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‘Connected’ Kitchen Yet to make sense

Tuesday, January 22, 2019, 14:02 Hrs  [IST]

Although technology in its various forms has been making great strides across industries, commercial kitchens have been witnessing low technological adoption in the country. In a capital intensive industry like hospitality, it is all the more critical to adopt technology which can decrease cost and increase savings in the long haul, along with increasing customer satisfaction. Connected commercial kitchen is such an application of IoT technology, which reaps multiple benefits for restaurants and hotels. Asmita Mukherjee analyses the need, benefit, and future of connected commercial kitchens in an Indian context:

The hospitality industry thrives on its restaurants, which form one of the most important aspects of guest satisfaction. Through commercial kitchens food service operators capture the heart of consumers. In recent times, we have been hearing a lot about how the Internet of Things (IoT) is rapidly transforming many industries. IoT has entered the hospitality industry too, in the form of connected commercial kitchens, and is set to make a positive impact for the operators. There are many ways, through which IoT can benefit companies which operate a commercial kitchen, whether it’s a catering business, a restaurant chain, a standalone full-service restaurant, or a restaurant in a hotel.

Significance in the Hospitality Industry
While the hospitality and food service industry presents a huge growth opportunity, the industry also has challenges. Arguably, the biggest one is managing operational costs. Commercial kitchens face a constant struggle to control a wide range of cost centres, such as food and material purchases, food preparation, food waste, energy, and labour. If these costs are not corrected in time, they have the potential to wreck major havoc on the operator’s margins. Connected kitchens have emerged as a probable solution to the multitude of existing challenges faced by restaurant operators.

IoT in the foodservice industry is often referred to as the connected kitchen, encompassing the ability to transform common kitchen equipment into smart devices that communicate with each other when needed, resulting in greater operational efficiencies.

IoT-powered kitchen devices and applications not only integrate wirelessly across various commercial kitchen environments, including a wide range of cooking appliances, but they also connect the front and back end of the kitchen together, enabling communication to flow freely and adjustments to be made in real time.

Confirming the need of connectivity in commercial kitchens Vikram Goel, Managing Director, Rational AG, a connected cooking appliances manufacturer catering to commercial kitchens, expresses, “Connected Cooking is a big advantage for the chefs and restaurant owners to monitor and control commercial kitchen activities during their absence. Also, connectivity helps to keep the cooking units up to date with the help of automatic software updates.”

Benefits of Connected Commercial Kitchens
Connected commercial kitchens directly impact the bottom line of restaurants, by providing access to transparent information in real – time, which enables faster decision-making. The direct line of sight into the daily operations of store fronts provides greater control to respond to critical issues, even before they arise. Food constitutes one of the biggest cost factors of a restaurant, which means improving inventory accuracy translates into significant cost savings. IoT enabled inventory systems allow commercial kitchens to keep track of food inventory through IoT enabled Point-of-Sale (POS), and mobile devices, enabling adjustment of inventory based on sales. Connected kitchens can also automatically adjust product counts based on the most recent order, and automatically generate a replacement order whenever a certain inventory item falls below the desired level.

Sharing some examples, Chef Prashant Tikadia, Executive Chef at Meluha The Fern An Ecotel Hotel Mumbai adds, “The smart fridge or storage appliance maintains its own record and notifies you when to re-stock the material, which helps in controlling the inventory. Similarly, connected baking equipment also helps reduce inventory issues, by suggesting ingredient substitutions in case a particular ingredient is low in stock. Presently in India these technologies have not gained much acceptance, but surely in the near future our kitchens will get connected.”

Food quality can also be monitored through sensors mounted on various kitchen appliances that can detect temperature fluctuations or irregular actions, thus creating a higher degree of food safety and compliance, as well as, helping to reduce food spoilage. For instance, connected cooking appliances from Rational AG enable remote control over the cooking unit. “One of the unique features of Rational AG cooking units is that, they help to keep your data & Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) records up to date till last 6 months. Also, one can link RATIONAL units with your technical team they will get the pop ups if there is any technical faults appearing. This will save time in rectifications and promptness in service will appear,” Goel informs.

