Foodservice Equipment Reports

SPECIAL REPORT: Behind The Scenes: The NRA Kitchen Innovations Judging Process

I admit to being ignorant about how and why products receive a Kitchen Innovations (KI) Award from the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show (NRA). After long talks with KI Judge Robert Forrester, I am now truly impressed with the selection process and the dedication (and stamina!) of the judges who undertake it.

To begin at the beginning: In late summer, a call for entrants goes out. Applications start coming in immediately to the NRA where staff assigned to the KI program review them for completeness and return those that need additional information. Among the requirements is operational feedback from two operators who have used the innovation. Also, products submitted must be commercially available with appropriate regulatory approvals and have been in the U.S. foodservice market no longer than 24 months prior to the upcoming NRA Show. Some applicants have a product in test and think they’ll have it ready by the NRA Show only to find they need more time. They have to withdraw their applications.

The judges have access to a secure website where they can study applications and enter comments and questions. Extensive documentation from the applicant throughout the review can take the form of videos, collateral materials, references and more.

When several new applications have been posted the judges schedule a conference call. Calls are coordinated and moderated by a KI consultant (who has been with the program since its creation in 2005). The calls can happen every few days during December and January and last up to two and half hours. Consider that every judge is a high-powered, high-profile person in our industry and their commitment in time and effort is astounding.

Forrester says entries fall into one of three categories: “slam dunk” where the judges immediately recognize that the product merits a KI award; “need more documentation”; and “this has been done before and is not innovative.” The ultimate deciding factor is “how meaningful are the incremental benefits to the end user resulting from this innovation?” It’s painful for the judges to have to inform an engineer that “what he has submitted and spent so much time on is not new or significantly different,” he says.

During the conference calls, judges outline the information they need to satisfy their questions and the KI consultant works with the entrant to get answers. Initial contact is with a manufacturer’s marketing person; when the questions get technical, they go to the engineer who did the design work. Sometimes the judges feel they must see the product up close—one judge might take the time to visit an operator who is using it, or visit the factory. In other cases equipment is shipped to a judge’s facility or, if it’s a very technical claim, to a third-party evaluator to validate. In fact, third-party validation of performance and proof of claims is critical to the process.

The judges have among them broad and deep experience in foodservice from giant fast food chain McDonald’s to quick-service restaurants to military foodservice to Disney resorts and Sodexo’s contract feeding accounts. Professional foodservice consultants design foodservices for hotels, restaurants, colleges, corporate dining, healthcare facilities and more. It’s this knowledge of the industry that enables each judge to say “I’ve seen this somewhere before.” When that happens, a judge or the KI consultant will research the product, including reading patents and they’ll go back to the submitter and ask how the product is different from “Model X that came out in 1971,” Forrester says. If the technology is complex, the KI consultant and a judge with expertise in the area will talk to the engineer and drill down to get answers, which can get highly technical.

Once the judges have made their selections, the applicant is invited to be in KI—and they all accept. The total cost per innovation is $11,750, which defrays the show costs plus extensive pre- and post-NRA marketing, advertising and administrative costs. The fee also gains the entrant a furnished exhibit space and the expense to operate the equipment during the show. The judges are not compensated. Of course, from the awardees’ points of view, the industry-wide recognition and a boost in sales is “priceless.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that for 99% of the awardees, this is a sure-fire investment.

The judges’ decision deadline is mid-February followed by a late-February NRA press release announcing the awards.

Throughout the year, the judges and the KI consultant are constantly on the lookout for KI-applicable innovations as they research products for their work, attend trade shows in the U.S. and abroad and monitor industry media. They also discourage those who clearly would not qualify.

KI debuted in 2005 with about 16 awards and has had steady participation ever since. There is no limit on the number of awards made—if an innovation has merit, it’s recognized. While the number of applications received is confidential, a guess is that a third of them become KI awardees. Out of the current nine judges, five have been involved since the beginning. “It’s a big commitment. We all see this as a privilege and a responsibility to the industry to do it right,” Forrester says. He takes pleasure in seeing the simplest innovation side-by-side with a complex machine that took millions of dollars to design. “That’s what makes this so rewarding for us,” he explains.

So, what does it all amount to? Forrester thinks the awards program has spurred more innovation than would happen otherwise. “Manufacturers big and small now have a venue for innovation, a place to get it showcased and the entire foodservice industry takes note of it. In the past you couldn’t know if [a new product] was a true innovation,” he says. Since 2005, he feels that the program has achieved acceptance and credibility. “It’s a program that is recognized as being legitimate when it announces these products are innovations and are going to serve the industry well,” he says.

The NRA Kitchen Innovations Awards Judging Panel:

Dan Bendall, FCSI
Principal, FoodStrategy, Inc., Rockville, Md.
A founder of FoodStrategy, Bendall has spent more than 25 years planning and designing foodservice operations and selecting equipment. His experience includes hotels, restaurants, colleges and corporate dining operations throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Martin Cowley
Senior manager design and standards, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Anaheim, Calif.
Cowley has been with Disney for more than 20 years and manages the design, construction and equipment standards for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

William Eaton, FFCSI
Chairman of the board, Cini-Little International, Germantown, Md.
Principal of the largest foodservice design consultancy in the world, Eaton also was president of Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI) and is currently a fellow. Eaton taught courses in restaurant design at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration for 25 years.

Robert Forrester
Principal, Restaurant Industry Solutions, Council Grove, Kans.
Principal of an engineering consultancy, Forrester creates restaurant operating platforms, develops foodservice equipment technology for manufacturers, and designs R&D kitchens for manufacturers and universities. He has 25 years’ experience working with such chains as Quiznos, Applebee’s, Pizza Hut, Whataburger, Taco Bell and Hardee’s and has created more than 1,500 kitchens and 500 equipment designs, including patents, trademarks and industry firsts.

Foster F. Frable, Jr., FCSI
Founding partner, Clevenger Frable LaVallee, White Plains, N.Y.
Since 1983, Frable has designed more than 300 foodservice projects, including restaurants, hotels, colleges and healthcare. Prior to consulting, Frable was director of facilities engineering for Marriott Corp., and an instructor at Penn State University.

Jim Krueger, Jr., CMCE
Chief, F&B Research and Development, HQ, Air Force Services Agency (HQ AFSVA), San Antonio

Krueger’s branch supports a global scope of operations including 276 facilities and 346 F&B operations providing more than 90 million meals annually. He has more than 30 years of experience as an Air Force veteran and accepted his current position in 2007. Krueger acts as an Air Force liaison with the hospitality industry.

Aaron LaMotte
Director, Sodexo Performance Interiors, Gaithersburg, Md.
LaMotte directs a team that manages Sodexo’s procurement-through-installation of equipment and furnishings, in support of 14,000 client/customers. LaMotte was formerly purchasing director and director of beverages for Levy Restaurants. LaMotte has extensive experience in opening and operating foodservices in large venues, including Churchill Downs, Lambeau Field, Staples Center, Oakland Coliseum and others.

Robert Marshall
Vice president, U.S. operations, McDonald’s Corp., Oakbrook, Ill.
Since 1986, Marshall has had a major role in the designs of and modifications to McDonald’s USA restaurants. After years in the equipment purchasing area, he took on responsibility for the design and implementation of the current McDonald’s production system, always with a focus on equipment and process.

Kathleen H. Seelye, FFSCI, LEED,
Managing partner, Ricca Newmark Design, Greenwood Village, Colo.
Seelye presides over the seven design studios that formerly made up Thomas Ricca Associates. Seelye has been directly involved in designing and selecting equipment in the foodservice industry since 1979, and has been with Ricca Newmark Design since 1984.

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