The Best Equipment to Use for Different Foodservice Programs

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The Best Equipment to Use for Different Foodservice Programs

By Maureen Azzato - 02/13/2015

The number of foodservice programs convenience store operators can develop and execute are endless, and there are just as many pieces of equipment to support their preparation, cooking and merchandising. Well-designed foodservice programs, however, should optimize space and costs, utilizing the most correct equipment that ideally has uses across multiple programs.

In the case of foodservice equipment, less is more, according to the Convenience Store News How To Crew panel of foodservice experts. For example, an impinger oven can be used for pizza, hot sub sandwiches and breakfast sandwiches, while a high-speed oven can be used for finger foods, pre-fried foods, bakery and even hot sandwiches, although the amount of food that can be cooked at one time is limited.

“Finding an oven that can bake pizza, cookies, doughnuts, entrees and other items, that all come out perfect, is a huge plus,” one How To Crew expert said.

While the menu should drive the type of equipment operators select (not the other way around), it’s sometimes difficult not to be dazzled by new equipment and cooking technologies that emerge on the market. The key is making sure the equipment purchased serves an existing need or gap in your overall foodservice program.

“If the store gets to the level where it is doing enough food programs that it has multiple pieces of equipment for each program filling up the kitchen area, then it’s time to evaluate and try to upgrade/consolidate into a better piece of equipment to save space and time,” another expert noted.

Before expanding the type and caliber of equipment being used, Tim Powell — a foodservice consultant with THINK Marketing and a member of the CSNews How To Crew — said program demand should drive equipment purchases and upgrades. “Suppliers who are truly partners with c-stores will understand the retailer’s menu and positioning, and provide ideas for offering ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat items using existing equipment, or financial assistance to get new equipment,” he said.

While most experts are not fans of purchasing a piece of equipment that can be used for only one program or one type of menu item, Mathew Mandeltort — corporate foodservice manager for convenience distributor Eby-Brown Co. and a fellow expert on the CSNews How To Crew — emphasized that one size never fits all operators.

“If food quality, throughput, consistency and maintenance are being negatively impacted by the piece of equipment you’re using, it’s probably time to evaluate getting different equipment,” he said. “Fryers are a good example. They’re versatile in the sense that a lot of different foods can be fried in them. However, if everything you prepare has to be deep fried, there is a distinct possibility that during certain dayparts that fryer is going to get bottlenecked and cause speed of service to suffer, or worse yet, food quality will suffer.”

MOST/LEAST USEFUL EQUIPMENT

When asked what are the most useful and versatile pieces of foodservice equipment in convenience stores today, CSNews’ experts nearly unanimously named the ageless microwave, although most acknowledge it damages food quality. Other highly mentioned pieces of equipment included high-speed ovens, the ubiquitous roller grill, and heated holding cabinets.

“Fryers and conveyer ovens are also important … and the high-speed oven is ostensibly a growing critical piece of equipment needed for versatility, speed and a competitive requirement against other segments,” said Powell.

Fryers received high praise. “Even though they can only fry food, there are virtually endless varieties of things that can be fried,” said Mandeltort.

If you are wondering which pieces of equipment the experts believe are least useful or past their prime, the top responses were bag-in-the-box tea urns (to be replaced with fresh tea brewers) and panini grills/presses. One How To Crew retailer, who noted the microwave as both a “most useful” and “least useful” piece of equipment, said his chain is close to eliminating microwaves, replacing them with high-speed convection ovens. “There is a huge difference in food quality,” he said.

For Mandeltort, a piece of equipment outlives its usefulness when one of several things happen: It is only capable of producing one type of food one way; is complicated to operate and requires extensive training; breaks down frequently; is difficult to clean and maintain; and/or has poor vendor support.

Clearly illustrating that one person’s indispensable piece of equipment is the bane of another’s existence, Mandeltort is a fan of panini presses such as the ones heavily used by Panera Bread to execute its warm sandwich program. “Like high-speed ovens, they combine heating methods to deliver hot food quickly,” he said. “The only real downside is cost — about $12,000 each — so you better be really committed to running a grilled panini-style sandwich program.”

In terms of new trends and/or technologies emerging that are improving foodservice equipment, several experts pointed to hot holding equipment, espresso/cappuccino machines and fountain machines. At the 2014 NACS Show, one retailer observed high-quality hot holding equipment for finished products as well as hot drawers to keep the components of sandwiches hot for fast assembly. “I believe this is the future, and thankfully many manufacturers have come to the table with high-quality performing equipment,” he said.

Meanwhile, espresso-type coffee machines “are getting better and better each year,” another retailer said. “The main issues still seem to be getting one that can make larger-size cups since the 24-ounce is our top-selling coffee size. Most espresso machines are built for 16-ounce sizes or smaller.”

Fountain machines are also getting a boost of innovation thanks to The Coca-Cola Co.’s new Freestyle machine that allows retailers to offer a countless number and combination of beverages. “Coke’s Freestyle machine has made other manufacturers learn that if they don’t innovate, they could lose a lot of market share,” the same retailer noted.

Merry Chef’s high-speed smart oven from late 2012 is still innovative, according to several experts on the How To Crew. “It provides ROI, which is key and also touts energy efficiency, which is becoming extremely important to operators as it lowers operating costs over the long term,” Powell said. “Energy efficiency was not a [criterion] as little as five years ago.”

