How to Choose the Right Foodservice Equipment

9/14/2014

The menu — as is true with almost everything in foodservice — should drive the type of equipment convenience store operators purchase. However, some experts on the Convenience Store News How To Crew suggest operators take it a step further by mapping out food preparation processes and workflow before making expensive foodservice equipment investments.

Operators should be able to visualize and document the steps needed to produce each menu item in the store, according to Larry Miller, principal of Miller Management & Consulting Services and a member of the CSNews How To Crew. “With that laid out, hopefully several menu items follow the same basic process flow, and then operators can identify what types of equipment are correct for their operation.”

Of course, space is typically a constraint in most c-store remodels. By mapping the preparation processes in the allotted space available, operators can verify they have the space to place the equipment and the room to accomplish the desired preparation. Then, you can “begin by categorizing all of the components that make up each menu item into how it will be utilized and at what safe temperature it will be served to the consumer,” Miller said. “You want to know what items will be served at a refrigerated state vs. ambient temperatures or at food-safe hot temperatures.”

For example, you may have to decide whether you will be buying shredded lettuce or shredding it yourself. Will deli meats and cheeses come to the store already sliced and packaged in preportioned servings, or will the associates in the stores do all the slicing as needed?

“In each instance, the answer will drive a decision on workflow, the equipment needed and, of course, the labor required for preparation,” Miller said.

The process flow also allows operators to clearly identify which menu items need to be cooked or rethermalized to bring them to proper temperature, and which will be assembled and served cold. This helps determine the type of holding and merchandising equipment required.

Joseph Chiovera of XS Foodservice & Marketing, also a member of the CSNews How To Crew, concurs. He also believes that it’s imperative to understand functional intent.

“What are you trying to achieve with your customers and your product? This has a tremendous effect on what type of equipment you specify. If you are looking to do made-to-order food, your choices as far as what equipment to spec becomes somewhat easier, but your execution becomes harder and more demanding,” he said, noting that the focus will be on flash or intense-rethermalization equipment. “If you are looking for extended shelf life and grab-and-go capabilities, the equipment you specify becomes a little more complex, while your execution becomes relatively easier.”

Chiovera added that in a hot grab-and-go, or what he calls “heat-hold” model, slow rethermalization equipment is needed, but most important is good holding and merchandising equipment that minimizes product degradation.

It is much simpler to map out the workflow processes for a new store and place equipment exactly where it is most functional, whereas remodeling locations can present more challenges since it may not always be possible to put equipment in ideal locations. Existing stores adding foodservice may have to rethink their entire floor plans to make way for optimum foodservice equipment and efficient in-store preparation processes.

Once functional intent and workflow processes are mapped out, operators can then make a focused list of the type of equipment they need and establish their budget. That’s when the comparative shopping begins.

Several CSNews How To Crew members suggest working closely with foodservice equipment distributors such as Fortier, Legacy or Holt and/or foodservice consultants, especially at the beginner and intermediate levels, to identify the best type of equipment to achieve specific product results. Advanced foodservice operators should primarily purchase direct from manufacturers, where they can leverage the size and scale of their operations to negotiate the best price.

How much operators should expect to spend on foodservice equipment depends entirely on the scope of their foodservice program and growth plans.

“Customer counts drive everything. If a store has a high customer count, it will drive the need and the budget,” said foodservice consultant Dean Dirks, another member of the CSNews How To Crew.

But as a rule of thumb, beginner foodservice operators investing in roller grills and heat-and-hold equipment can expect to spend $1,500 to $4,000, while a deli setup may cost between $5,000 and $8,000. When they graduate to the intermediate level and want to add impinger ovens or high-speed ovens, they can expect to add $6,000 to $8,000 to their budgets, plus $15,000 to $30,000 for hot merchandising cases, freezers and coolers. For advanced operators, the tab can run between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on the operation’s level of sophistication.

EVALUATING EQUIPMENT

Operators should seek equipment that is versatile and can be used for preparing multiple menu items. For example, an impinger oven can be used for pizza, hot sandwiches and entrees, while a waffle iron would be used to prepare just a single item. In this case, most experts recommend adjusting the menu to exclude items that require single-use equipment, which will reduce equipment costs and conserve space.

In addition to versatility, most experts agree that durability, ease of use and maintenance, and cost are critical criteria to consider as operators narrow down the equipment style and brand choices.

For several of the retailers on the CSNews How To Crew, ease of use is paramount. “For example, a high-speed oven might be able to cook a pizza in 30 seconds, but if it’s complicated for employees to use, it may not be the right choice,” one retailer said.

Durability and repair rate is a close second. “Down time means lost money,” said Mathew Mandeltort, corporate foodservice manager for Eby-Brown and a CSNews How To Crew member.

Another consideration often overlooked is a store’s power constraints. “A lot of older stores may not have enough power to hold high-amp, dedicated-breaker pieces of equipment,” one expert warned.

Physical appearance of the equipment, while not the most important criteria, was mentioned by most experts as somewhat important, especially for equipment that will be on the sales floor and visible to customers.

Ultimately, the trick when buying foodservice equipment is balancing price and performance. Most experts recommend reading independent equipment reviews and reaching out to industry peers for reviews and recommendations. Once the choice of equipment is narrowed to two, trial both styles to see which performs better.

“I am always a fan of putting equipment in the stores and testing it for 90 days,” one How To Crew expert said. “This way, you can see if one outperforms the other. Sometimes, one will look much better on paper, but in the store it won’t work out as well.”

Convenience store operators typically have a set protocol for rolling out new in-store products that begins with a single store and then gradually increases product exposure to multiple stores before full-chain rollout. Retailers should take the same approach with equipment.

“How equipment performs in the ‘lab’ may be different than how it performs in the field. Give it a stress test. Have staff use the machine. Have them clean the machine. If it’s difficult, it’s going to be a problem,” Mandeltort said.

MAINTENANCE & LONGEVITY

Operators should reasonably expect a piece of foodservice equipment in a high-volume setting to last between five and 10 years, but some retailers report equipment that has lasted longer, especially if it is properly maintained.

Most CSNews How To Crew experts recommend purchasing service contracts on foodservice equipment that is “business critical” — if they don’t have their own internal maintenance department — to minimize down time, loss of profits and disappointing customers.

In reviewing service contracts, make sure it is clear when the contract begins and ends and if it covers the entire product or only major components. Also note if there are any deductibles applied to service calls or any hidden charges. If the contract covers preventative maintenance calls, be sure to understand exactly what is included and the frequency of those services.

Most experts say not to wait until equipment starts breaking down frequently and reaches the end of its lifecycle before upgrading or replacing it. It’s best to cycle in new equipment on a graduated schedule.

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