By David Kligman
DANVILLE—In the food service industry, there may be no more valuable resource than PG&E’s Food Service Technology Center.
For the past 25 years, the San Ramon-based center has helped restaurants, hotels, universities and corporate dining facilities significantly reduce their energy usage. Research at the center has influenced the way that food service kitchens are designed and operated, reducing utility costs and carbon footprints.
To mark the milestone, the center hosted three days of events this week for more than 200 registrants from around the country to learn about the future of energy efficiency and green technology for commercial kitchens.
And what better venue for a celebratory dinner than Bridges, a restaurant 30 miles east of San Francisco that recently completed a major energy-efficient retrofit with the help of the center. Among the changes:
- A new ice machine that produces more ice but uses less energy and reduces operating costs by shifting ice production to overnight when energy is cheaper
- Lighting throughout the restaurant—including the kitchen, the bar and the dining room—that’s brighter and more efficient
- High efficiency evaporator fan motors and controller in the walk-in freezer
- New convection ovens and fryer that cook faster and use as much as 40 percent less energy
Major energy reduction
All told, the center says the restaurant will reduce its energy consumption by 10 to 15 percent, said Don Fisher, president and CEO of Fisher-Nickel, which provides technical expertise and leadership for the center.
“We’re going to knock $3,000 off their energy bill every year!” said Fisher as he gave a tour of the restaurant’s kitchen on Thursday night (Aug. 2).
Perhaps most important, the center was able to get a before-and-after report of the restaurant’s energy use that will be studied and shared with other business customers to show the benefits.
Chef Kevin Gin said his motivation for making the changes is to reduce wasted energy. Of course, it also makes financial sense in the long run, he said.
“Restaurants are always thinking about the bottom line,” he said. “What can you save for me today? By having this great opportunity maybe it will help some other restaurants realize that you spend a little bit more now but your return is going to be tenfold if not more.”
The focus of the conference has been a look ahead. Topics included refrigeration, dishwashers, cooking equipment and even a discussion titled “The Kitchen of the Future.”
The anniversary has also been an opportunity for those who work at the center to reflect on the legacy of their work, which has led to industry standards for everything from deep fryers to walk-in freezers, said Richard Young, a member of the center’s engineering team.
“I love it because I’m on vacation with my kids,” Young said. “We walk in to an In-N-Out. I say, ‘You see that griddle back there? We taught them how to do that. You see that fryer? We taught them how to do that.’ They’re all saving energy because of that.”
The center began in 1987 as a small operation located in the back of PG&E’s San Ramon Valley Conference Center kitchen. It now occupies a 9,000 square–foot testing facility with plans for further expansion. It’s considered the preeminent research facility for the commercial food service industry. [See how one of the country’s oldest restaurants relied on the center to become more energy efficient.]
Roasted chicken taste test a turning point
Young said the turning point for the center came in the mid-‘90s when the Safeway grocery chain asked the center to compare roasted chickens using two combination ovens and three rotisseries. Safeway had intended to use the oven that produced the best tasting chicken. It turns out the best tasting chicken was also cooked by the oven that consumed the least amount of energy.
“It proved to them that you didn’t have to give up quality to be energy efficient,” Young said.
Those attending the three-day event said the center has had a big influence not only on their businesses but on themselves.
“They taught me everything I know about energy education,” said Juliann Rogers, energy manager for the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast food chain.
So what does the next 25 years hold for the center? Most agreed that energy efficiency features will become a must-have instead of a nice-to-have.
Rogers said she’s looking forward to energy management systems—which automatically control and monitor energy—as they become less expensive and easier to operate.
Duane Larson, director of energy efficiency strategy for PG&E, said he believes restaurants’ demand for saving energy will only increase.
“Our customers aren’t going to stop going to restaurants,” Larson said. “Universities aren’t going to stop having cafeterias. Energy in California isn’t going to become cheaper. So the idea that this kind of service will run its course? I don’t see how it can. What we’re doing is taking a very mature and successful idea and optimizing it for our customers.”
E-mail David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.