The Latest Advancements In Foodservice Equipment
Ask any retailer for their favorite tried-and-true piece of convenience store foodservice equipment that never becomes obsolete. The list would likely include the microwave oven, roller grill, pizza impinger/conveyor oven and possibly, the convection oven.
But as convenience store food-service evolves to satisfy the needs of a more discerning food customer who expects more in terms of quality, breadth of offering and speed of service, more modern and advanced equipment will be needed to supplement the tried-and-true.
There is a good amount of new foodservice equipment technology on the market currently, but it's important not to get distracted by the bells and whistles. Remember the fundamentals of your foodservice strategy and plan, and be sure your menu comes first and drives the equipment needs, not vice versa.
For example, when you see a cool piece of pizza cooking equipment at a trade show and you currently do not sell pizza in your stores, nor do you have it in your five-year plan to do so, don't impulsively change plans, buy the oven and try to quickly launch a pizza program. Our How To Crew experts say that is a recipe for disaster.
As you explore new menu expansion opportunities, it's important to know what works and what other operators, consultants and suppliers are impressed with in terms of equipment and technologies that have been around for a few years, and new technologies coming down the pike. Most experts agree new equipment that accelerates cooking time, expands food holding time and improves food quality and presentation â and is easy to operate and maintain â is deserving of operators' attention.
"The most significant advance is in hot holding equipment for bulk items and wrapped items for sale," one How To Crew expert said. "The improvements in merchandising and holding times have made it possible for us to execute a much higher level of foodservice programs effectively."
Induction heat cooking â which is instant heat response â is also revolutionizing the way this particular c-store operator is executing foodservice.
"I think this is the future and I don't think they have even scratched the surface of the possible applications," the retailer noted. "Induction heat cooking is much more efficient in terms of utility costs and it is almost impossible to state how much safer it is for our team members to use," because when the heat buttons are switched off, the burners instantly cool.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
In addition to safety, ease of use and energy efficiency, speed continues to be the cornerstone of the convenience store offering, so anything that helps operators deliver on that promise â such as rapid-cook ovens â is sure to garner attention.
While speed-cooking technology is not new to the market, it continues to receive accolades from c-store operators as its applications expand. While rapid-cook ovens have been around in the fooodservice sector for more than 20 years, they were specifically designed and retrofitted for smaller-format c-stores and quick-service restaurants over the past six or seven years. TurboChef was one of the first to market, but there are about a half-dozen companies that sell these types of ovens today.
Rapid-cook oven solutions range in size, complexity and price, from $5,000 to more than $12,000. By blending microwave and convection oven technologies, rapid-cook ovens not only cook food quickly, but also make food crispy, enabling convenience store operators to explore a wide range of hot food menu options.
Without question, rapid-cook ovens have been the impetus for the large number of hot food programs that have rolled out in c-stores over the past five years, and why we are seeing once hard-to-execute menu items â such as pizza, custom-made toasted sandwiches, chicken wings, chicken tenders and a wide variety of restaurant-style appetizer foods â making it in c-stores.
In two minutes, these ovens can take frozen, pre-cooked products and have them ready to eat. Because they can quickly cook food in small batches, operators can better control food waste and make food more aligned to customer demand times.
In many instances, these ovens replace one piece of equipment most c-store foodservice operators loath â the messy and hazardous deep fryer. Speed ovens can reheat pre-fried frozen food and most customers would never know it was not fried on site, one expert claimed. Another benefit is the rapid-cook oven's small footprint, with countertop models being only slightly larger than microwave ovens.
One expert, however, offers a word of caution about some of the new equipment that can dramatically increase speed and throughput. "Unfortunately, the service and maintenance of these items does not always keep pace with the features. Keep it simple, test like mad and avoid being anyone's beta test," this expert advised.
A new piece of equipment on the market called the Ovention Matchbox Oven was introduced at last year's NACS Show and was developed by the original founder and inventor of the TurboChef.
"Finally, a rapid-cook technology oven that attains the rapid cook without using microwaves, which has been a drawback since TurboChef first introduced its oven," said Larry Miller of Miller Management & Consulting Services Inc., a member of our How To Crew. "Microwaves are very damaging to most bread and they do a lot of damage to other types of food products as well. This oven is designed to do everything you can do with a chain-driven conveyor oven [and] dramatically improves energy efficiencies, cooking time and food quality."
According to Miller, the oven is so versatile and efficient that it could be the only piece of cooking equipment needed to operate a c-store kitchen. "With its compact size and affordability, it could revolutionize the way food is prepared," he said.
Which brings us to another topic high on operators' minds â energy efficiency. As equipment becomes more complex and automated, operators want to be sure the equipment does not cost an arm and a leg to operate. And, while automation is wonderful, some experts caution that not everything needs to be automated. Training someone to simply turn a knob and hit the start button is easier than asking them to execute automated programmed functionality.
