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Primary cooking equipment, refrigeration and warewashing/janitorial/safety equipment account for three of the largest categories of food service equipment sales in 2003, according to the National Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM). With 2003 sales that amounted to $1.263 billion for primary cooking appliances alone, equipment represents a significant investment for food service operators.

Although performance and reliability are traditional concerns and continue to be of paramount importance when purchasing new food service equipment, energy costs-a big component of the long-term cost of a piece of equipment-are pushing equipment manufacturers, sellers and buyers to look beyond just purchase price and consider the long-term or lifecycle costs when comparing various equipment options. Finding meaningful and comparable efficiency information is difficult. Increasingly, manufacturers and testing facilities are collecting efficiency data for different types of food service equipment. As time goes by, such data will make it easier for buyers to compare similar types of equipment.

New technologies that produce better products at a lower cost can help counter the negative effects of rising energy prices. Food service facilities that take advantage of preprogrammed ovens that know the appropriate cooking time and cycles for its specialties; compact, multifunction equipment with innovative ventilation systems for small-space facilities; intelligent appliances that self-diagnose service problems; and similar newly commercialized entries into the equipment market will be better prepared to survive in the highly competitive food service arena.

Higher energy costs will also push food service operators to look at more energy efficient use of or replacement of not only cooking equipment, but also non-food preparation equipment that uses energy in their facilities. A majority of food service operators reported in 2005 that they have updated refrigeration, air conditioning and heating systems.

In the future, networked kitchens that can monitor and control energy usage for each piece of equipment; communicate with suppliers, corporate headquarters and equipment manufacturers; and provide appropriate reports to management are anticipated. Computer technology offers a tremendous opportunity for restaurateurs to cut costs, improve efficiency and affect the bottom line.

Another major concern for food service operators is a dependable energy supply. With the diminishing reliability factors from electric suppliers, many larger food service operators are looking at distributed energy technologies to ensure a steady supply of electricity, avoid costly shutdowns and reap the benefits of maximizing their energy dollars.

Consumer interest in healthier foods to combat lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart problems and greater interest in multicultural dishes are driving the types of equipment that modern food service operations will require. One survey revealed that two out of three quick service operators have added low-carb items to their menu. Natural and organic foods, lower carb choices, and foods with less cholesterol are shifting emphasis from deep fat fryers and dough machines to refrigeration, grills, rotisseries and steamers. Growing consumer taste for Mexican, Indian and other cuisine not traditionally found in American eating establishments demand alternative cooking methods and equipment options.

Another trend impacting food service technology is the shortage of qualified labor, especially workers age 16 to 24, the primary pool for restaurant workers. The industry is drawing more from the lesser educated, unskilled, and immigrant populations. Approximately 1 of 3 table service operators report that they will increase the proportion of their budget allocated toward training in 2005 to deal with this issue. Computerized equipment that repeatedly produces the same results based on pre-programmed instructions or offers bilingual operation will be more appealing to food service operators struggling to train employees.