How the pandemic impacted the kitchen

Equipment for hotel and resort kitchens has evolved since the start of the pandemic, and priorities have shifted.

Contributed by Jeanette Hurt

One of the biggest changes is the amount of space dedicated. “Historically, kitchens were as tight and small as possible to maximize dining room space,” said Mitch Prensky, CEO and co-founder of Collective Hospitality, a New York City-based consultancy. “You worked in cramped quarters not because you liked it, but because of necessity. Now, instead of 25% of a restaurant’s space dedicated to the kitchen, it might be 28% to 30% so there’s more space for workers and social distancing.”

This increase in allotment allows for “more spaces that are dedicated for sanitation,” said Chris Alvarado, co-founder, design and development for Collective Hospitality. “It was happening before the pandemic, but now it’s happening more. There are extra wells for hand sinks going in.”

“Outside of the obvious, which is hygiene and that temperatures are correct, there’s definitely a focus I’ve never seen before on test strips (and testing) to make sure the water is hot enough and the chemicals are strong enough,” said Steve Grahs, regional vice president for dish washing equipment manufacturer MEIKO USA.

Robata grill in the kitchen of Mizu at the Hyatt Centric Charlotte SouthPark, North Carolina.

Overall, cleanliness with the dishes along with employees washing their hands has become paramount, according to Cullen Wyatt, development director for Indigo Road Hospitality Group, an F&B consultancy based in Charleston, South Carolina. “One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that people have become more aware,” Wyatt said.

Labor savings

Grahs and Alvardo both say that there’s an emphasis on kitchen equipment that can reduce the needs for staffing. Automation is becoming increasingly important, they said. “In years past, hotels would say, we can’t afford that (expensive) technology, whereas now, hoteliers say, we have to have it because we can’t find people to work in the dish room,” Grahs said.

“What we’re trying to do now is to get away from the pot sink and the hand washing of the pot sink,” Prensky added. “We are seeing larger units that really can properly scrub and detoxify everything, and this is a positive thing that came out of the pandemic. Nobody felt the need until now, and there’s technology to do this, and hotels are using it. We’re really at a place where we are value engineering.”

Technology in dishwashers and dish rooms now can be operated with less staffing, more automation with conveyor systems and equipment that is quieter, more comfortable to work with. This equipment often comes with full diagnostics built in. “It’s like the check engine light in your car,” Grahs said.

This equipment not only will tell staff when something isn’t working properly, but it also has settings, which can help train staff on how to use it, Grahs added.

Any equipment that isn’t working properly now needs to be fixed even faster, Wyatt says, making equipment maintenance is even more important. “There’s more of an emphasis on performance and reliability,” he said.

Hotel chefs and food and beverage managers also want equipment that requires less contact from staff. “For silverware and stemware, the idea is to keep human hands away from those items,” Grahs said. “They want to keep water spots from forming, and they don’t want (washing equipment) that leaves a spot or a streak. It used to be that hotel staff would polish silverware and glasses, and they don’t want their staff touching the glassware or silverware anymore.”

Automation can also promote sustainability, using less water so that water bills can be reduced or so that electricity needs can be reduced so that hotels and resorts can benefit in the cost savings, too. “If your equipment can help you save water and electricity, it can all add up to significant savings,” Grahs said. “If you are wasting water and energy, that’s profit dollars going out the door. New equipment can offer significant savings.”

The newer equipment, because it is easier and more comfortable to use, can also create a better working environment. “This helps hotels retain personnel, too,” Grahs said.

Cooking equipment trends

Automation isn’t limited to dishwashers and dish rooms. It’s also being sought after in the ovens and cooking equipment. Combination ovens are a big trend, Alvarado said. “In the past, they were used for banqueting and larger events, but we have seen in the past year or two the use of these for smaller, more curated type of venues,” he said.

Show kitchen behind the counter seats inside Mizu at the Hyatt Centric Charlotte SouthPark, North Carolina

There’s a little more prep work up front, but instead of cooking five meat pies, you can do 30 at the same time, Alvarado said. “The equipment is less labor intensive.”

Kitchen cooking equipment is also, at times, becoming more dynamic. “The other thing I’m noticing is that there’s more emphasis on the theatrics of it all,” Alvarado said. “In some restaurants we’ve been working on, grilling apparatuses, with roots in Argentina, in which you can grill multiple cuts of steaks or seafood are being used. They’re dramatic, versatile, and creative, and it allows the kitchen to kind of creep into the front of the house, but they’re still functional.”

For refrigeration units and cold storage, touchless technology is becoming very important. “I’m seeing doors that are sensor controlled so that employees aren’t grabbing a handle all day. Air curtains are controlled. No air gets out, and you can walk in and out but you don’t have put your hand on the handle,” Prensky said.

Ultraviolet light air purification systems – both built-in and moveable units – are also trending, according to Prensky, as they can kill bacteria and viruses.

Most of the new equipment – whether it is dishwashing, cooking or refrigeration – should be able to retrofit existing hotel kitchen spaces. “Replacement units should have the needed upgrades yet still fit into the same footprint, whether it is electrical or physical space,” Grahs said.

Wyatt said that hotels and resorts are tending to go with brands they’ve previously worked with and found to be reliable. “We have brands we have used for years that we feel better about, and we stay with those that we’ve had good success with,” Wyatt said. “With equipment, it’s still about performance and reliability. That’s the focus with the brands we select.”

One thing that has been reduced since the start of the pandemic are the size of the sneeze guards in the front of the house. “The extended sneeze guards have been reduced, and people are starting to feel more comfortable sitting at the chef’s counter instead of socially distancing from everything,” Wyatt said.

Lastly, and like it or not, robotics and engineering in kitchen equipment are expected to become more commonplace in hotel and resort kitchens. “This technology will help alleviate some of the labor issue, and we’re now at a place where you don’t have the opportunity to be cheap anymore,” Prensky added. “Out of all the things that came out of the pandemic, this is one positive.”