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Making Sense of the Latest Equipment & Technology Advancements


Convenience store retailers are always looking for a way to get a leg up on the competition — not only competitors within the convenience channel, but also other off-premise channels that continually seem to be encroaching on their turf.

Perhaps the best way to stay ahead of the curve is to keep current with the latest innovations in equipment and technology, especially as they pertain to your foodservice operation. With customers’ tastes seemingly in a state of perpetual change, innovations in foodservice equipment and technology provide c-store operators an excellent opportunity to enhance — or even create — a competitive advantage against the competition, increase efficiencies, expand their customer base, and ultimately build their brand in the marketplace.

“Each day, there is a new way to communicate to [your customers], serve them faster and with higher quality food,” explained Convenience Store News How To Crew member Ed Burcher, a former c-store executive with foodservice expertise and currently the principle at Burcher Consulting, a suburban Toronto company specializing in foodservice, convenience, retail and merchandising solutions. “I do not suggest chasing the ‘shiny penny’ when it comes to new technology, but staying abreast of the changes is critical for serving great food in an efficient manner.”


There has obviously been a steady stream of equipment/technology products and systems coming into the market over the past five years, often rendering previous standards obsolete.

Burcher points to cook chill technology, a system designed to cook food, then rapidly chill to minimize microbial growth. “This has opened up really high-quality hot foods and proteins while maintaining a process that is easy to execute and implement,” he said.

When asked to identify the most innovative new foodservice equipment or technology, How To Crew members offered up a veritable cornucopia of products.

Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice at York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores, pointed to the Coca-Cola Freestyle and Pepsi Spire fountain units. “They allow for hundreds of choices with the same footprint as a standard eight- or 16-valve fountain machine, with upgraded visual and marketing options,” he noted. The only drawback is that each beverage company demands exclusivity, which means both machines cannot be used at any one location.

Krebs also cited the Turbo Chef oven as a singular piece of equipment that has resulted in improved business performance. “It allows for multiple cooking methods on set timers. It is also helpful in executing many diverse items with consistent results in a timely and effective manner.”

How To Crew member Chad Prast, senior category manager of fresh foods and dispensed beverages for Murphy USA Inc., reported that “Lancer and Cornelius seem to be getting very innovative lately trying to keep up with the digital screens.”

Prast also cited Coca-Cola’s Freestyle fountain unit and “coffee-wise, Bunn and Curtis are doing a good job with single-cup coffee brewers, but they are missing the boat on offering a machine that can do a larger size cup of coffee,” he said. “Fifty percent of our coffee customers purchase 20-ounce or larger coffee, and most single-cup machines do 12-ounce or less.”

Customer behavior related to social media, online ordering and mobile apps are key drivers to the advances in foodservice technology design, according to How To Crew member Mathew Mandeltort, vice president of foodservice strategy at Naperville, Ill.-based Eby Brown Co.

With counter space at a premium, equipment with a small footprint is also imperative. “The development of all-in-one specialty coffee systems not only balances the need to meet customer demands, but also the reality of space limitations typically found in convenience stores,” Mandeltort added.

David Bishop, How To Crew panelist and managing partner of Barrington, Ill.-based Balvor LLC, identified the soft-heat brewing system as one of the most important pieces of foodservice equipment that has come to market in recent years. “This system has so many benefits that its impact is felt well beyond the hot dispensed beverage category,” he said.

According to Bishop, soft-heat technology improves product quality and operational controls relative to holding times with digital timers. In addition, it enables the freed-up labor to focus on other foodservice-related tasks.


The impact on an organization of adding a new product requiring specialized or dedicated equipment can be profound. Beyond the initial capital outlay, there may be issues related to maintenance, training on its usage, workflow (e.g., how does the staff integrate producing the new product into the existing production scheme), and speed of service.

“We are in the process of developing a Panini program that will require the introduction of a sandwich press into existing production space for retailers,” shared Eby-Brown’s Mandeltort. “Retailers will have to take into account the cost of the machine, power supply availability, staffing, maintenance, storage of new product, display of new product, etc. There are a lot of moving parts if a product is simply not an extension of what you are already producing.”

Many interesting customer-facing solutions are available today. It is important for retailers to understand which solutions are a strong fit for their business models.

“Mobile ordering apps could drive more sales, reduce wait times and improve the shopping experience in cases where a retailer has a strong take-home business (e.g., pizza),” said Bishop.

“Kiosks or ordering screens are great for retailers who have a strong made-to-order program today,” he continued. “Back-office analytics can help align labor and prep schedules with demand at a more granular level. [For example,] looking at historical sales trends, retailers can prep accordingly to meet demand and minimize waste.”

Today, consumers want quality foods fast and at a reasonable price. What this means for operators is that they constantly need to find ways of improving speed of service (i.e., reducing wait times), delivering a consistent product experience, and ensuring the program is profitable and generating the level of expected returns.

“Equipment in this context ideally can help with each, but that is based on the assumption that the operator is already working with a relatively strong program. If not, equipment at minimum in the near term can help strengthen speed of service and product quality,” Bishop said.

But is it better to hold on to lower-cost equipment that does the job but takes longer, or invest in high-end equipment that costs more but shortens turnaround time and increases quality?

“It is more about the process,” Burcher maintained. “There are great Panini grills that can take five and a half minutes to make a grilled [cheese] sandwich and there are high-speed ones that can do a similar job in 45 seconds. In each case, there are drawbacks — speed, quality, consistency. In general, the better equipment is preferred if the operator and culinary development people know how to best utilize the equipment. Sometimes, the lower-cost equipment does a better job when combined with processes in the store to improve speed.”

Bishop stressed that if the goal is to consistently deliver a quality product fast and at a value your customers expect, then retailers really need to evaluate this very carefully.

“While you don’t want to spend more than you need to, the key is ensuring the equipment can support your business as it grows,” he said. “Whether that’s from a capacity standpoint or the ability to support other types of products.”

Customers have been very receptive to technological improvements at Murphy USA.

“Overall [response] has been very good. Take coffee for example. Just going from glass pots to soft heat 15 years ago would have been looked at negatively by some customers. Now customers accept it and don’t even think twice,” Prast relayed. “On the fountain side, we have moved to a lot of touchscreen machines, which customers seem to pick up quickly with very few issues. I think millennials have zero issues with technological advances, and other customers are getting used to it much quicker than in the past.”

Customers are seeking the “daily double” when they visit a convenience store: high-quality food combined with fast service. These factors require manufacturers to make continual improvements to their technology and equipment.

“It is important for c-store operators to keep up with these developments in order to satisfy their customers’ needs, while at the same time staying ahead of their competition in the fight for food and beverage sales,” noted How To Crew member Tom Cook, principal of design firm King-Casey.

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