The innovators

This year’s winners of the Kitchen Innovation Awards in the United States have shown how little things can make a big difference. By Catriona Menzies-Pike

Ovention Matchbox oven is a new cooking platform which self-loads and unloads, and uses heated air

Ovention Matchbox oven is a new cooking platform which self-loads and unloads, and uses heated air

A self-unloading oven, a vacuum coffee brewing system, an on-demand defrost control for walk-in refrigerators, a high-temperature under-counter warewasher, and a system for reclaiming and refreezing melted ice were just some of the recipients of this year’s Kitchen Innovations Awards in the US.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) celebrated nine years of the awards this year. Kitchen Innovations is just one event at the huge NRA Show that takes place each year in Chicago. It brings together buyers and sellers from across the food industry—from representatives of big food and equipment brands to operators, chefs, dealers and industry watchers. Along with over 2000 exhibitors and many educators, Kitchen Innovations Awards contenders get to strut their stuff before the judges and more than 60,000 attendees.

Restaurant & Catering spoke with Martin Cowley, one of the judges for the 2013 awards, in Los Angeles. Cowley is senior manager design and standards for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. He’s been a Kitchen Innovations Awards judge since their inception in 2004.

The awards themselves emerged out of discussions between industry professionals concerned about what they perceived as a slump in innovation. Cowley says that generally, as an industry, “we felt it was getting stagnant with new products”. A lot of manufacturers were trying to cut costs. So the NRA looked at how it could drive innovation.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How do we get manufacturers interested in developing new products and applying new technologies to better service the industry?’” The results have been fantastic. The manufacturers get recognition and are encouraged by the achievements of others. “I feel it’s been very beneficial,” Cowley says. “It helps everybody.”

Sometimes the innovations that have been recognised by the awards seem remarkably simple in retrospect. An early award was given to a combi oven with a foldback door.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but it has become a standard because it addresses so many issues,” says Cowley. “It takes the hot surface out of play and frees up aisle space.”

It also means operators don’t risk getting burnt on the inside of the oven and they have both hands free to manage pans and dishes. It’s space efficient too, as the door slides out of the way—an important advance given kitchen areas are getting more and constrained.

This kind of innovation is in tune with what operators need and is ready for market. That, Cowley tells Restaurant and Catering, is exactly what the Kitchen Innovations Awards were designed to foster.

Another innovation recognised by Cowley and his peers that has had wide uptake is the Turbo Pot. It’s a technology that generates heat faster through pots, saving time and up to 50 per cent of energy use. “It’s really taken off,” says Cowley.

The awards aren’t given on the basis of promises about performance. Products must be market ready, and the judges request proof of results via independent testing. “We require hard firm data to support manufacturers’ claims about the product,” says Cowley. The Kitchen Innovations Awards make it easier for operators to make decisions about new equipment investments, and the judges are keen to ensure they’re presented with products that do what they say they will.

Of the several products recognised in the awards this year, Cowley says he particularly likes the Ovention Matchbox oven, a new cooking platform that self-loads and unloads, and uses heated air rather than microwaves to cook an entire menu without a hood. What’s more, it does so faster and saves energy. “It’s great for small volume operations and fits into a niche that hasn’t been addressed,” says Cowley. It maximises output from the oven space and provides a solution for smaller operations with space limitations.

Coffea® vacuum brewing system— a programmable whole bean-to-cup system

Coffea® vacuum brewing system—
a programmable whole bean-to-cup system

It’s doing something that hasn’t been done before that qualifies a product as an innovation, says Cowley. The judges aren’t looking for enhancements and improvements; they’re seeking new thinking. When they are filtering entrants, they ask questions like: Does it improve the quality of the product we are delivering to our customers? Does it benefit the industry? Is this a true innovation?

The manufacturers, Cowley says, are guided by operators who tell them the problems they need to solve. Events like the NRA Show give operators an opportunity to meet with manufacturers and speak with them directly about their needs. While different areas of the industry might have distinct demands, operators across the board are looking to quality, labour costs, sustainability and employee safety.

In the current economic environment in the US, Cowley says the judges are particularly mindful of costs and benefits to operators. With rising labour costs, operators are keen for products that will save time, labour and therefore money.

He’s also noting greater attention to sustainability. Operators are more aware than ever of energy costs, and many of the awards this year recognised energy and water saving technologies, both because of their environmental outcomes and their impact on the business bottom line.

Because the focus of the awards is on operators, Cowley says the judges do everything they can to put themselves in the shoes of the people who will be using these new ovens, fridges, machines and appliances. He tries to test as many of the products as he can himself to get a read on how they work and what benefits they will deliver. Operators can benefit immediately from the awards, as a condition of entry is that all the products are available for purchase at the time of the NRA Show.

He’s now preparing for another round of testing as entries for the 2014 Kitchen Innovations Awards open soon. The NRA Show will take place in Chicago in May 2014.

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