In May 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that the first of three 70-cent step minimum wage increases is scheduled for July 24. A second increase, which will raise minimum wage to $6.55 is scheduled for 2008. By the end of Summer 2008, the minimum wage in the U.S. will be $7.25.
According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), restaurants receive industry-specific tax relief in the form of a permanent Federal Insurance Contributions Act, or FICA, tax credit and related Alternative Minimum Tax relief, adding up to $1 billion in restaurant tax relief. However, some industry followers believe the scheduled minimum wage increase will have a huge—perhaps catastrophic—effect on operators.
“A minimum wage increase will cost our industry jobs,” said Peter Kilgore, acting interim NRA president and chief executive officer, in a May 24 news release.
In preparation for that day, quick-service brands are searching for the next big labor saver, says Howard Kosel, director of systems solutions with Enodis. Turning to technology is one option.
“People are hiring us to actually look at the workflow in the kitchen,” Kosel says. “And one of the things that we try to do is help them manage the labor within the environment.”
In working with several of the top-10 quick-service chains, Kosel has found that a combination oven, capable of roasting, steaming, and baking, can be become huge labor reducer. Several manufacturers offer their own version of the oven, including Hatco, Cleveland Range, Blodgett, and Alto-Sham.
“We’re using those combi[nation] ovens with the steam heat to reconstitute [Cryovac products], bring them up to serving temperatures, and even holding them in the combis,” Kosel says.
In fact, advances in holding equipment mean operators can keep pre-cooked meats for long periods and cut back on prep and clean up, says Mark Godward, president of Strategic Restaurant Engineering, a Miami-based firm that specializes in restaurant efficiency, productivity, and profitability.
“You’re seeing holding equipment very widely used in the burger concepts, where they cook the burgers very fast and hold them in drawers,” Godward said for a January QSRmagazine.com article, “A Comprehensive Look at Restaurant Technology.”
Even food suppliers are getting in on the act. Phillips Foods, for example, believes it has found a way to dramatically reduce the labor needed to serve marinated seafood, chicken, and beef. The key is the Baltimore-based company’s prep-free, patented, flavor-transfer sheet.
The sheet allows Phillips to produce a protein with consistent and attractive marinated product. Each sheet is precisely calibrated coverage to the specifications of a restaurant’s recipe.
“This technology gives quick-serves or fast-casuals the chance to offer [seasoned] meats without worrying if workers will mess up,” Dennis Gavagan, executive chef at Phillips, says. “It gives them the opportunity to compete with higher-end restaurants.”
Kosel says his clients have found transfer-sheet technology extremely helpful, because strips are “consistent and very easy to [apply] as opposed to guessing with a shaker or not having the right type of coverage,” Kosel says. “You’re eliminating prepping in the kitchen, portioning of product, and it basically goes from the distribution box into your product.”