Warren Bennis, the late leadership guru, once said that the factory of the future will have just two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog, and the dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.

We’re certainly a long way from that tongue-in-cheek view of the future, but for limited-service restaurant operators, there’s little doubt that equipment advances are making it easier for many employees to do their jobs and to provide a better experience for consumers.

“Equipment used to be a necessary evil,” says Gennadiy Goldenshteyn, vice president of advanced systems at Welbilt Inc., a florida–based manufacturer of a variety of commercial kitchen appliances. “Now it’s a source of competitive advantage.”

The trends influencing all this progress—not only in the kitchen with an array of cooking and maintenance options, but also in the front and sides of the house, too—are being fueled by fast evolution in labor, delivery, and safety, as well as rising costs.

“One overarching trend—a big, big, big thing that emerged about a year ago—is how to get more sales dollars per square foot,” Goldenshteyn says. “Almost everything falls into that.”

Space concerns alone are not new, but they’re rising due to higher costs and the growth in menus that put pressure on operators to do more with their kitchen equipment.

“This has become increasingly important, because it fits in with a newer trend: equipment needs to be multifunctional,” says Charlie Souhrada, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs for the Chicago-based North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM). “You don’t see a lot of equipment that performs just one function anymore.”

At the same time, the equipment needs to maintain or improve some quick-service tenets, namely speed and consistency. And of course there’s the return on investment to consider, says Joe Arvin, global corporate executive chef at Antunes, a custom solutions provider of cooking equipment with headquarters in Carol Stream, Illinois.

“How many years will it take to get the return of that equipment investment? How much labor are we saving per month? How much energy? It is amazing how often we are asked that,” he says. “We are no longer just equipment manufacturers. Our job is to provide answers for them.”

Labor trends are creating significant pressures these days, the experts agree. With unemployment levels at decades-long lows, the concern goes beyond having to pay higher wages or overtime due to crew shortages, but also includes hiring and retaining staff. That’s where equipment can play a part to make the work easier.

“Automation is a big theme,” Goldenshteyn says, pointing to push-button and smart-sensor kitchen appliances that not only cook quicker and more consistently, but also automatically turn on and off and clean themselves. This also applies to front-of-the-house equipment that allows customers to do the work, such as ordering kiosks and machines that provide beverages.

A look at the National Restaurant Association’s 2018 Kitchen Innovations Award winners finds a variety of items that make work easier and that are less hands-on for staff, such as Antunes’ flatbread toaster that can heat a variety of flatbread items or Welbilt’s Multiplex brand’s self-serve beverage blender. The latter is also one of the success stories at this year’s NAFEM Show, along with other time- and labor-saving devices ranging from burger smashers to ice machines that need less descaling.

“Operators are looking at how easy the equipment is to clean and maintain, how easy it is for the team to train another employee, and how it makes it easy to avoid down time,” Souhrada says. “There needs to be simplicity—how easy are the controls, and does it prevent language barriers?”

Additionally, as technology allows equipment to become smaller, multifunctional, and easier to use, it also “unlocks things with space, like going vertical,” Goldenshteyn says. This allows workers the chance to move around more easily.

“When you have limited space and employees coming in different shifts, it can be hard for them at busy times because of clutter,” Arvin says. “When things get so crowded, you are much more prone to injuries.” Automation may not only mean fewer employees required in the kitchens, but also less chance for them to suffer harm.

Although the return on investment is a major factor in purchasing equipment, there’s also a generational aspect to moving from dumb boxes to smart technology. “As the millennial generation has come online in management, there is more comfort running this high-tech equipment than previous generations,” Souhrada says.

When employees are freed from a number of tasks due to technology, operators can then decide whether to eliminate some staff or redeploy workers to tasks that would help deliver a better experience for customers.

Of course, not everything has to be high-tech. In drive thrus, for instance, self-closing windows that keep out bugs and the elements while helping to retain the temperatures inside are a plus for employees and save energy.

“The most popular is a hybrid that self-closes via gravity and a magnet that if a person steps away from the window, it closes,” says Anna Ellis, sales and marketing manager for Ready Access, which makes drive-thru windows. “Gravity and magnets are hard to break.”