MUST-HAVE VS. NICE-TO-HAVE EQUIPMENT

With all that being said, the CSNews How To Crew experts have some clear ideas about the most necessary foodservice equipment that most convenience stores should have, based on the types of programs they have or want to execute. Below is a summary of the top recommended equipment to execute the most popular foodservice programs in convenience stores.

Custom-made cold sandwiches. The must-have equipment for a cold sandwich program is a refrigerated sandwich-making table, a display case, and a cooler and freezer unit. Nice-to-have equipment includes a high-speed oven, full-service and self-service cases, and a deli slicer. “You can use pre-sliced meats, but going all Jersey Mike’s-style and slicing meats and cheeses to order takes it to the next level,” said Mandeltort. “People love the show and it strongly supports a fresh message.” The high-speed oven enables operators to offer toasted sub sandwiches, pizza and even quesadillas, one retail expert said, while another noted that while upscale-looking display cases show off the product nicely, “sometimes the ROI doesn’t allow for it.”

Custom-made hot sandwiches. Hands down, the must-have equipment for a hot sandwich program includes hot holding drawers or a steam table, a hot display case and oven. Nice-to-have equipment includes a high-speed oven, walk-in cooler and freezer, and a panini press, “which is a great way to take sandwiches to the next level, making paninis, Cuban sandwiches, Mexican tortas, grilled cheese, etc.,” Mandeltort said. Hot sandwiches can’t be done without hot holding drawers, which accelerate speed of service and allow the addition of many menu options,” one retail expert said. Meanwhile, walk-in coolers and freezers are not only more convenient, “they allow the store to rotate inventory more easily and quickly, and they help the in-stock rate,” another retail expert said.

Pizza. A pizza oven and/or impinger oven — as well as warming display units for full-serve and self-service — were the top equipment pieces named by the experts to execute a pizza program. Nice-to-have equipment includes a high-speed oven or a brick pizza oven. While a speed oven can cook pizza in half the time of a conventional pizza oven, it does not yield the best quality pizza, one retail expert said, noting that because pizza is so competitive it’s imperative to make the best quality product possible. Meanwhile, Mandeltort said brick pizza ovens could be a real differentiator. “Not only does it bring an artisan element to pizza production, it’s a complete game changer in the channel.”

Hot finger food. Wings, chicken fingers, chicken nuggets, jalapeño poppers, potato wedges and other fried finger foods are a staple offering on most c-store hot food menus. Essential equipment includes a deep fryer and/or high-speed oven and warming display cases for self- and/or full-service. In terms of product quality, several experts recommend fryers over high-speed ovens. “There are ovens that can prepare these items, but there is just no shortcut when it comes to fried foods,” one expert noted. “There is no way to do fried foods without frying them!” Ventless, fully enclosed and automated deep fryers are recommended for small operators who might not have the volume to justify traditional deep fryers. “The ventless systems are great because they are completely self-contained, fit on a counter, have no exposed oil to mess with and are automated, which means all associates have to do is fill the hopper, press the button and voilá, fried food appears out of the discharge chute,” Mandeltort said. Nice-to-have equipment could include “a fry dump if the store is very high volume,” another expert recommended.

Entrees and steam-table meals. While few c-stores have successfully ventured into the dinner daypart, several have strong entrée lunch programs. The equipment cornerstone of these programs is good holding equipment to keep food moist, a convection oven and a steam table. Nice-to-have equipment could include a fryer, and a walk-in cooler and freezer for food storage and rotation.

Grab-and-go foods. Hands down, open-air merchandisers (island or wall units) are the must-have equipment to properly display salads, sandwiches, desserts, sides and other grab-and-go foods, according to the How To Crew panel. “Doors on the merchandisers are a deterrent to sales,” one retailer said emphatically.

Coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Glass pots are out and urns are in as the must-have equipment for this category. Other essential equipment, of course, includes coffee brewers, a water filtration system to enhance coffee quality, cappuccino machine, hot water dispenser, a bulk creamer unit and a hot beverage condiment rack or island. Nice-to-have equipment could include a coffee grinder for the everyday house blend. “Whether soft heat or not, urns will give your product extended shelf life,” one retailer said. “And fresh ground coffee still carries some visual price value and does yield a higher quality product.”

Fountain beverages. No real surprises in this category about the essential recommended equipment: a multiple-value fountain machine, frozen beverage machine, an ice machine and a good water filtration system. “The old six- to eight-valve fountain machines just won’t cut it anymore,” one retailer said. Another noted: “Where volume and space allow, the more heads of fountain and frozen beverages, the more cups the store will sell.” A nice-to-have option, according to one expert, could be brewed tea equipment depending upon the popularity of hot and iced tea in the market.

Fresh bakery. Not to be overlooked, bakery programs require a convection oven for bread, cookies, muffins and other breakfast pastries, and/or a fryer for doughnuts. Depending on the depth of the program, dough proofing equipment, bakery racks and self-serve bakery merchandising cases might also be required. “Baking onsite makes your store smell amazing, not to mention it creates a great dining experience,” said Mandeltort. “You can also bake pizza, entrees, etc., in the oven.”