Kitchen Innovations Awards: What is New and Improved

Judges say the foodservice industry is finding ways to do more with less, in less square footage, and with fewer people.

Mar 26, 2024 - 12:26
Mar 26, 2024 - 12:26
Kitchen Innovations Awards: What is New and Improved
The nature of foodservice has been changing rapidly, with automation, cloud-based artificial intelligence, and robotic food-prep equipment moving to the forefront.

The Kitchen Innovations awards and the KI Pavilion at the National Restaurant Show are eagerly anticipated every year, signaling the most exciting and useful equipment and technology for the foodservice industry. 

In the post-pandemic era, the nature of foodservice has been changing rapidly, with automation, cloud-based artificial intelligence and robotic food-prep equipment all moving to the forefront. So what’s new and different with the 25 recipients of the 2024 KI Awards? Check out the list here.

We talked to three of the nine KI Awards judges: Cha Nye Farley, director of facility services at Cracker Barrel; James Thorpe, senior food service designer at Aramark; and Lenny Condenzio, CEO of Ricca Design Studios. Each sees the shape of progress from a different perspective.

In the foodservice industry, “We need to do more with less, in less square footage, with fewer people,” says Farley, who’s new to the KI judges’ panel this year. “Most of what was presented saves time, adds to the quality of the food or is an improvement in products that came about because the last four years required them.” 

She singles out “automation that actually works” and is reasonably priced to allow for wide adoption. Especially impressive to her were the Lab2Fab PizzaBot (which automates the entire pizza-making process) and TechMagic’s I-Robo (which can season and cook a variety of stir-fry recipes). She also was struck by innovative cooking equipment that uses “infrared or other options that will maybe deliver some energy savings.”

Aramark’s Thorpe, who’s been judging the Kitchen Innovations Awards since 2019, has seen trends develop rapidly from the state of the industry in the pre-pandemic era.

“Automation, in the past five years, has gone beyond what we would have thought would develop,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is automation, robotics and artificial intelligence advancing hand in hand. What’s new and trending is cloud-based monitoring software; that’s really amped up in the past two years.”

Driven by industry staffing shortages and the difficulty of filling positions, Thorpe says, today’s kitchen automation “makes it so much easier to pre-program machines, for workers to push one button to be able to cook items, so that they can multitask instead of standing in front of the fryer or oven waiting for the food to cook.” 

He cites as an example Rational’s iCare system for its combi ovens, with recyclable cleaning and deliming cartridges and software to determine exact dosages of each as conditions warrant. “That’s a game changer,” he says. “The combi knows when to clean itself and does it automatically as needed, and it’s all built into the unit. It’s pretty impressive.” 

Another winner that impressed him was Aniai’s Alpha Cloud, a “patty quality assistant” that uses cloud-based AI for quality control in the company’s Alpha Grill robotic burger-cooking robot.

For Lenny Condenzio, also a five-year veteran of the KI Awards judging panel, developments in automation, robotics and cloud-based AI aren’t the only news worth highlighting this year. “There’s still strong attention being given to energy efficiency, lower water usage, lower waste,” he says. “For me, any increment of progress matters, no matter how small. We’re glad to see continuous improvement in warewashing and icemaking.” 

In addition to an ongoing focus in recent years on equipment to maintain food quality, boost speed of service and address sustainability, “there’s been much more in recent technology to address labor-saving specifically,” Condenzio says. "New innovations allow operations to do more with fewer people, giving one person multiple tools to multitask successfully. There may be five pieces of equipment doing the thinking for that person; the equipment does self-cleaning, can shut off or change temperature without worker input. And that means workers spend less time on the mundane, repetitive stuff.” 

While developments in robotics create excitement among National Restaurant Association Show-goers, “robotic equipment has a long way to go before it becomes practical for our industry,” Condenzio believes. “There are products out there that mass feeders or the McDonald’s of the world will have the volume to support, and eventually those will be importable to smaller-scale, lower-budget places.”

More immediately usable to most foodservice providers are advancements in internet connectivity and the internet of things, Condenzio notes. “Any operator can figure out how those will benefit their organization,” he says. “We’re already seeing equipment that ‘talks’ on the phone and gives usable information. Anyone with one restaurant outlet or multiple outlets can gather data and do something beneficial with that data. Like everything else, foodservice technology will continue to evolve in ways that make sense and are practical.”