DALLAS -- Retailers searching for solutions to the ongoing labor shortage are wise to factor equipment into their food-service program formulas, said a panel of industry veterans at the biennial convention here of the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, Chicago.
According to statistics cited by panel moderator Mario Ceste, vice president of business development for Food Automation -- Service Techniques, Stratford, Conn., food-service jobs are expected to grow 17%, yet the work force will expand by less than 1% during the next 10 years.
"Help-wanted signs dot the neon landscape like sesame seeds on a bun," he said.
Equipment innovations -- such as two-sided cooking, conveyor cooking, fryer filtration and production monitors -- are helping to ease the labor crunch by offering improved production processes and task simplification, he said.
William Eaton, president and chief operating officer of Cini-Little International, Rockville, Md., said that equipment can improve the productivity of existing workers by eliminating or automating certain tasks.
"The chronic labor shortage is beyond chronic. It's terminal if we don't solve it," he said. "If you can eliminate a process, if you change or simplify a process, you've got a potential for reduced labor."
At Anaheim, Calif.-based Disney, technological improvements have allowed the entertainment company to reduce its back-of-the-house requirements for the restaurants, cut square footage of the food-preparation areas, and consolidate training needs, said Cheryl Garner, director of food concepts and product development.
"And, we also discovered that in many locations we were able to reduce the skill level necessary for our cast members," she said, using Disney's term for employees.
When it began to look at the production process, Disney took an extra step of working with manufacturers to develop food products that were at a certain state of readiness, such as speed scratch and ready-to-serve items. One direct benefit of this has been less handling of the food, and therefore improved food safety, she said.
Disney put its ideas to the test with Red Rocket's Pizza Port, the company's first-ever food-court venue at the Anaheim park. Projected to serve 1,000 meals an hour, the design process is so sleek, it has blasted through the 1,300-meals-an-hour mark, according to Garner. Rated by guests as the No. 1 food-service operation in Disneyland, Red Rocket's enjoys the additional distinction of generating the most profits of all the restaurants in the Disney organization.
Equipment plays a big role here, because it is one of the easiest ways to increase speed of production and service, limit steps (and therefore labor) and provide higher standards of food safety.
"When we limit the steps, and limit the places that food can be stopped in the process, we also ensure that it stays high-quality food," said Garner.
Multitask equipment in particular is able to streamline and simplify the process, and reduce labor requirements. Clamshell cookers, combi and conveyor ovens, convertible refrigeration and utility distribution systems are all being used by Disney to ease labor-intensive processes.
Combined with a limited menu and prepared components, the fixtures have allowed the company to meet customers' expectations while simplifying production, she said. For example, at the pasta counter, kettles and other fixtures are situated in full view of customers, giving them the impression that everything is prepared to order.
"Truly, what we have done is provided a ready-to-serve product that we finish at this location. We retherm it and layer in all the herbs and spices and all the ingredients that make it 'ours,"' she said. "But, to the guest, that is where the food is actually being produced."
The concept at the pizza station is similar -- the crusts are precooked, presauced and, in many cases, precheesed. Yet the pies are finished in-house before customers' eyes.
Garner pointed out that these operational efficiencies are not only the result of technological improvements, they are also the result of process advances, because "as soon as you make a menu change, you automatically have to make a process change.
"It's not rocket science," Garner said. "It's just a matter of looking at the flow of your product through your operation and how you might limit the number of steps."
Technology has enabled Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, a division of AFC Enterprises, Atlanta, to make "spicy chicken, homemade buttermilk biscuits, crawfish etouffe" -- the very definition of labor intensity, according to Glen Helton, director of operations services for the 1,400-unit quick-service concept.
Besides small operating units inside 10 Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. supermarkets, Popeyes is using equipment advances to open new concepts, the Cajun Cafe and Cajun Kitchen. To accomplish this expansion during the labor shortage, the company turned to central production for 60% of its menu items, and has used better equipment and updated production processes to narrow the gap.
"The results? We've increased employee productivity by 15%; we've improved employee retention inside those restaurants by 25%; restaurant sales retention is the highest it's ever been," said Helton.
"I'm sure you're asking, how did you do this? It starts with policy, focuses on process, takes a look at our facilities, while embracing technology," he said.
Technology has allowed Popeyes to adopt controlled-cooking protocols, better holding times and even network a kitchen that ties back-office and point-of-sale to the actual equipment, so that the fixtures can provide peak performance. Similarly, technology has provided the quick-service restaurant with on-line training programs and a single-source, back-office information bank. Even Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points are monitored throughout the restaurants, said Helton.
The improvements have gotten to the point to where "it's actually faster to take a credit card than it is to take cash," he noted, adding results have influenced all areas of the operation.