To be a winner in the foodservice arena, break out of the convenience store box and take some equipment cues from quick-service, fast casual and white tablecloth restaurants.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.
No one understands the pain of working in a cramped space better than a food truck operator, said Larry Miller, president of his eponymous, Sanford, Fla.-based management and consulting company. Yet, throughout the country, these kitchens on wheels are turning out signature specialties that earn them legions of followers and fans.
Miller attributes much of their success to the fact that these operators develop their menus first, then find the right equipment to execute it within their space parameters.
“I’m often surprised by the great variety of innovative and very well-made food that can be done in the highly restrictive confines of a food truck,” he said, citing one he saw in New Orleans that was turning out freshly made po’ boy sandwiches, chicken, shrimp and roast beef from a vehicle only 12-14 feet wide and 20-30 feet deep.
In convenience stores, even the most basic, inexpensive equipment can produce some enticingly exotic edibles. Using a simple steamer, bread dough and a selection of meat-and-veggie-based fillings, Torrance, Calif.-based Famima Convenience Stores was able to create a unique dim sum-inspired item they call “steamy buns.”
According to Philip Hockwald, vice president of business operations for the nine-store chain, these wildly popular signature snacks have helped to build the chain’s reputation as a “foodie” destination.
As a general rule, the menu should drive equipment purchases instead of vice versa, which is a common error among foodservice rookies. But there are exceptions to the rule when a new innovation provides inspiration.
At least 70-80% of the equipment purchased for the Famima stores are driven by their menus, which are based on the company’s proprietary customer research as well as tracking of food trends, Hockwald said.
Finding Your “Wow” Factor
Every so often, Hockwald admitted, a “wow” piece of equipment will trigger a new menu addition, but, for the most part, practicality trumps sexiness. But, he emphasized, don’t underestimate the power of a little sexiness to stop consumers in their tracks.
While no one would have ever described a school cafeteria-style steam table as glamorous, at Laredo Taco Co., the proprietary food program at Stripes Convenience Stores, it has become a focal point of the food-prep-as-theater, sight-and-smell experience that characterizes this proprietary concept, said David Wishard, vice president of business development for Corpus Christi, Texas-based Susser Holdings Corp., Stripes’ parent company.
The steam table is a new addition to the Laredo Taco’s front counter equipment line-up, replacing a traditional metal and glass hot hold cabinet.
Versatility is also a strong indicator that a piece of equipment is investment-worthy. At Laredo Taco, for example, employees use a four-foot-wide flat grill that can be used to constantly cook small batches of taco and fajita filling ingredients while doubling as a short-order station for burgers.
Similarly, at Famima, when ovens are not being used for pizza, they are baking cookies or heating up Buffalo wings, said Hockwald.
It is easy to be dazzled by a brochure or salesperson’s pitch and confused by the vast array of products that claim to do the same things yet have different sets of technical standards and specifications. So instead of rushing to sign on the dotted line, Miller advises his clients to take some time to seriously weigh the investment against potential usage and potential profitability.
Miller urges c-store retailers to check out the equipment used by quick-service competitors. Fast casual and white tablecloth restaurant kitchens can also provide valuable information about many pieces of equipment. Chefs are often happy to invite fellow restaurateurs into their kitchens and share their experiences with brands and suppliers, he said.
Finding the Right Fit
While price is always a major factor in purchasing equipment, it should not be the only consideration, all agreed. A used or bargain-priced piece of equipment that, at first glance, looks like a great deal can actually end up being even more expensive than a higher ticket piece in terms of inconsistencies in food production and overall usage, labor and downtime costs.
If the equipment will be used for holding or merchandising fresh foods, retailers should keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to preventing spoilage. Miller pointed out that engineering in this area has come a long way even from one year ago. Temperature and moisture content can be much more easily controlled to keep more types of food at serving standards for longer
periods of time.
Teenage employees are notoriously unconcerned about the cost consequences of product waste, Miller said. That’s why no-brainer equipment, such as holding cabinets with lights on each drawer that turn red when product should be replaced, can be well worth the extra investment.
A critical factor that retailers new to foodservice often overlook is whether their stores have enough power to support the new piece of equipment, said Miller. If they don’t have enough power, they need to factor in how much will it cost to bring in the necessary amount.
To determine the real total cost of ownership, including per hour usage of electric, natural gas or, in some cases, propane, Wishard initially tests new equipment in one or two stores for at least six months. Before making any decisions, he also talks with the supplier’s maintenance people to get an estimate of how many hours of life and consistent performance, based on his stores’ typical 490 degree for 12-14-hours-a-day usage, is a flat grill expected to have before it fails. He also wants to know that if the equipment should break down, parts and repair personnel are readily available to minimize downtime.
“Customers should never have to see a sign that says, ‘the grill is closed,’” said Wishard.
Both Wishard and Hockwald consult with members of their own company’s maintenance team as well to determine the requirements for day-to-day cleaning. To estimate labor time and costs, they ask how often the equipment has to be taken apart for cleaning, if the process is employee-friendly or complicated (if it is too much bother, employees will avoid doing it whenever possible) and if special cleaning solutions have to be purchased.
Since the quality and consistency of any foodservice offering should be the same for every store, Miller emphasized that retailers should be realistic in considering whether a new equipment set-up can be effectively replicated in multiple stores going backward as well as forward.
Although some existing stores may not be able to support the new equipment because of space or other limitations, retrofitting as many existing locations as possible can have a strong impact on raising awareness of a chain’s fresh foodservice program.
“Equally important,” Miller said, “is the powerful impact this uniformity has on changing consumers’ expectations of the convenience store brand and its commitment to fresh foods.”