At Rifrullo Cafe in Brookline, the house-made bread, spelt scones, apple tarts, and lemon yogurt cake taste as delicious as ever. But these days, they’re baked in an electric oven. When chef-owner Colleen Suhanosky needed to replace her gas oven last year, there was no question she would make the switch: Rifrullo has been recognized for its commitment to sustainability by the nonprofit Green Restaurant Association. In restaurants as in homes, gas stoves use the fossil fuels we need to move away from to mitigate climate change; multiple studies also say they’re bad for our health, increasing the risk of childhood asthma and more.
“There is no difference whatsoever,” Suhanosky said of the baked goods from the electric oven. “I thought when we were switching over that there would be, but there was no disruption in our baking.” When she and co-owner Melissa Fetter opened Beacon Hill Books & Cafe in September, they installed both an electric oven and an electric stove. “It hasn’t hindered my ability to cook anything yet,” she said.
According to a 2022 survey by the National Restaurant Association, 76 percent of restaurants use natural gas, and 90 percent of chefs who do so say that a ban on gas would have a negative impact on the quality of their food. “The professional chefs will tell you cooking with gas is better,” said Stephen Clark, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “They definitely prefer an open flame. They will say it affects the quality, the taste, everything. Every time it comes up, I get texts or e-mails or calls saying this would be a problem.”
Chris Douglass, chef-owner of Tavolo (and the just-closed Ashmont Grill) in Dorchester and instructor in Boston University’s Certificate Program in the Culinary Arts, still likes gas burners, he says: “Learning induction is a hurdle.” Induction is precise, he says, but because it generates heat from a magnetic field, it requires pans to be flat — in other words, in good shape — to maintain contact with the surface. “Every time you lift the pan to sauté and flip the contents, the pan is no longer being energized.” Nonetheless, he says, “I think induction is inevitable and has some great qualities.”
Many local chefs said they want to make the switch to electric, or at least have come to terms with the notion as it gains momentum. Last year, 10 communities — including Brookline, Cambridge, and Newton — signed on to a pilot program banning the use of fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations. In January, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced plans to do the same.
“I can cook on a lit pack of matches if I had to. A lot of us can,” said Douglass Williams, chef-owner of Mida in the South End and Newton. “Evolving with the changes is always a bit challenging in business, but artists handle it with style and sometimes mini-tantrums. … We’ll have to figure it out and find the ways to still be great.”
Some concepts lend themselves to electricity better than others. At Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, for instance, much of the food is stir-fried in woks over high gas flames. “Some of the authentic cuisine really requires flame,” said chef-owner Sumiao Chen. “You need flames to help control the temperature — for example, to quickly cook the vegetables to retain the color, retain the flavor and the nutrition.” However, she is working on a new fast-casual concept that would utilize electric equipment, allowing some of the labor to be automated via programmable features. “That’s the direction to go in the future,” she said. ”That way we can help save the environment at the same time we save labor.”
Automation is just one advantage electric appliances can have over gas in a restaurant setting. They don’t require the same intensive, expensive ventilation systems to remove harmful byproducts, help regulate temperature, and more. Cleaning can be easier. Induction burners heat up quickly, then throw off less heat when in use, making kitchens more comfortable and cutting down on air-conditioning use.
“The advantage of using induction burners I would say is manifold, especially when working with novice cooks,” said Jasper Hoitsma, chef and director of teams for Clover Food Lab, a vegetable-centric chain with 15 locations. They can be set to specific temperatures, enabling the user to cook and hold food at a precise heat level, he said. Electric fryers, too: “They have a very nuanced timing system, so if you’re working with novice cooks, all they do is push a button and it’s a time sensor that pulls the fryer baskets up and down.” If that sounds just a hop, skip, and a jump away from welcoming our robot overlords, consider that restaurants have been struggling to hire skilled labor since before the pandemic brought us quiet quitting.
So why aren’t restaurateurs rushing out to retrofit their kitchens with electric appliances? Cost — both of the appliances and the utilities. Electricity is very expensive in Massachusetts, as anyone who has paid a bill recently knows. “It’s a lot more expensive upfront, and the operating costs are a lot higher,” said Clover CEO and founder Ayr Muir.
All of Clover’s kitchens use electric stoves, and about 75 percent also have electric ovens. Some still have gas fryers; it depends on the building and its setup. But the year-old Prudential Center branch is entirely electric, down to the hot water heater. “The utilities there for the year ran $100,000, and the average utilities for all the restaurants were $40,000,” Muir said. “It’s not insignificant.”
At Rifrullo, Suhanosky said her bill since installing the electric oven is about double. “I was pretty surprised the first bill that I got,” she said.
For Clark of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, that cost is the main concern. He would like to see exemptions for restaurants included in gas bans. “When gas bans are proposed, people don’t think about the impact to restaurants,” he said. “It’s going to make the cost of opening a new restaurant that much more expensive.”
Regardless, the move to electricity is inevitable for restaurant kitchens, said Jesse Baerkahn, president and founder of the retail real-estate advisory, investment, and brokerage firm Graffito SP. “We’re having so many conversations about this,” he said. “It’s where construction is heading. There are very few all-electric kitchens in Boston, but that is going to change rapidly over the next five years. At a certain point, and it’s going to be soon, resistance from the chef community ends up being somewhat irrelevant when it’s just the way we’re building these buildings.”
At the NAFEM Show 2023 — the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers’ biennial showcase, which took place earlier this month in Orlando — the move away from gas and toward electric was on everyone’s minds. “It was a pretty hot topic down there,” said Matt Starr, president of commercial food service equipment and supplies dealer Boston Showcase Company. There was concern about restaurants’ ability to foot the bill, as they struggle with rising costs across the board. But there was also excitement about improved technology and promising new equipment. (There are even induction woks.)
“Electric equipment has come a long way,” Starr said. “We sell quite a bit, and we’re getting more and more requests for it. Specifically, induction is a far superior technology. Some of the older electric stuff was maybe a little more efficient than gas, but not much. The new induction stuff is really efficient and really great.”
Efficiency may offer the solution to restaurants’ cost conundrum. (Rebates help, too.) It is the raison d’etre of the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif., a research and education program that tests equipment in its lab, with the goal of making commercial foodservice more sustainable.
When restaurants open, they often purchase the lowest-cost equipment they can, says director of education Richard Young. He hopes operators will instead look at things more holistically. Electric equipment is more expensive, but if it is maximally efficient, that helps offset the cost over time. Then, rather than replicating the traditional kitchen lineup, the idea is to scale down, doing more with less equipment.
“How can I change my kitchen so I’m taking advantage of it? I can reduce heat, I can reduce air conditioning, I can get more done,” he said. “You want to go from your energy-guzzling, big gas kitchen to a smaller, more flexible, high-efficiency electric kitchen, keep costs in line, and make up costs with things like labor savings. When you do this, it pays for itself.”
That’s easier for places that have some money to spend up front — universities, tech companies, hospitals — than for the little neighborhood mom-and-pop, he acknowledges. But most of the regulations are aimed, for now, at new construction rather than existing businesses.
And there is a deadline here: 2050, the drop-dead date, determined by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by which global greenhouse gas emissions must be at net zero to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
“We have to make these decisions in order to move forward,” said Suhanosky. “Somebody has to be the pioneer and start doing it.”