By Ross Markman, Retail Relations Editor
Charlie Roesch remembers his childhood in the 1950s the town of Buffalo, N.Y., dotted with slaughterhouses, the boxes of ham waiting outside, still warm from the smokehouse. They’d sit there, among the elements, for what seemed like an eternity. Refrigeration wasn’t emphasized much back then.
Years later, in the 1980s, Roesch cultivated a relationship with equipment manufacturer Alto-Shaam, stepping up the same businessCharlie the Butcherhis great grandfather started nearly a century earlier. He refuses, however, to take credit for the innovation that changed his profession from fourth-generation butcher to foodservice operator.
“It’s not anything the person does,” Roesch said. “It’s the equipment that does it.”
The metamorphosis of the convenience industry, like that of Charlie the Butcher, has occurred over several decades, as equipment innovations are introduced, allowing operators to compete with their counterparts in the fastfood and fast-casual segments.
“My great grandfather was innovative enough to be able to use new ideas and technologies,” Roesch said. “I guess each part of our family has had to go through transitions with technology and equipment.”
Twenty-five years ago, Roesch was a butcherjust like his great-grandfatherbut the meat he sold wasn’t coming out like he had hoped. It was then that Alto-Shaam developed the cook-and-hold process, which allows for a much quicker means to tenderize and store meat, in Roesch’s case fresh-carved beef and turkey, until it’s ready to be reheated.
“Everything [at Charlie the Butcher] is done cook-andhold overnight, so all my meats are finished cooking when I come in each morning,” Roesch said. “If a customer has a roast beef sandwich at noon and they bring their family back at six, I’m in a different piece of meat. What the equipment has done is give me a degree of consistency.”
Perhaps most remarkable about Charlie the Butcher is the relatively small amount of space the program requires, said Mike Newman, executive vice president of upstate New York-based NOCO Express. Each of Roesch’s three carving stationsa fourth opens in Mayoccupies about 550 square feet of floor space.
“Alto-Shaam has done a real nice job with providing him equipment in a compact area,” Newman said. “It’s great because the compactness makes it possible to put in a nice restaurant-type of offering without having to go 2,800 square feet.”
Less is more
Space is critical for retailers and manufacturers alike. Some equipment vendors, accustomed to serving the restaurant industry, have had to adjust to fit the c-store mold, where floor space is often limited and counter space is at a premium.
“In the four years I’ve been with this company, vendors are finally starting to realize that convenience stores are getting serious about food, other than just hotdogs on a roller grill,” said Cassandra Bailey, foodservice director of Calfee Co. of Dalton Inc., which operates Favorite Markets and Compac Food Stores in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.
Favorite Markets operates 130 stores with foodservice at about 60 sites. Twenty-five locations offer a fried chicken program, where store employees bread fresh poultry after a 24-hour marinade. The company cooks the product in Henny Penny fryers and displays it in Alto-Shaam hot merchandisers.
Bailey attributes the chain’s recent foodservice success not only to the freshness of the product offeringan ever-growing desire of customersbut also to a upgrades in the equipment used to display food, such as black granite tiles and white China, as opposed to the steel table of yesteryear.
“What we’re doing is going through and maximizing real estate in each store, which is not a whole lot,” Bailey said. “We’ve had to go through and look at vendors that understand we’re limited in counter space.”
Joe Carcione represents one of those vendorsand he gets it. National accounts manager for hot merchandiser manufacturer Colburn Treat, Carcione said when designing cases, space is a key ingredient. Colburn’s countertop case is just 24 inches wide.
“Counter space is so critical and so expensive, and our merchandiser is probably one of the smaller ones,” he said. “But it’s also more wide than it is deep.”
Colburn, a 12-year-old company that started as a steam-cooker manufacturer, only recently started targeting the c-store market, after previously focusing on fast-casual chains.
In addition to occupying a smaller footprint, these cases have other advantages, particularly utility cost savings. Colburn’s 24-inch merchandiser uses a standard 120v outlet, while it’s big brother requires 208 volts of power, which means it needs more amps to operate and results in a greater expense for the retailer.
Nevertheless, Carcione contends, merchandisers can be key to a c-store’s success, regardless of whether it’s heated.
“I think the type of impulse merchandiser is and will remain critical. We’ve seen numbers as high as 200 to 400% increases just by putting in a display case,” he said. “Appearance is everything.”
