Healthy dining gets high-tech stirring

Restaurants: Healthier food and table-side monitors of the kitchen are ideas being served at a state exhibit.

October 28, 1999|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

No waiter or waitress will appear at your table, but don't sweat it. In the restaurant of the future, diners can take their own orders on table-side monitors. They might also get a front-row seat to chefs working from customized cooking islands. And they'll likely be ordering more "heart smart" items, such as Tuscan Tomato soup or Mahogany Ginger Hen.

Eating out has never been quite like this.

For now, some of the ideas exist only in the minds of members of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, bringing state-of-the-art restaurant features to life this week at Cafe 2000, a model of a 21st-century restaurant.

The 1,200-square-foot exhibit, displayed for the restaurant industry yesterday and today during the Mid-Atlantic Food, Beverage & Lodging Expo in Timonium, shows equipment, design, menus and technology that are expected to make the next century's restaurants safer, more efficient and better able to serve customers while improving food quality.

With Americans expected to continue eating out and ordering out more -- thanks to aging baby boomers and dual-income families -- the stakes are high for the industry. By the end of the next decade, the National Restaurant Association said in a report released yesterday, more than a half of the money spent on food will go to restaurants.

"The industry is going to become even more competitive, so employment and customer service and satisfaction are top of mind," said Marcia Harris, president and chief executive officer of Maryland's restaurant association. "We're going to need equipment to help us address labor shortages and better answers to food safety. This business has always been about pleasing customers."

With that in mind, she said, the association pulled together experts about a year ago to look at forces shaping the industry and to dream up solutions.

The group found that casual, ethnic, family-style and themed restaurants are growing, that operators will meet increased labor costs with labor-saving, multi-lingual equipment, that menus will incorporate more fresh, seasonal items with international flavors.

Additionally, stricter health codes requiring that food be cooked at proper temperatures and bigger demands for meals to go are driving many of the emerging technologies and designs used in the "back of the house," said Robert Z. Brown, a food-service consultant with Jessup-based Savoy Brown. Savoy Brown designed Cafe 2000 for the association with the latest trends in mind.

Among the state-of-the-art equipment are cooking ranges with a refrigerator base, a "Combi" oven that cooks, holds and reheats items right out of the refrigerator and another oven that can poach, bake, broil and steam cook with moisture and heat, be pre-programmed with up to 100 recipes and understand five languages.

"The average restaurateur is not familiar with this equipment," some of which is only in the prototype stage and not yet available on the market, Brown said.

The cafe has a facade of Carea, a resilient material that can be constructed quickly out of individual blocks. A nonslippery flooring is poured, creating a water-tight surface that can be washed down.

In the future, "the consumer is going to see a healthier food service facility," Brown said.

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