Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Smart Kitchen

A vintage fast food kitchen

The kitchen of a quick service restaurant is the operator's most valuable asset, typically representing an investment of $400,000-$1,000,000. If poorly designed or maintained, this factory behind the service counter can put a wrench in the works of a restaurant's profitability, by wasting energy or food ingredients, inhibiting efficient use of labor or failing to reach expected yields of healthy, attractive product. By applying the kinds of monitoring and control technologies that have become standard in regulating the efficiency of other factories, restaurant operators can boost profitability substantially.

McDonald's, which operates or influences the design of some 31,000 kitchens around the world, has announced plans to move in this direction, selecting Echelon Corp., a San Jose, Calif.-based networking company, to layer its system on McDonald's sites, networking the controls on kitchen appliances and environmental systems, including such items as grills, fryers, coolers, icemakers, and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems to create "smart kitchen" environments.

Equipment can be scheduled to enter energy-saving standby levels when no use is detected, thus saving energy and appliance wear and tear...Other features monitor usage by product type to determine optimum filtering periods based on what's cooked, thus extending oil life, and monitor appliance performance, alerting the operator to contact a service technician if equipment is outside its ideal operating characteristics. (See "NRN" below)
By centrally monitoring the data collected from these store environments, the operator of a chain of restaurants can identify emerging maintenance requirements, fine-tune preventive maintenance schedules and detect opportunities for adjusting operating procedures or restaurant designs. The impacts of overnight power outages on refrigerator temperatures, for example, can be determined system-wide, preventing potential calamity.

The franchising model complicates decisions to invest in such technologies, since investments made in the technology by corporate staff may not be embraced by the independent operators that must ultimately share data to take full advantage of the capability. As recently as 2005, indicating the corporation's reticence about taking on the Big Brother role, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner said, "If you are looking for a command center with one push button that operates our restaurants in every corner of the world, you won't find it.” Big Mac's Makeover

Now, with food safety, energy efficiency and green design moving to the forefront of every operator's agenda, such ventures into system-wide collaboration are becoming more acceptable.

"NRN" FindArticles - Self-aware equipment: smart kitchen in reach Nation's Restaurant News, Oct 8, 2007

“Big Mac’s Makeover: McDonald’s Turned Around”, The Economist, Oct. 14, 2004

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