Fast and furious
If appearance is everything, then speed is everything plus one.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in any segment that doesn’t want to serve products faster,” said Keith Boston, director of culinary development at Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc. “We’re always challenging equipment makers to come up with things that cook faster and better.”
Consider AccuTemp, a Fort Wayne, Ind.-based manufacturer of griddles, steamers and stainless steel stands. A few year’s back, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) named the company’s quarter-inch thick griddles among the fastest in the country. The trick, the company says, is in the steam.
“The advantage is no hot or cold spots that you have with a traditional griddle,” said Jim Gavin, AccuTemp’s vice president of key accounts. “On a traditional griddle, a frozen patty is thrown on and lowers the temperature 70 degrees. But heating with steam brings the temperature back up in 10 seconds.”
In the mid 1990s, AccuTemp invented the connectionless steamer, which replaced the need for a boiler to heat water to be channeled into the cooking device, reducing the calcium and lime buildup that clogged boilers and made maintenance expensive. AccuTemp’s equipment creates steam right inside the cooking chamber via 3 gallons of water poured directly into the steamer.
“Maintenance is drastically cut, and less money is spent because you don’t have the auxiliary boiler and line,” Gavin said, adding the steamer also helps pare utility costs and cuts waste.
The menu of items that can be cooked in AccuTemp’s steamer is broader than expectedfrom beef brisket to pastas to seafood, even omelets.
“It’s not unusual to hold foods in there for 10 to 12 hours,” Gavin said. “It’s a moist heat, so things aren’t going to dry out, and if color plays a role, such as in vegetables, the steam heat doesn’t extract the heat or color.”
Easy being innovative
The convenience industry is growing increasingly, well, convenient which, in terms of equipment, means simplification. Manufacturers are creating easy-to-operate units that require little more than the ability to distinguish a bagel from a brownie.
“What stores want is equipment that is compact, simple to operate and energy efficient,” said Harry Jacoby, president of oven manufacturer MIWE USA.
Being a baker is not required of users. Controls are user-friendly and simple to understand. The only skill needed: the ability to p
ush a button.
“Let’s face it, c-stores have a lot of employee turnover, and many of them are teenagers that come and go, so equipment has to be very easy and consistent no matter who is operating it,” Jacoby said.
The ability to communicate with equipment allows for anything from reprogramming menus to diagnosing problems, and can be an asset when it comes to scheduling preventative maintenance and avoiding costly downtime, said Steve Beck, president of the Merrychef division of equipment manufacturer Enodis Inc.
“The idea of being able to manage a food program through two-way communication is revolutionary,” Beck said. “Every morning, I’ll be able to look at every button that’s been pushed on one of our ovens in the last 24 hours. If there’s a problem, I can tell if it was a userinterface issue, or whether the oven was experiencing distress.”
But don’t think today’s equipment is entirely elementary. Beneath the control panel lies a sophisticated mechanism that allows management to program preset recipes via a computer interface that, in many cases, is located outside of the store. Management can even plug in a laptop or a handheld wireless device to download a menu item directly to the oven.
“The end result is an employee who doesn’t even have to read a word; they just have to look at a picture,” Jacoby said. “If somebody really wants to get high-tech, they can monitor from a remote location in real time exactly what’s in the oven.”
One element of foodservice all equipment makers must consider is safety. Meats, for example, have to be cooked to a certain temperature to remove bacteria and food can’t be left out for too long.
“Not only are food sales becoming more important in convenience stores, but there are also regulations in terms of internal temperatures and the like,” Carcione said. “In the beginning, the situation was more of a heat lamp light and food sitting out exposed to the air and ambient temperatures. Now, a lot of cases are enclosed with heated air curtains and heated shelves.”
Much of that is due to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food safety regulations known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), which maintain a standard for the foodservice industry.
“People sometimes look at food safety as an inconvenience when they could be using it as a marketing strategy,” said Todd Griffith, national sales manager for Alto-Shaam. “Look for more HACCP integration between product and equipment manufacturers.”
And it’s not just how and where food is cooked that’s of concern. It’s what’s being cooked. Consumers increasingly seek products that aren’t prepackaged or re-heatable, instead opting for fresher and healthier choices.
“People don’t necessarily think of convenience stores when they’re hungry,” Jacoby said. “If they want something to drink, if they want a doughnut and a coffee, yes; but I think this is where c-stores are headed. It’s a natural progression. People want a better quality product. They don’t want something prepackaged they can zap in a microwave.”