At the same time, technology has made it simpler for employees to take payment at drive-thru windows, especially if they can just scan an electronic payment code on a smartphone or smartwatch while the window is open, saving several steps.

“As technology improves, these payment options will become more integrated and more wireless, and it will allow the windows to function better and longer,” Ellis says.

While trends in labor are important to the bottom line, delivery and mobile ordering are probably the biggest new trends for operators, who are either doing delivery themselves or adding it through one or more delivery services.

There are all kinds of ideas for how to handle this, both in creating space in the back of the house to prepare food for delivery or pickup and having an area in the front or side—perhaps a separate vestibule window or drive-thru lane—to pick up the food.

Planning for delivery, including having the necessary equipment, is critical, Goldenshteyn says. “If you don’t plan ahead for delivery, it will tear up your operation.”

This has resulted in changes across restaurants’ physical facilities. At Chipotle Mexican Grill, for instance, delivery and mobile orders have resulted in a greater emphasis on—and digitization of—second make lines in the kitchen and the installation of pick-up shelves. The shelves were created by Chipotle’s internal design team and manufactured by various equipment and millwork companies. A manufacturer will make the shelves going forward.

Guests or delivery companies place digital orders through the Chipotle app, pay online, and pick up the bag off the shelf at a designated time. Employees like having the shelves “because they can easily place orders on the shelves when they are ready, and customers love them because they no longer have to wait in line to ask the cashier for their order,” says Laurie Schalow, chief communications officer for the fast-casual company.

Some limited-service restaurants have created dedicated lines and entrances for pick-up and delivery, while a few are considering separate drive-thru windows. There are also increased efforts to automate make lines. “The key there is speed,” Arvin says.

Packaging is also an important part of pick-up and delivery, particularly in keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot. At the same time, packaging plays a part in the back of the house, notably with food that arrives in a package and goes directly into a machine that cooks it automatically.

The growth of delivery and digital ordering is the result of consumers seeking more ordering and payment points, requiring new ideas and equipment to serve this growing part of quick-service restaurants’ business.

“We used to just concentrate on customers going to the front counter or the drive thru,” says Doug Watson, chief executive of Brookfield, Wisconsin–based The Howard Company, which is known for digital menu solutions. “Now we have to think about them at a kiosk or the phone or using delivery—and they really don’t want to interact with anyone.”

As the technology for digital menuboards has become more complex, the actual equipment related to them, notably the digital screens and their protective cases, needs to be increasingly weather-resistant, better looking, and less intrusive, Watson says. And while “software is king” in making these menuboards easily interactive, the screens need to have “all the logic built in,” he adds.

Even though much of the new kitchen equipment is made with self-cleaning technology, there is still a need to have employees clean some of the equipment, as well as the rest of the kitchen, along with customer-facing areas like the dining rooms and bathrooms. “There will always be a little elbow grease in cleaning,” Arvin says.

In the front of the house, some operators believe fixed seating is best because it’s easier for employees to clean floors, seats, and tables. Others prefer having movable tables and chairs that give guests—especially younger ones who dine in groups—the ability to push tables together.

“Millennials and the next generations want to stay a little longer,” says Peter Tichband, vice president of sales, North and South America for FLAT Technologies, which creates technology to fix table instability. Moving tables around helps appeal to them, he adds.

Cleanliness in a restaurant goes together with safety, both in the food and for employees. There is considerable work in progress to automate cleaning, says Katie Gaynor, vice president of research, development, and engineering for global quick-service restaurants at cleaning giant Ecolab. Digitized hand sanitizers and soap are “a way to make sure staff is washing hands,” and alerts are available to remind management and staff that it’s time to clean certain items.

“The more we can automate, the better,” she says, adding that it can include anything from washing and cutting produce to cleaning dishes. “What’s really keeping it from moving faster is what point it’s financially worth it. Most operators don’t have the money to put in a cleaning system versus buying a bottle of glass cleaner. You have to wait until the tide turns to make it worth it.”

Restaurant Operations, Story