With Foodservice Equipment, Cheap Can Be Costly

There are few bargains when it comes to purchasing the right cooking equipment. Functionality and practicality must coincide with an affordable price tag.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor

Just like the latest luxury car, a shiny, new piece of foodservice equipment can be hard to resist. But Brian Tucker, foodservice director for Lake, Fla.-based S & S Food Stores, urged retailers to look past the bells and whistles and focus on the practical, and potentially most profitable, automated additions to their operations.

“Why buy a Ferrari when a good old Ford will do?” asked Tucker, whose company has either one of its own proprietary branded foodservice programs or a national quick-service operation in eight of its 47 north central Florida stores. “Do I really need a $25,000 oven that will do everything but wash my car when my foodservice offering and volume can do just as well with one that is more moderately priced?”

Only retailers who know what they want their foodservice to be can confidently answer that question. Howard Cannon, CEO and founder of Restaurant Consultants of America, named one client whose c-store is renowned for its pulled pork sandwich, which customers line up to buy. Yet, the entire operation requires only three pieces of equipment: the original steamer unit in which the meat is cooked, the crock pot in which it is held and the stainless steel table on which the sandwiches are prepared.

“Many operators think they have to offer nine items, when all they should be doing is one or two really well,” Cannon said. “That’s the way to become a food destination and to save on wasted equipment and labor.”

On the other hand, Tucker explained, before finding its foodservice footing, S & S decided to use real China, glassware and cutlery, even in stores with drive-through windows located on the interstate, and installed $8,000 heavy duty dishwashers to handle the clean-up. As a result, the company invested about 40% more money than necessary on equipment as a result of not taking menu and logistics into account first.

However, Tucker noted, sometimes a piece of equipment with a higher sticker price can actually save money over the long term.

“The first thing we do is try to anticipate our expected volumes and ask ourselves if the equipment can consistently do what we need it to do through heavy usage,” Tucker explained. “Every time a piece of equipment breaks down, we lose sales and risk disappointing our customers.”

Easy to Operate

Since the majority of employees preparing foodservice items are not chefs, “push and play” automation may be the most efficient and economical way to go, Tucker said. If, for instance, equipment is preprogrammed to make biscuits and rice at the touch of a button, there is less possibility of error and waste.

Gainesville, Ga.-based Mansfield Oil also puts menu, space and ease of execution first when it comes to recommending foodservice options to its more than 300 retail customers. For those who want to add a chicken program, yet do not have the space or capital to add the fryers and necessary grease trap and other required accoutrements, the company recommends the Chester’s Chicken “On the Fly” tenders program that requires only a freezer, turbo oven and heated merchandisers.

The same equipment can be used to add a pizza program, such as Day ‘N Night Bites (Land Mark Products Inc.), another Mansfield partner, to the foodservice mix. To lessen the possibility of “sticker shock” at the $15,000-to-$25,000 launch investment, and get the operation up and running as quickly as possible, Mansfield has worked out a plan with partner GreatAmerica Financial Services, said Ted Roccagli, Mansfield’s retail marketing manager.

“Offering both programs can make the investment even more cost-effective because they have the same equipment requirements,” Roccagli said.

Most equipment vendors have financing and leasing options, including lease buy-back, Cannon said. “It doesn’t make sense to pay cash even if you have it,” he explained. “In an economy like this, cash is king, so you want to hold on to as much of it as you can.”

Cannon recommended that retailers comparison shop at least two or three suppliers for the lowest interest rates and terms, as well as their ability to provide parts and service in a timely manner. He noted it is a good idea to include broadline distributors and restaurant consultants, who can often get the best prices because of the volume they purchase.

Consistency is Key

When Wawa came up with its smoothie concept a few years ago, ease of use and durability of equipment under heavy use conditions were major considerations, said Mendy Meriwether, fresh beverage category manager for the Pennsylvania-based chain. Just as important was the equipment’s footprint, which had to fit into the company’s almost 600 stores.

“Our customers visit more than one Wawa location, so we strive for consistency at all of them,” she said.

Meriwether also pointed out that customers expect all Wawa stores to adhere to the company’s high sanitary standards, so the equipment must be simple for associates to clean both inside and out.“We field test all new equipment in our stores for a minimum of 10 weeks to six months and, during that period, ask for constant feedback and recommendations from our associates,” Meriwether said. “They are our real experts because they
experience the equipment every day under true-to-life conditions.”

Wawa tested the Hamilton Beach Summit Blender in 60 of its stores before rolling it out chain-wide three years ago. The blender was also selected because it fit the company’s strategy of expanding its frozen beverage offerings. “Since we added the blender, we have been able to introduce over 20 varieties of smoothies and other frozen beverages, such as cappuccinos, teas, limeades and lemonades,” she said.

For its coffee category, Wawa also traded its glass pots for thermal carafes, a move Meriwether described as “a big change from our store and customer perspectives.” The switch was made to ensure the maintenance of product integrity. Footprint was also a key factor in the selection of the carafes. Associates gave the new system a thumbs-up as far as ease of use and cleaning.

In June, Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz invested $7.5 million in new brewing technology developed by BUNN to offer more consistency in taste, temperature and aroma, said Executive Vice President Louie Sheetz. The system features a custom pulse-brew system that eliminates prolonged exposure to inconsistent heating. It will be rolled out chainwide to the company’s nearly 400 stores by the end of this year.

For S & S, Tucker does the pre-purchase homework on new equipment by visiting retailers who already have it in operation.

“I prefer not to go to a facility set up to demonstrate the equipment,” Tucker said. “I want to see it operating in-store and get the feedback of an industry colleague who is actually using it every day.“

He also emphasized that making a foodservice operation run smoothly and profitably requires more than the latest automation.

“No piece of equipment matters more than a well-trained, customer
-oriented staff,” Tucker said. “The real moment of truth about whether or not you have a profitable operation is when the customer meets the employee.”


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