Equipment Key to Driving Food Sales

Convenience store operators in search of faster cooking times and longer holding times are finding foodservice equipment that can help. But which pieces, at what price points, with what sort of ROIs and in what sort of configuration remain questions that must be weighed and answered.

For an industry whose core competency isn’t food, and which has traditionally been slow to adopt cutting-edge technologies of any sort, these are major questions.

Among the smart equipment choices c-store operators have been making during the last several months are high-speed ovens.

“The best I know when it comes to faster cooking is the Silar Flatstone cooking platform inserts for Turbo Chef-style microwaves,” said William Eaton, principal of Cini-Little International Inc., a global foodservice consultancy based in Germantown, Md. “They are the advanced composite materials. An insert allows meats and sandwiches to be cooked on the stone and provides good color, grill marks and speed. This year it is a stone on which fresh dough pizza can be cooked with the result being a product equal to a stone hearth oven (pizza). Both products allow production in two minutes of first-rate products.”

Improvements in foodservice equipment are an ongoing process as driven by retailers’ needs for faster cook times.

Here’s a look at some of the recent advancements foodservice managers should note:

•One respected manufacturer recently rolled out an insulated rethermalization oven designed to reheat previously prepared, stored and chilled food to serving temperature while retaining the food’s color, flavor, texture and nutrients. The unit heats chilled foods from 40 degrees to a predetermined serving temperature of up to 350 degrees. It also features several programmable settings for commonly reheated foods as well as electronic digital controls to adjust to actual temperatures.

•Another recent introduction from an equipment maker, a self-cleaning rotisserie, combines one-button cooking and cleaning for simplified operation. A device continuously removes grease into a receptacle for easy disposal without having to open the machine, minimizing the risk of spillage. The unit also reportedly cooks up to 20% faster than traditional rotisseries and is designed to accommodate larger birds.

•Neil Ross, a sales representative with Bresco (Birmingham Restaurant Supply Co.) in Birmingham Ala., said he has been impressed with a high-speed convection/microwave oven with a smaller footprint. The unit he’s recommending includes simple-to-use programmable controls and a catalytic converter that filters smoke and odors from the air, allowing for ventless installation.

• One well-known maker of cook-and-hold cabinets features a technology that creates a virtual food thermostat to protect product from overcooking. The latest addition, introduced at February’s North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM) show, is a button that boosts cabinet performance in 15-minute intervals to maintain ideal holding conditions.

• Interest among c-store executives has been high for a while on Turbo Chef ovens that prepare a fully cooked pepperoni pizza in 90 seconds. It incorporates microwave units in each side, a radiant heat unit in the bottom and forced super-heated air blowing from the top at 500 degrees. Its microwave units operate only during the initial thawing stage of a frozen food product.

• Another interesting piece at this year’s NAFEM show was an oven that combines microwaves and air flow. Specifically, the unit uses bursts of impinged air from the top and bottom for a uniform cook. Ventilation is not required.

Tracking the Trends
“Innovation is driving changes,” said Jack Cushman, executive vice president of foodservice, Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes in Canastota, N.Y. “But for us, we’re a little ahead of the curve. It’s not new for us, these things that people are starting to figure out.”

Cushman, who oversees 83 stores, said his food operations have had great success with humidified cabinets, designed to hold the food hot for long periods by keeping the humidity at a high enough level.

“Everybody knows that when you hold food it kind of dries out if it sits there for any length of time. It gets crusty and doesn’t taste good. But if you’re holding food in a humidified environment, you can stretch out your hold times and lower shrink, and actually increase your quality, depending on the item,” Cushman said. “You can’t just put anything in there, but if you put in the right kind of food, you’ve got a good combination.”

While conceding the technology behind this concept is not that new, Cushman said it is new for the c-store industry, “which is not surprising since the industry as a whole is known for being slow to adopt new technologies,” he added.

With units that work like this, the longer you hold food the more moist it’s going to get, “but you don’t want it to get so moist that it tastes like goop,” Cushman said. “The maximum holding time for biscuit or croissant sandwiches with ham, egg, cheese, sausage or bacon is about four hours.”