"For those items that are programmable, it is very important that no 'geek' is required," one retail expert said. "If an entry-level, minimum-wage worker can't do it, it's too complex."
While several industry insiders are impressed with new rapid-cook technologies, one How To Crew member remains fond of the Deluxe CR2-4 bakery oven, which has been in stores for more than 20 years and operates with minimal maintenance.
"We have tried 20 different ovens over the years and always go back to our core Deluxe oven because of durability. It has the lowest per-unit maintenance cost of any piece of equipment we have in [our] food-service stores," this How To Crew member said.
Technology is great, but the more advanced a piece of equipment gets, the more expensive it can be to fix. "Equipment that lasts and doesn't break down often is more valuable than the most advanced technological equipment," the expert added.
NEW IN THE BEVERAGE WORLD
Turning heads in dispensed beverages is The Coca-Cola Co. with its Freestyle touch-screen fountain machine, which dispenses more than 100 flavor varieties. The machine allows users to select from mixtures of flavors of Coca-Cola branded products, which are then individually dispensed.
Experts agree the equipment is novel and innovative, and also reduces the amount of space operators need inside their stores for fountain beverages. However, one drawback is that only one customer can use the machine at a time. The customer learning curve on how to use the machine is also a drawback, according to our How To Crew experts.
Coca-Cola began installing the machines in 2010 in numerous fast-food restaurants, movie theaters and even some grocery stores. In 2011, PepsiCo followed suit and began testing its similar Fusion machine. Several convenience store chains, including Wawa Inc., 7-Eleven Inc., Tedeschi Food Shops and Rotten Robbie, have begun testing the Freestyle in their stores, but results have not yet been reported.
Despite some alleged drawbacks, one retail expert stated: "The Freestyle Coke machine is unbelievable. To be able to dispense more than 100 flavors of fountain and eventually do away with liquid syrup is going to revolutionize the fountain business in the next 10 years."
When it comes to the milkshake and smoothie category, the f'real blender receives accolades for the product it delivers and also for its operational benefits. "It has a digital screen, which advertises to the consumer, and is fully automatic," one expert said. "It automatically shuts down when it needs to be cleaned and will alert someone when it needs to be serviced."
Today's c-store operators are also interested in remote access and monitoring, and alert systems of all types, whether it's for beverage equipment, refrigerated cases, freezers or other temperature-control devices. From headquarters, operators can monitor temperatures and even set timers for equipment to run during specific hours â an invaluable management tool, as are alarms that alert headquarters of power outages or equipment failures.
While technological advances in foodservice equipment are exciting, they also introduce a host of other issues to contend with, such as new versions and upgrades being introduced at a more rapid pace, which may require additional training. And, of course, new technologies in their initial stages cost more money. So, c-stores often wait until the technology is in the market for a while and prices come down.
EQUIPMENT WISH LIST
Although our How To Crew experts are generally pleased with the new advances they are seeing in foodservice equipment, many have wish lists. For example, equipment that is right-sized for the c-store channel.
"When advances are made in the footprint of a piece of equipment, that is always welcomed," one of our experts stated. "We have limited space to get a lot of things done." Another agreed that it is time to see micro versions of steamers, salamanders and cook chill units that are heavily used in restaurants, but still are not properly sized for convenience stores.
Of course, cost continues to be an issue as operators seek faster returns on investment in line with c-store volume. One operator said he would like to see more equipment geared toward grab-and-go. "There are a lot of grab-and-go equipment pieces out there, but not a lot that make it easy and affordable for our trade of business."
And while the tried-and-true roller grill still has its place in some c-stores, one operator thinks it is time to revolutionize the roller grill to make the foods more appealing to shoppers, especially the female shopper. "People associate the roller grill with old-time gas stations. Coming up with new ways to sell the same item could really upscale the image."
Other industry insiders wish for improvements in hot holding times for fresh-made foods and hot wrapped products. "The growth for us is in hot grab-and-go food. The ability to sell a quality product hot and ready to eat, and get several hours to sell it while maintaining its integrity, would be a home run," one expert noted.
On the beverage front, there's a need to improve frozen carbonated beverage machines, which are expensive and break down so frequently that they are a poor investment, although the beverage products are terrific and popular with customers.
Convenience Store News' How To Do World-Class Foodservice report is researched and written by Maureen Azzato, a freelance content developer and editor with more than 20 years of business publishing experience, with a primary focus on foodservice and retailing. Previously, she was the founding publisher and editorial director of On-the-Go Foodservice, a publication for cross-channel retail foodservice executives, and publisher and editorial director of CSNews, where she worked for 17 years.