Interview: Meet the judges behind FABI and KI

Step into the world of foodservice innovation with judges Dan Bendall (KI Awards) and Farley Kaiser (FABI Awards). Hear their perspectives on the selection process, this year’s awardees and the unique benefits of each program.

March 14, 2024

Sample Image of Chicago Skyline
Every year, two expert panels of judges convene to assess the most innovative foodservice products of the day. The result? New classes of KI (Kitchen Innovations) and FABI (Food and Beverage) awardees, showcased at the National Restaurant Show in May. While you’re likely familiar with these awards programs, the brains behind the decisions might still be a mystery. Who are the judges? How does their process work? We chatted with Farley Kaiser (FABI Awards) and Dan Bendall (KI Awards) to uncover the behind-the-scenes of the awards, their review process and the products that have them buzzing this year.

1.  What is your background in the industry?
DB: I grew up in the restaurant business with my family and then studied foodservice design at Cornell University. Following graduation, I continued on with foodservice design, initially working for another company before founding my company, FoodStrategy, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
FK: I am currently the Senior Director of Fresh Food and Beverage Culinary Innovation for McLane Fresh which is the fresh product development arm of the distribution company. Prior to that, I held positions at GetGo, Wawa and Buffalo Wild Wings. 

2.  How did you first get involved in KI and FABI? 
DB: About 17 or 18 years ago, one of the previous judges—who I had worked with—told me about it and that there was an opening for a new judge, and I said, “yeah, sure, that sounds really interesting.” So, I got involved and have been doing it ever since.
FK: I spoke at a Winsight event in Chicago while I was with Wawa, and they [Winsight] asked me to be a part of it after that.  

3.  Have you ever judged an awards program before? What made you passionate about this one?

DB: Yes, I had previously judged design competitions for some of the trade magazines. However, I think what makes KI so unique is that it’s an opportunity to evaluate equipment that I can use and that the other judges can use in their own jobs or businesses. It’s good to know what’s on the cutting edge of foodservice and to be able to use it and to be able to tell the people that we work with about it.
FK: As a culinary instructor for ten years at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis, I frequently judged programs involving culinary students. FABI is different because of its focus on innovations and new products. In this industry you see a lot of products, and often you don’t get the chance to give feedback during the manufacturing process. What I really love about FABI is that you can make a direct impact during that process.
The National Restaurant Show Image

4.  What is the judging process like?

DB: It’s an intricate process and probably a lot of people don’t know the amount of effort we go through to pick these awards. We hold a series of conference calls over a couple of months, during which we carefully go through the submissions. Each week, we take about 10 of the entries and really drill down and examine each one individually. Everyone offers their opinion, and we go back and forth about it. What’s fascinating about the judges is that we come from different facets of the industry, so everyone comes at things from a different angle. Ultimately, though, we have to come together to decide what’s truly beneficial for the industry
FK: The judging process is delicious and fun, and it’s also very, very thorough. We begin by evaluating applications, researching the items and deciding which submissions will move on to tasting. From there, we taste the products and then we get together as a group and talk about what we’ve tasted and why it matters. There are so many different parts of the industry represented in the panel of judges, that I think it’s fun to hear how different judges perceive the products. It really opens your eyes to how people are making decisions about products and how that’s impacting the industry.

5.  Has the judging process changed at all over the years?

DB: Yes. When I first started, we didn’t have the ability to review applications online, so the Show would send a big box of applications to all the judges. Along with the application, the manufacturer would send supporting data, including test data and brochures. In recent years, we’ve been able to review videos of each equipment innovation [as part of the application] which is great because we can see what the piece looks like, how it operates and examine details more closely. It’s the next best thing to actually being there and able to physically touch it
FK: Yeah, it has. I think that we’ve streamlined the process to make it more effective. It’s certainly still very thorough, but it’s a little more manageable now that we’ve spread things out so we’re not reviewing tons of products all at once.
The National Restaurant Show Image
6.  In your experience, have FABI and KI awardees (and submissions) generally reflected the overall changes in the industry year over year? 

DB: Yes, they [the awardees] reflect what’s happening in technology in the industry and in life in general. AI, for instance, is a buzz word now and it is in some of our awardees this year. Robotics is also a big thing [we see]. As far as the foodservice market goes, labor saving devices are big. They have been for a long time, but there’s probably even more emphasis on it now with the current labor situation. So, yeah, I think it’s pretty much reflective of what the hot buttons topics are in the industry. 
FK: For sure. Over the last three or four years, we’ve seen so many plant-based submissions. It started with Beyond Meat, and now we’re seeing every single type of protein you can imagine being replicated in plant-based format. I’m also seeing a lot more ethnic flavors in products. People are taking a lot more risks on things that the general consumer may not recognize, because they know they can draw them in with packaging. It’s changing the industry, opening it up and making it broader. 

7.  What did you enjoy most about judging this year?

DB: The same thing I enjoy about every year—getting a sneak preview of all the new innovations in one place as opposed to having to seek them out individually. For me, there’s a real benefit to having that early knowledge of what’s innovative in the industry. 
FK: This year I felt like we had very passionate and fun conversations around everything. I’d say it was one of our best years of collaboration. I would also say that we had a couple [of submissions] that were truly exceptional—things I had never seen before but discovered through FABI.  

8.  How would you compare this year’s class of awardees with previous years?
DB: We had a lot of good applications this year, as is shown by the number of awardees. This year’s class truly highlights how manufacturers are stepping up their game and better understanding operator needs.
FK: This year’s class was better finessed—they’ve clearly learned and evolved. It's rewarding to see applicants who have submitted products in previous years take our feedback to heart and come back with improved versions. 

9.  Which innovation(s) are you most excited for operators to see at the Show?
DB: I think the Hobart CL Rack Conveyer Dishmachine and the Lab2Fab PizzaBot™ are both really interesting. I also like some of the less flashy innovations, like the T&S Y-Valve, which is a spray-valve that is more durable. I can see from studying the design how it’s going to be a lot more effective than the ones I see in operations today. Another favorite is the Rational iCareSystem AutoDose, which puts the de-liming solution inside the combi oven [instead of on the floor], allowing for a cleaner, more sanitary installation. It’s little things like that that I find fascinating, and they can really improve an operator’s life in terms of cleanliness and efficiency. 
FK: I loved the Finesaler LLC, Chile Pepper Flavor Pearls. The Zero Acre Farms, Zero Acre Cooking Oil really stood out as well. I continue to use both in my home [cooking]. 

10.  What makes KI and FABI so important?
DB: It’s the one place where Show attendees can come and see what’s cutting edge in the industry as far as equipment is concerned. I think it kind of feeds on itself because as manufacturers, equipment dealers and consultants come by [the KI Showroom], they see these innovations and it just spurs more innovation from manufacturers, which really helps our industry stay up to date. So, I think it’s a benefit to the industry to have these innovations in one place, whereas if there wasn’t KI, you’d have to go around to a hundred different booths to find something that was innovative particular to your own needs.
FK: I think it’s a place for people to accelerate the normal process of launching new products. FABI exists so that you can gain better exposure in the industry, which hasn’t been easy in the past. We’ve seen people who have received FABI Awards go on to achieve remarkable success. I was at a food conference just last week and met someone who had won a FABI Award, and it was so rewarding to have been a part of their journey. So, I would say the accessibility and exposure provided by FABI is something that just didn’t exist before. 

For more information on 2024 awards and awards recipients, please click here

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