Folks attending the annual National Restaurant Association Show are used to seeing the latest technology impacting the foodservice industry, and this year’s event provides plenty of innovative tools. But maybe nobody expected one of those tools to innovate with candy—no less one that could have a significant impact on the future of food.
Of course, this isn’t your normal confection. These geometric-shaped sweets are delivered from a 3D printer from South Carolina–based 3D Systems.
“This gives chefs the ability to create very intricate, sculptural shapes that are impossible to do by hand,” says Liz von Hasseln, creative director for food at the company, which developed the world’s first 3D printer geared for professional-grade culinary purposes.
The NRA Show kicked off its four-day run in Chicago on Saturday, with chefs like Rick Bayless demonstrating their chops at the World Culinary Showcase, and thousands of vendors displaying their food, beverages, kitchenware, environmental goods, and more.
Technology has been playing an ever-larger role at the show, with a wide range of products and services that help restaurant operators become more efficient and effective. They range from point-of-sale systems and digital signs to mobile payment and apps. And that doesn’t include all the tech advances that are part of kitchen equipment. The show’s Technology Pavilion is a hub of activity, featuring education sessions, a lounge for meetings, and numerous exhibitors. And this year, the NRA added Startup Alley, where emerging restaurant tech companies are showcasing their products.
“Startup Alley is a chance for us to showcase companies that are thinking outside the box, with technologies not normally used in the restaurant industry,” says Ed Beck, the NRA’s chief information officer and senior vice president. “They have technology we believe members of our industry would like to see.”
3D printing is a perfect example, he says. “Today we are seeing this technology being used in other industries, in manufacturing chips, in technical fields, and with biotechnology companies,” he says. “Now we’re figuring out how to use it the food industry.”
3D Systems, which expects to begin selling its ChefJet Pro machines next year, plans to open the nation’s first 3D printing culinary innovation center this summer in Los Angeles.
Von Hasseln says confections were “a good place to start” with 3D printing for food. “It lines up well with what people are looking for in desserts, but we expect to expand the technology to be used with other foods,” she says.
The machine makes candy—for instance a multicolored, blackberry-flavored cage with a ball inside—by building it one line at a time, using a sugary powder and small jets of water. It takes about two hours to build about one inch of a confection.
The ChefJet Pro, which will sell for about $20,000, and its sister product, CocoJet, developed in collaboration with The Hershey Co., will be marketed initially to big users—event companies, hotels, casinos, and large restaurants. But that could expand quickly, especially if third parties buy machines to make certain items for smaller restaurants.
The restaurant industry has a short return-on-investment cycle, and that has led many operators to view technology mostly as a means to accomplish goals, like saving on payroll and controlling food and drink costs, not on customers’ needs.
“Customer satisfaction tends to be an afterthought when it comes to technology,” says Jim Coyle, president of New York–based Coyle Hospitality Group. Coyle moderated the first of more than a dozen tech-related educational panels slated for this year’s show. Instead, he states, restaurateurs “should be looking at how technology can improve the customer experience,” he says. “They need to think about the customers first.”
The experience and expectations may be different in limited service, where speed is important to customers, than in full service, where customer service is paramount.
Panelist Scott Steenrod, vice president of restaurant operations for Philadelphia’s Garces Restaurant Group, provided this piece of advice: Never sign a long-term tech contract.
“In the fast-paced world we live in, it’s really hard to keep ahead of the technology,” he says. It’s best to stay open to possibilities, he adds, and have a good relationship with tech providers.
Advances in technology are also showing up in places where guests can’t see them: in the kitchen. A number of this year’s Kitchen Innovations Award (KI) winners on display this year were honored for technological breakthroughs that will improve productivity.
One example is Frymaster’s FilterQuick that includes an oil-quality sensor. The technology automatically monitors the oil in these electric and gas fryers, improving the food’s quality by removing the hunch factor from oil replacement.
“During the filtering, it takes an oil sample and prompts workers that the oil is getting bad,” says Dennis O’Toole, vice president of marketing, Americas, for parent company Manitowac Foodservice. “It knocks out handheld oil monitors.”
A sister company, Merrychef, won its KI award for its semi-automated, non-stick panini grill that uses a rapid-cook technology to produce food up to 15 times faster than conventional methods.
The statistic of the day was 30,000. That’s how many beef hot dogs three big companies—Vienna Beef, Nathan’s Famous, and Eisenberg’s—expect to serve during the show this year. That includes 15,000 franks at the Vienna Beef booth, 8,000 at Nathan’s, and 7,000 at Eisenberg’s.
By Barney Wolf