All Nice N Easy units carry a foodservice program with about half operating what Cushman himself considers “a true QSR concept.” About 20 units have the chains upscale proprietary Easy Street Eatery units. A third level of foodservice he terms “basic convenience store fare where there’s not a lot of cooking or prep; you just put something together and hold it,” he said. “We don’t have a brand for that; it just falls under the Nice N Easy umbrella.”

The company is also a Subway franchisee.

Going With What Works
While innovations are key to growing the foodservice offering, other retailers cautioned not to change just for the sake of changing. If something works, stick with it.

“We’ve stayed pretty traditional with our equipment and what has worked for us over the last several years,” said Tom Terlecky, senior category manager for BP America Inc.’s ampm chain based in La Palma, Calif. “We haven’t done anything new. The only thing that we are actually doing is that recently we’ve gotten an updated version of our Hatco holding cabinet. It’s actually a larger model, 41 inches in width versus our current, which measures 32 inches.” The reason for the update, he added, was better heat controls and energy efficiency.

The hot food program at ampm’s units includes hot dogs, hamburgers, corndogs, chicken and BBQ rib sandwiches, all assembled on site from components and heated.

“Most of the hot products are fully cooked. We’ll bring them into the store frozen, and then bring them up to temperature,” Terlecky said. “Once we’re at the proper cook time, we assemble the sandwich, wrap it and put it out for display in the self-service case.”

Hamburgers are a little different. “Our beef patties are packaged in an ‘ovenable’ film. We can take the fully cooked patty that has been frozen, thaw it, and then place it in a convection oven,” Terlecky said. “Because of the film, we don’t have to touch the product when we remove it from the package. It’s actually quite nice, and works very well for us.”

As part of developing the hamburger program, a typical ampm store is equipped with a primary convection oven, a heated display and a bun toaster. The total cost per unit of the foodservice equipment package is less than $10,000, he added.

“When you look at various pieces of equipment, like speed ovens for example, the price tags are fairly high,” said Terlecky, “so there would have to be a significant benefit that translates into labor savings in order to warrant an investment of that type.” At present, he continued, he and his colleagues “really don’t believe there is a huge cost benefit for us to go out and invest in that type of equipment.”

Cushman acknowledges that most convenience store operators are looking for faster cooking and longer holding technologies, but said, “I don’t think all of them look at humidity as closely as they should. I think that’s a big misstep. Once your morning rush ends and you want to hold that stuff for a few more hours you’ve got two problems. You’re going to throw it away because it doesn’t meet your quality standards, or you’re going to keep it anyway and sell it to a customer who’s going to get an inferior product based on your quality standards. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, so humidity is the way to go.”

Cushman had high praise for several pieces of cooking equipment, but lamented the fact that they are too big and clunky to fit into his kitchens.

“This is a tough situation: we already have a (prep) line for made-to-order subs,” he said. If someone wants to toast it, where am I going to go?”

At Subway, Cushman said, employees are trained to “just put it back behind the counter so the employees need to turn their backs to the customer to heat the product. That’s one of the reason we don’t do a lot of things, because they disrupt the flow. You’ve got to find equipment that doesn’t; that’s designing for convenience. The last thing you want to do is order some food and have the guy turn his back to you to do this or that. It’s just a big turnoff.”

Serving Many Uses
One of Terlecky’s ongoing concerns when it comes to ovens is that they need to be able to facilitate its entire product line. “Many of the speed ovens that are on the market right now don’t do a very good job with baked goods,” he said. “If you need a convection oven to bake and then you’re going to use a speed oven to heat or finish, now you’ve got two pieces of equipment, and a little bit of an over-investment, in my opinion.”

It goes without saying, Terlecky said, that longer holding times are always desirable, but he quickly added “it’s not necessarily going to come from the actual equipment itself. Many holding cabinets or self-serve merchandisers can retain the heat long enough, which keeps food safe. It’s just that the products themselves may not be at the proper quality level. You have to go back and address it from the actual supplier perspective, engineering the product to be able to withstand longer holding times.”

Equipment innovation in the months and years ahead will continue to be incremental—and operators will continue to weigh cost versus benefit in pursuit of better service and improved value.  CSD

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