Speed, ease, safety and energy savings—those are the challenges that convenience store operators face each day as they serve fresh foods, both hot and cold, to on-the-go eaters with deadline-driven lives. Fortunately, innovations in foodservice equipment are helping them meet the needs of this demanding customer base and do it better than ever before.
Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice for Rutter’s Farm Stores, a 50-store chain based in York, Pa., has been testing new food offerings and looking at new equipment to meet the chain’s growing demand for fresh foodservice items. It is premature to talk about the potential food program extensions the company is working on, he said, but he’s enthusiastic about the equipment he’s testing, which uses inductive heat.
"The surface temperature is only hot when all the pieces, including a pan, are in place," Weiner said. "When the pieces are separated, the equipment cools down immediately. It is very safe for a hot plate area."
Induction cooking is much safer than gas or electric cooking because there is no open flame, red-hot coil or other radiant heat source to burn or scorch. When a store employee removes the special pan from the induction-cooking surface, the cook top immediately goes into standby mode.
"The reaction from the employee base has been pretty positive," Weiner said of the new equipment. "And it has the potential to produce a variety of different food products."
Having a fryer in a convenience store is something of a "love-hate relationship," according to Weiner. However, Rutter’s has adopted a new apparatus known as the Perfect Fry, a pre-programmable fryer that produces crisp, appetizer-style foods. It features a built-in vent and fire extinguishing system, so there is no need for an external hood.
"It’s very flexible," he said. "If I need to move the Perfect Fry around or add another one, I don’t need to worry about the hood."
Because the equipment can be pre-programmed, store employees are free to attend to other chores without worrying that the product will burn. When the cook cycle is complete, Perfect Fry drops the finish product into a separate receptacle.
"There is no way you can over cook it," Weiner said. "It does a great job on the product, plus it’s versatile. If you’re going to fry foods, it is safer than most (equipment)."
Another plus is that employees never touch the oil until cleaning the equipment.
Piping Hot Pizzas
Thanks to a TurboChef oven and a fresh pizza program, customers of a WOW! store in the Detroit area can enjoy fresh, hot pizza without the typical long wait. The stores recently adopted the Oliver’s Pizza program, which WOW! owner Faiz Simon describes as "very simple to use."
"Customers like it," he said. "The pizza is nice and fresh and prepared right in front of them."
Oliver’s Pizza provides the pizza dough, which has been covered with sauce and cheese and then frozen and wrapped for delivery. Store employees add the toppings and then pop the pizza into the TurboChef oven, which uses forced heat to cook the pie in less than five minutes. Plus, the oven does not require a vent saving on overall cost and space.
The entire pizza-making kiosk is three feet by eight feet and comes complete with graphics, signage and a menu board. Currently, Oliver’s Pizza is available in 10 states for an initial investment of approximately $15,000. Only six months into the program, Simon said his WOW! store pizza sales are meeting financial projections.
Another TurboChef fan is Henry Bays, general manager of NOCO Express, a 30-store chain in western New York State that features the Charlie the Butcher foodservice program, which was developed by a popular local restaurant and catering company.
"We have invested in high-speed convection ovens," Bays said. "They can take a pizza from frozen to baked and ready to eat in minutes."
The ovens do double duty for the NOCO Express stores’ sandwich program. "If you stick a sandwich in your oven at home, it can take up to 10 minutes to brown and be ready to serve," Bays said. "Using a convection oven, a sandwich will be hot and ready to eat in less than a minute. It’s a heck of an invention."
Rutter’s Farms Stores recently began using a TurboChef oven to bake fresh bread in the stores.
"TurboChef has three models: two high speed microwaves and one high-speed convection oven designed to do bread," said Weiner. "We chose the convection oven, and it’s been performing admirably."
In addition to those manufactured by TurboChef, fast-cooking convection ovens are available from Amana, Garland, Carter Hoffman and Panasonic.
Heat Up the Clamshell
Many quick-serve restaurants have adopted clamshell griddles, sometimes called grills, which can cook both sides of a hamburger patty or sandwich simultaneously. QSRs like them for cooking hamburgers because they heat meat quickly. The griddles are available with a variety of cooking surfaces, ranging from flat glass to grooved or partially grooved to chrome. The griddle’s temperature can be preset in order to ensure a consistent product.
Research at Washington State University has shown that thin meats cooking faster, evenly and more thoroughly if they are flipped frequently in a pan or cooked on a two-sided griddle like the clamshell. The researchers added, however, that the only accurate way to determine if meat is cooked to a safe temperature is to check it with a food thermometer
Some 7-Eleven stores in Florida have been using clamshell griddles to prepare the chain’s popular "Cuban" sandwich, a fresh, pre-made product that is available in the store’s open-air sandwich case. After a Cuban is purchased, the sales associate heats and presses it in the clamshell griddle while the customer waits.
"We also have a double griddle in about 60 stores in Texas—in Dallas and Austin—to heat our Panini sandwiches," said Margaret Chabris, 7-Eleven spokesperson in Dallas. "It allows you to heat more than one sandwich at a time."
Both the Cubans and paninis have been well received, Chabris said, because "the griddle provides a fresh, hot sandwich that customers like. But it takes three minutes or more to heat these sandwiches, and that is just not fast enough for our convenience-oriented, on-the-go customer. We don’t plan any further roll out of this equipment. We are looking at other ways to deliver hot foods."
7-Eleven uses a clamshell griddle made by Star Manufacturing International of St. Louis. Companies producing similar products are Taylor, Lang, Vulcan-Hart, Anetsburger, Keating and Imperial.
Despite all the fancy, new equipment available on the market today, Rutter’s Weiner said his favorite foodservice tool remains the relatively uncomplicated hot drawer warmer, which can hold a variety of ready-to-assemble foods at the proper temperature until a customer places an order. Only then are the appropriate hot foods brought together to create the desired product. Every Rutter’s Farm Store has a dozen drawer warmers, each one with individual timers and heat settings.
"We use them to hold sausage patties, meatballs, cheese steaks, burgers and grilled chicken," Weiner said.