Space limitations used to be the bane of c-store operators who wanted a professional foodservice program. But now manufacturers are stepping up to the plate with equipment that serves multiple purposes and still fits nicely within the c-store footprint.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.
Scott Zaremba has three Zarco 66 c-stores that sell made-to-order food, but he is testing a piece of equipment that can help him run his foodservice with the efficiency of a McDonald’s.
The tiered-tray, warm food holding cabinet has been a staple at major fast food chains for some time, but the cost was way beyond Zaremba’s budget. Now he has found an affordable six-tier model from Carter-Hoffman that has the same features and capabilities.
The cabinet has six removable, washable trays, which can be used with lids to keep in moisture for some foods. For other foods, the trays can be used without lids in the same cabinet to prevent sogginess. Zaremba plans to use the unit, which measures 18 inches wide and deep and 30 inches tall, to replace steam tables and roller grills in his back-room foodservice preparation area for keeping everything from sausage, bacon and eggs to hot dogs hot and ready to assemble per customer order.
“It’s the key to what we’ve been looking for,” he said. Zaremba explained that the new cabinet is perfect for his made-to-order concept because each component of the sandwich or meal can be cooked in advance and held for customized assembly. He noted that the unit cost somewhere between $3,500 and $3,800.
In the early days of foodservice, even the quick-service restaurants used to cook their food in advance and hold it under high intensity heat lamps, which made it difficult for the restaurants to allow for customized orders, said Larry Miller, president and CEO of Miller Management Consulting Services. “That made customization difficult and required customers who wanted customized items to wait, something a convenience store can’t afford to do.”
Holding cabinets, such as the one being tested by Zaremba, were a game-changer, not only within specific dayparts, but when making the transition between dayparts. “Breakfast items can be prepared before the morning rush and lunch items can be cooked and stored while breakfast is still being served,” Miller explained.
A growing number of c-store retailers are adopting rapid cook oven technologies into their foodservice programs. Jim Bressi, director of product development for La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip uses the High h Batch 2 oven from TurboChef, a programmable conveyor convection oven that can cook a 14-inch pizza in seven minutes.
Aside from pizza, Kwik Trip serves a wide range of daypart-spanning specialties, including breakfast sandwiches, burgers, roller grill items and chicken sandwiches and tenders. “With all of those things on our menu, we need only the oven and a Hatco heated grab-and-go holding case—that’s our foodservice set-up,” Bressi said.
A roller grill is used out front for merchandising. Foods displayed on it are precooked in the oven so they are ready to sell when they hit the grill. “It’s a standard food safety precaution, plus it’s really unappealing to a convenience customer to see a sign that says the items on the roller grill are not finished cooking,” Bressi said.
New technologies can allow retailers to become more creative with their food offerings, developing items that can set them apart from competition in all channels.
“Everybody has some sort of pizza and chicken wings and/or fingers offering; they’re becoming as familiar and expected at c-stores as Marlboro cigarettes and Frito-Lay snacks,” Miller said. “But, if you take a look around and check out the foodservice competition, you can also get an idea of what might be missing in your area—maybe there is a dominant ethnic or other demographic group that is being underserved—then work with your equipment and food manufacturers and suppliers to develop a proprietary product.”
The expense and space required for installing hoods to ventilate ovens and fryers was long a deterrent to retailers who wanted to expand their foodservice, Miller said. But the new rapid cook ovens do not require hoods and can cook deep-fried foods so they come out crispy on the outside and hot all the way through.
Some manufacturers will even work with c-store retailers to develop deep-fried products, especially for use in rapid cook ovens. Kwik Trip’s Bressi worked for close to two-and-a-half years with chicken supplier Tyson on a tender that would fit the latest technology. “The product is cooked and two-thirds of the way browned so that all we have to do is retherm it and finish it off,” Bressi said. “We don’t want to handle any raw product.”
Kwik Trip sells about a million and a half pounds of these chicken tenders in a year. Bressi has also worked with other vendors, including AdvancePierre, to develop popcorn chicken, a fully-cooked rib patty and a burger patty. For the patties, he said, the TurboChef oven allows for caramelization similar to that gotten from a grill.
Need for Speed
Bressi is also testing TurboChef’s i3 convection oven, which has a microwave feature. The oven can bake a pizza in three-and-a-half minutes and, on average, cut down cook time on other items by about 40% over regular convection ovens, he said.
The speed and versatile cooking capabilities of the i3 have also allowed Brett Freifeld, senior manager of culinary research and development of The Kroger Co.’s c-store division, to go from making just four varieties of personal-size pizzas to making customizable 14-inch pies fresh in front of customers. Freifield also uses the i3 to make a whole range of hot foods from sandwiches to cookies. “For pizza, we first introduce the microwave setting so the frozen cheese melts faster and more evenly without clumping, then we use the other settings to brown the pie and get a crispy crust,” Freifeld said. “Because the pizzas cook so quickly, we don’t have to have so many premade, so the customer gets a fresher pie.”
Although all of the ovens can be programmed manually, Bressi prefers to use TurboChef’s proprietary ChefComm software to control the time, top and bottom fan and, in the case of the i3, the microwave, in the ovens. ChefComm allows him to write his entire menu on his computer, digitally download the information onto cards with microchips in them and give the cards to his field operatives to upload into the ovens at the stores.
New rapid cook technologies are coming into the marketplace just about every couple of months, Miller added. “They keep modifying them and making them more efficient,” Zaremba noted.
One recent development is Ovention Matchbox oven, a hot air oven that can adjust to different menu items quickly and easily. The company was recently acquired by Hatco. Miller noted that Duke Manufacturing makes Cold Tri-Channel and Hot Dri-Channel holding modules for prep tables with heated/refrigerated channels that allow the drop-in wells holding sauces, etc., to be in contact with hot/cold unit walls. “Hot and cold foods stay at temperature consistently so there’s less waste and the quality is higher longer,” Miller said. “While this equipment has been adopted by many branded QSR’s, I have yet to see them included in c-store proprietary formats.”