In an effort to further engage restaurant operators, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) debuted a new awards program and a new pavilion under its Kitchen Innovations banner today. Both the Kitchen Innovations Award program and the pavilion were developed to highlight what the NRA terms “the most groundbreaking back-of-the-house restaurant equipment on the market.”

Each of the 19 Kitchen Innovations (KI) Award recipients are showcased inside the pavilion, located at booth #3289. Winners include: Blendtec’s BDI-Narrow blender-dispensing system; Beverage-Air’s Prestige Plus commercial refrigeration units; Cooper Atkins’s Intelli-PDA pocket PC; Delfield’s LiquiTec refrigeration technology; Electrolux’s Libero Plug & Cook Line appliances; Fluke FoodPro Plus infrared thermometer; Hobart’s The Legacy mixer and Opti-Rinse system; Swiss Egro’s Super-Automatic Espresso Machine; Lincoln’s Dual Technology Finisher oven, Meiko’s Mike 2 dishwasher monitoring system; Enodis’s Merrychef 502 oven; Micros’s Kitchen Display System; the Penguin, a rapid thaw system; Prince Castle Inc.’s Romar Pasta Cooker; Rational’s SelfCooking Center oven; Turbo Chef’s Tornado oven; Zurn’s Z1192 grease collection system; and Vent Master’s Ventilated Ceiling System.

It was Vent Master’s ceiling system, which provides exhaust and make-up air function without the need for traditional exhaust hoods, that earned the most praise from 2005 Kitchen Innovations judges Bill Eaton, William Eaton, president of noted foodservice design firm Cini-Little. “Kitchens are no longer being hidden in the back. They’re up front where customers can see what’s happening,” says Eaton, “This technology allows for flexibility.”

Several other KI award winners offered similar flexibility. In addition to its innovative harmonization of three heat technologies—impingement, microwave, and infrared—Turbo Chef’s Tornado oven is ventless. Like Merry Chef’s 502 oven, the Tornado relies on a catalytic converter. No hood is required, a fact that certainly helped convince Subway to adopt the Tornado for use with its toasted sandwiches line.

Ease-of-use and speed-of-service were two other attributes that many of the KI recipients shared. Blendtec’s BDI-Narrow system dispenses puree, ice, and water with a touch a button. Steve Beshara, chief branding officer for Turbo Chef, calls the Tornado “the world’s fastest oven.” And, the Penguin Rapid Thawer makes it possible to defrost frozen foods up to 13 times faster than conventional thawing.

In the end, says Martin Cowley, senior manager of restaurant design at Disneyland resort and Eaton’s fellow KI judge, each award winner represents a major change in the restaurant industry. “The whole idea was to really highlight true innovation,” he says.

The 2005 KI judges panel was made up of a cross section of designers, manufacturers, and operators. Along with Eaton and Cowley, KI 2005 judges included: Robert Forrester, vice president of concept development for Quiznos; John Egnor, president of JEM Associates; Rick Gentry, director of technological services at ARAMARK; Robert Marshall, vice president of US Operations for McDonald’s; Robert Pacifico, executive vice president at Romano/Gatland; and Kathleen Seelye, foodservice president for Ricca Newmark Design.

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