Whether operating a hot or cold food program, new equipment enhances quality, productivity and profitability.
By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor.
Over the past few years, the economic climate has discouraged many foodservice operators from investing in new equipment or product offerings. But that situation may be changing. Some convenience retailers are testing new tools and looking for novel opportunities to boost their business and simplify life for their store teams.
The Village Pantry of Wilmington, N.C., a retailer with about 200 stores, is currently testing the Chef Stack, an automatic pancake machine that uses patented technology and internal rollers to deliver one pancake every 18 seconds—or 180 pancakes an hour.
“We are using it to produce pancakes for our breakfast program,” said Chad Prast, director of foodservice for Village Pantry. “The main wins so far are that you just need one ingredient and it’s very simple for the stores to execute.”
About the same size and shape as a microwave oven, the Chef Stack produces pancakes in three sizes—small, medium and large—which can then be served in the traditional manner or filled with extras, such as sausage or fruit. The Chef Stack pancake mix comes in a specially designed bag with a proprietary nozzle and cap to keep the contents sealed and fresh. When not producing pancakes, the machine converts into a self-serve unit.
Village Pantry executives spotted the machine at a trade show and were intrigued enough to try it. “We have two in testing and look to roll out 10 more,” Prast said.
Take Time to Test
Kwik Trip, with more than 350 locations throughout the Midwest, tests potential new products and equipment at the lobby store in its La Crosse, Wis., support center. Test results help determine future plans for the entire operation.
For several years, Kwik Trip has offered customers f’real old-fashioned milkshakes, frozen fruit smoothies and frozen cappuccinos, which are stored in a mini-freezer near the beverage bar and whipped up by the customer in a proprietary blender on the counter.
Recently, the lobby store began experimenting with the newest version of the f’real blender, which features a full-size LCD touchscreen.
“It has great graphics on it, and kids will love it,” said Mike Muleski, lobby store leader. “While the machine blends a drink, the f’real cartoon cow is jumping on a pogo stick or riding a roller coaster.”
Customers also can touch photos of f’real products shown on the screen so that nutritional information about each one pops up. Like earlier versions, the updated blender is self-cleaning and sanitizing to prevent a strawberry smoothie from tasting like the last customer’s chocolate milkshake.
In addition, the unit is reviewing new condiment-dispensing equipment. The chain’s most recent condiment equipment was stainless steel with bags of product inside. The stainless steel was easily cleaned and didn’t stain or discolor. “But the equipment didn’t dispense all of the product,” said Muleski. “We want something that minimizes waste, is easy to maintain and easy for customers to use.”
Currently, the store is using a plastic jug-style dispenser from Heinz, which features an interchangeable bag of product inside and the manufacturer’s well-known logo on the front. “It dispenses real cleanly,” he said. “And so far we really like it.”
Build Instead of Buy
Kwik Trip is more fortunate than most convenience store operations. The chain has an engineering department that can design and produce exclusive equipment to meet the needs of individual stores.
Recently, the engineering team built and installed a custom soup station for the lobby store that features six hot soup wells surrounded by an easy-to-clean surface with the look of marble.
The updated station provides a more handsome presentation than the portable heated soup server that the store formerly used, according to Muleski. “It is built into the counter top and looks much nicer and cleaner,” he said.
Kwik Trip has long used two-tier Hatco hot food display warmers to showcase ready-to-eat items, such as hamburgers and hot sandwiches. To better utilize foodservice presentation space, the lobby store tested a three-shelf version of the Hatco warmer with positive results. “This gives us extra space for new products,” said Muleski. “We’re starting to roll it out to our newer stores.”
While having all the latest gadgets is great, that’s not enough to guarantee successful foodservice. Most importantly, a store that serves food must be spotlessly clean and inviting to customers. Kwik Trip typically relies on Minuteman floor scrubbers to keep the stores looking sharp; however, the lobby store is smaller than average, and Muleski is testing a new Tornado scrubber that is almost half the size of the Minuteman.
The reduced size is an important feature for some of the chain’s locations.
“We’re trying to find a small version for stores with a small footprint and limited storage,” Muleski said. “Some of our older stores have no room to expand.”
Tried and True
There is always new foodservice equipment on the market, but many stores have yet to take advantage of proven tools that have been around for a while, according to Tim Powell, director of convenience store foodservice at Technomic, an industry research and consulting group.
One example is the high-speed oven which has been on the market for several years. So far, it seems to be an exclusive of larger chains and those with well-established fresh food programs, Powell noted.
York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores relies on TurboChef ovens to produce fresh breads and rolls in half the time of a conventional oven. “I still get wowed by these high-speed ovens,” said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice for Rutter’s. “They keep improving them, and that just makes life better for us.”
Another satisfied user is Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, of Canastota, N.Y. Currently, several stores are using high-speed Amana ovens to create made-to-order grilled cheese sandwiches as a test for the stores’ “Melts” program.
“Customers can add ham, different cheeses or make it into a BLT, Ruben or Philly steak,” said Jack Cushman, vice president of foodservice for Nice N Easy. “A lot of companies have these ovens but just use them to toast subs. The idea is to get the oven and then design recipes around it.”
Even if a store can’t afford an expensive, high-speed oven, Powell believes they can still make tasty, quality hot food available to customers. One of the best ways to do that is to take a fresh look at the traditional roller grill.
“So many options have been developed for the roller grill,” Powell said, adding foodservice newbies should remain flexible and start out simply. “Because c-store kitchen space is limited, operators should look for equipment that is versatile and can do several things,” Powell advised. “They should stick with self-serve products.”