2005 North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers trade show, that vision is finally starting to become a reality.

One thing making that possible is the proliferation of wireless technology, says George Koether, president and COO of Food Automation Service Techniques, Inc. (FAST). "Wireless is very new in the quick-service kitchen," he says. Though it has been widely adopted for order taking and communication between employees via headsets, wireless has not yet made significant inroads when it comes to linking different kitchen components.

FAST produces products to wirelessly integrate these components, such as those used for cooking and holding. The devices make it possible for an employee to send a message from a cooking station to the holding facility across the kitchen by the push of a button. Such communication is important for reasons of food safety and was introduced by the NAFEM Data Protocol (NDP), a data communications protocol that governs the content and format of data transfer between commercial foodservice equipment and a computer.

"We've really seen a lot of implementation of that in the last year," Koether says.

Though the NDP is far from new, previous compliance was hampered by out-of-date but still functional "legacy equipment." In order to address that issue, FAST has developed ways to retrofit old equipment with new control systems which are wireless compatible, eliminating the need to replace working equipment simply because it can't support wireless technology.

Another barrier to kitchen integration was that in the past, cables had to be used to physically connect different pieces of equipment. This was impractical, as the wires often could not withstand the harsh environment of a quick-service kitchen.

Even companies whose products cannot yet be integrated with other kitchen equipment wirelessly recognize that this technology is rapidly gaining ground and will soon be in high demand.

"There's lots of interest among our customers in wireless integration," says Kerry Joyce of Fluke, a company that produces thermometers for use in foodservice. "We know of the need, but we don't have it yet."

Others, however, say full kitchen integration by wireless means is still a thing of the future, and many operators aren't demanding that kitchen equipment be wireless enabled. "People are afraid of new technology," says Karol Renau of electronic microprossessor controller applications manufacturer Renau Electronic Laboratories. Renau said his company has the ability to integrate equipment wirelessly but hasn't seen much of a desire by its customers to adopt.