Energy consumption is another key focus area of connected commercial kitchens, as energy costs also contribute to a major chunk of the overall expenditure. Real-time monitoring of connected kitchen appliances enables detailed measurement of energy consumption. Sensors empower restaurant operators to identify and correct sub-optimal behaviour by continuously monitoring power consumption. The real time and continuous monitoring of various kitchen appliances combined with analytics, also help in predictive maintenance, by anticipating the failure of key equipment before it happens. Over time, the appliance and asset monitoring capabilities of connected commercial kitchens aid in reducing the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), by extending the life of appliances.

The variety and volume of information collected in a connected commercial kitchen is wide, and ranges from cook times to storage temperatures, consumer traffic to energy consumption, and refrigerated door openings to product hold times, all of which are beneficial for efficient operations of a restaurant.

Ranjan Jain, Managing Director of Elanpro, a company which is into refrigeration solutions for HoReCa said, “As a refrigeration equipment provider we understand that preparation and delivery of safe, fresh and high-quality products to customers are at the core of modern restaurant and convenience store operations. We manufacture technologically advanced equipment which provide automatic status updates, and are capable of being remotely monitored. These connected appliances enable a secure, reliable and easy system to monitor and control the temperature, humidity, pressure, and voltage of refrigerated display cases and compressor racks.”

The current status:
IoT technology offers countless promises to improve commercial kitchen performance, and we expect the connected commercial kitchen to gain momentum soon. Commercial kitchen operators can generate competitive differentiation by adopting a first mover advantage. By implementing connected commercial kitchens at the earliest, food service companies can initiate reduction of their energy consumption, automation of compliance management, and improvement of line of sight into daily operations.

However, while the concept is great and the kind of revolution it can bring to commercial professional kitchens are absolutely phenomenal, the adoption is still very low. What is currently happening is partial or adaptation in bits and pieces. Says Sunil Khanna, Director of Aster Technologies Private Limited, “Connected kitchen is yet to make an entry in Indian Commercial cooking space in a major way. Currently, only the Combi Ovens accelerated Cooking Ovens and Dish washers are the product categories, where connected appliances are being used in a limited way. In Europe, this concept is more popular due to professional needs of Chef Owners.”

Srikant Subramanian, General Manager - Marketing (Commercial Refrigeration Division), Blue Star Limited also expressed similar views. “The acceptance of these automated systems is yet to find mass acceptance in the Indian context primarily due to the availability of cheaper manpower.” He also stated, “We are working on getting a connected environment with our freezers. We are aware that in the large Commercial Kitchen space, Chefs can set the menu and program the unit so as to do the cooking with almost no manual intervention. Multiple menus can be stored in the memory of the systems so as to be used at the time of cooking.”

However, connected commercial kitchen space still sounds a bit premature for the hospitality industry in India, observes Jain. Even the Return on Investment is a question mark, he says. “While the concept is an essential tool to get a handle on food, beverage and labour costs, the Return On Investment (ROI) still is an issue when it comes to such equipment. Having said that, I believe, restaurant owners are not deterred from the challenges posed by this technological advancement.”

Tarun Bhatia, Country Manager at EMR Resources, a Switzerland-based management company which is into food service equipments, put forward his optimistic views on adoption of connected commercial kitchens, by commenting, “Spreading awareness and knowledge is the key to success of any technology. Dishwashers and Combi Ovens were not known to most of the hospitality industry a decade ago. Today, this equipment are a must-have in any food production area due to knowledge sharing activities undertaken by a few vendors. Likewise, we are putting in a lot of effort in Asia to enlighten people about the benefits of connected equipment in the commercial kitchen space. When India matures to this technology, it will be much easier to migrate commercial kitchens to the connected kitchen concept.”

When discussing the opportunities and challenges of a connected kitchen, Goel of Rational India feels that it is premature to talk about connected kitchens when seamless internet connectivity is a major issue in many places, especially in commercial kitchens.

Speaking about Asters’ efforts, Khanna added,” Few years ago some of our Clients had requested for connected appliances, especially, the hot & cold food holding units which could be operated from a central location or through the restaurant manager’s computer to ensure compliance with stipulated temperatures. We were not able to help our clients then due to lack of technology. But, now we do have access of this technology and can help our clients know with connected food service equipment. However, connected cold rooms have been a common feature over the years.”

Ultimately, the connected commercial kitchen solution offers a compelling opportunity for operators to gain centralised insights at the corporate and franchisor level which helps to reduce operating performance gaps and removes variability. The increased operational efficiency results in better and predictable business outcomes combined with greater overall system performance and profitability.

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