By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Gas pumps Today are far from the one-dimensional fuel systems used in 1955. So why do so many convenience store operators rely on the same kitchen equipment that was popular back in the day to produce today’s faster, fresher and more sophisticated foodservice fare that consumers expect?
“That’s what I ask when I talk to an operator who says he is serious about going into foodservice in a big way, but isn’t willing to invest in the equipment to do it right,” said Andy Revella, a Dallas-based chef whose firm, Vision 360, consults with a wide range of regional and national foodservice clients, including convenience store concepts of various sizes. “Today’s consumers–especially the Millennials–don’t feel that they should have to choose between fast food and fresh food. They want both.”
More customers are seeking healthier food options, not only in terms of better ingredients, but the manner in which their food is cooked.
“They’re looking for fresh-cooked and -baked, not thawed or heated and served,” Revella said. “They want real food really, really fast and, with the latest equipment, c-stores can give it to them.”
The centerpiece for the overall “Green Kitchens Solutions” concept that Revella recommends to his clients is a TurboChef Dining Green Oven. The oven costs less than many rapid cook ovens because it has no microwave feature.
“It doesn’t need one,” he said. “This oven cooks 70% faster than a traditional oven, using only heat and wind speed, so there’s no need for the molecular friction method of cooking that microwaves use.”
With its 450-degree set temperature and wind speed that can be set for anywhere from 3-60 miles per hour, the oven can bake everything from biscuits to Reuben sandwiches to salmon and have them all come out perfectly. Revella pointed out that the oven turns out “incredible” French fries with 50% less fat and can cook a “flawless” omelet in one minute and 40 seconds.
Instead of using burners to boil water or prepare stir fry meals, he recommended using 1,800-watt induction cooktop units. Also, no extraction hood is required thanks to this electromagnetic technology. Because there are no hot burners (only the pan and the ingredients inside get hot), induction cooking is safer for food preparers. According to Revella, one induction cooktop can prepare the same amount of food that three traditional burners can turn out in the same amount of time, while taking up less physical space in the room.
There are no grease-laden vapors released during the cooking process, and induction cooktops don’t require hoods, thus creating a ventless operation. Air quality surrounding the units is cleaner and there’s no chance of an accidental fire caused by an unattended burner.
Induction technology is an option, including a steam table unit by Cook Tek that keeps hot food items at optimal temperatures. To keep fried foods crisp, Revella recommends the hot air flow holding system by Carter-Hoffmann. Finally, a low temperature cook and hold unit has the ability to slow cook and serve as a hot holding box.
“The Halo heat box is particularly good for items such as sausage and bacon, Revella pointed out. “It’s almost fool-proof cooking.”
Easy to Maintain
Revella pointed out that Server-brand soup and sauce cook and hold units can save in labor and cleaning expenses. The containers have their own heating elements so food (including meatballs) goes from the cooler to the holding unit, skipping the step of heating the food first in another pot and then pouring it into a soup well.
Revella is also excited about a new Greek yogurt dispenser that has just come to market under the FYI brand. This equipment, which dispenses regular rather than frozen Greek yogurt, is perfect for an easy-to-install-and-manage, build-your-own breakfast bar, featuring an array of toppings and parfait add-ins, he noted.
Even in the most modern kitchens, there’s always considerations like grease removal.
A grease removal device called the Goslyn uses hydro-static pressure and gravity to clean water so there are no moving parts or a need for electricity, Revella said. The water can be used for irrigation, saving thousands of dollars.
The cost of the Goslyn is significantly less than that of a traditional grease trap, he said. And with little or no grease entering the drainage lines, there is a significant reduction in costs and downtime associated with unclogging the drain.
Whether it’s offering creamy soups or creamy yogurt, installing and maintaining the right equipment is key to quality foodservice.“Many times operators will think that product inconsistencies are the fault of their employees, when actually the equipment is to blame,” Revella said. “High tech equipment doesn’t take the people out of the equation, it just helps them to be more productive.”
Flexibility is Key
Even the best foodservice offerings aren’t easily noticed if they’re hidden away. Mike Lawshe, president and CEO of Paragon Solutions, a design and consulting firm in Fort Worth, Texas, advises operators that they can better use front-and-center space by replacing slow selling products (including cigarettes) with some of today’s more flexible merchandising equipment items that turn out tempting fresh food options. “I’m not saying to move the cigarettes from the front of the store, but within that 16-18-foot space that is usually dedicated to them there is room for one of today’s smaller size hot or cold food merchandising units,” Lawshe said. “It’s being done in Europe all the time.”
For breakfast, he explained, operators can postion a self-serve hot or cold case on wheels in front of the counter for impulse sandwiche purchases. Or, a strategically placed cart can offer patrons easy acess to their morning coffee, fresh juice and pastries. Cases and other displays on wheels can be constantly restocked with daypart-appropriate meal and snack items, such as fresh fruit or hot pretzels, or can be removed from the area and stored away when they aren’t in use.
Some displays are only 12 inches wide and 22 inches deep, so they would easily fit next to the cash register. A case this size can hold as many as a dozen sandwiches.
Make sure to always keep it well-stocked, Lawshe said. A few tired-looking sandwiches in the case can do more harm than good when building a reputation as a foodservice destination.
Tiered cases with dual temperature controls allow hot foods to be displayed on top and cold items on the bottom. For example, Lawshe said, you could put pizza or pepperoni rolls on the top tier and grab-and-go cold salads or higher profit juices and soft drinks on the bottom.
Also, an old-fashioned popcorn cart is an eye-catcher, conveying fresh food as the aroma of just-popped kernels fills the air, Lawshe said. Revella pointed out that even giving popcorn away with gas purchases can be profitable because customers are likely to purchase a drink.
When it comes to food and presentation, Lawshe is seeing an increasing number of convenience store retailers adding rotisserie chickens to their foodservice repertoires. “The rotisserie is a clear way to communicate commitment to fresh foods, and it is also an easy way to introduce your foodservice program as a viable dinnertime, as well a breakfast and lunch solution,” he said.