Tools of the Trade

Busy consumers continue watching their wallets, but one thing hasn’t changed. They want great tasting meals and snacks—and they want them fast. In spite of today’s economic angst, opportunities abound for providing time-crunched consumers with foods on the run.

According to a survey by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), 69% of adults surveyed said purchasing meals makes it easier for families with children to manage their daily lives.

A January report from The NPD Group, which tracks the consumer purchasing behavior of more than 49,000 U.S. convenience store shoppers, reports that in the third quarter of last year more than half of fresh prepared food customers at c-stores chose that store because of the foodservice offering, up nearly a point over the same quarter in 2008.

Fresh prepared food buyers averaged 7.8 c-store visits over a 30-day period versus 5.66 for all c-store shoppers, according to the marketing research firm’s survey. On  average they purchased 4.1 products compared to the 1.64 products bought by all c-store shoppers. In addition, the food buyers’ average check was $1.65 higher than that of all c-store shoppers.

What this means is that convenience store operators can attract their share of the consumer’s dollar by offering quality foodservice options quickly and economically. But to do that, they need the most reliable, high-performance equipment in the foodservice industry.

Oven Offerings
Ask leading convenience foodservice leaders to name their favorite piece of equipment, and top marks will likely go to the high-speed oven that combines radiant heat, microwave and convection cooking methods. Produced by several manufacturers, this versatile technology can deliver perfectly baked products 10 times faster than a conventional oven.

Famima, a Los Angeles-based convenience store chain, recently added a Merrychef oven at each of the company’s 15 stores. This piece of equipment replaces each store’s Panini grill and allows the company to add pizzas, hot desserts and breakfast sandwiches to the menu.

“A panini grill requires 4-5 minutes to make a sandwich,” said Perez Pir, vice president of Famima. “This (oven) takes it down to less than a minute, and my paninis always come out the same. You press a button, and it’s done. And overall, I use less electricity with this than with a panini grill.”

Currently, the chain is developing a pizza offering that will incorporate the new ovens. “The power of the machine toasts the bread but keeps the toppings soft,” said Pir, who investigated several brands before going with Merrychef.

Its added benefits, such as a USB port that allows management to download cooking programs from an off-site location, are impressive, and “you can put aluminum in it,” Pir said. Other Merrychef fans are Wawa convenience stores and Subway restaurants.

Currently, 7-Eleven is rolling out a new hot food program using a high-speed TurboChef oven to handle several chores. It can bake pizza, which is ready to be sold whole or by the slice in just 90 seconds, and several flavors of hot chicken wings that cook in less than three minutes. Other new oven-heated offerings are white meat chicken tenders, breakfast quesadillas and hash brown potatoes.

“Taste testing with consumers proved the products to be a big hit,” said Mike Hansen, fresh foods manager for the hot foods launch at 7-Eleven stores in Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. “The product is not reheated in a microwave, but instead, actually oven-baked like at a pizzeria. The TurboChef oven can practically bake a pizza to order as fast as it takes to select some groceries, ring up the sale and make change.”

Rutter’s Farm Stores relies on a TurboChef oven, minus the microwave feature, to bake the fresh bread used for subs, sliders and sandwiches at 37 of the company’s 50-plus locations. “It is a wonderful piece of equipment,” said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice for the York, Pa. chain. “It’s safe and efficient and has an instant on and off.”

Best of all, it’s fast. It takes less than nine minutes, or half the baking time of a conventional oven, to produce fresh, hot rolls or ciabatta bread. All baking is done late at night in preparation for the next day’s fresh foods rush. “It’s another wonderful science that’s great to work with,” Wiener added.

Piping Hot Pizza Pie
On Your Way stores, the Muskegon, Michigan-chain operated by Wesco Inc., prepares pizza in an impinger oven from Lincoln Foodservice, a company that introduced its first line of forced hot-air conveyor ovens in the early 1980s.

“They’re very reliable, and they take up a small footprint,” said Kimberly Loniecki, director of foodservice for Wesco’s On Your Way convenience stores. “This is the same technology that Pizza Hut adopted a few years ago.”

In a convection oven, heat shoots into the oven from one area and fans move it around to do the cooking. In an impinger oven, the heat comes from the top and bottom and cooks the food as it moves through the oven on a chain drive.

“You can use it do hot wings and a lot of fried foods,” said Loniecki of the impinger. “That eliminates an extra piece of equipment—the fryer, which can be a labor-intensive tool. If I were opening a full-service restaurant today, I couldn’t do it without an impinger oven if I had a pizza platform.”

While eliminating a fryer is ideal for some stores, others find that equipment indispensable. Perfect Fry is the brand of choice at Rutter’s Farm Stores. The single-piece unit with a built in hood and pre-set timer takes up less than two feet of space and is ideal for locations that cannot install commercial fixed vents, air exchange, filters or fire suppression systems.

As an added safety benefit, store employees are not exposed to hot oil. All ingredients are placed into a robotic loading tray, and the finished product empties safely into a dish placed in the unloading area. “Employees put the food in the hopper, push a button and the machine does the rest,” Weiner said.

Rutter’s added two fryers and two ovens each to 23 locations last year. Autofry and Giles are two other manufacturers of ventless frying equipment for commercial use available to c-store chains.

Wok On
Not many convenience locations have added a wok to their foodservice program, but two years ago Rutter’s launched a unique stir-fry program that calls for a wok with an induction stovetop.

Induction cooking has long been used worldwide, but recently, the technology has improved and costs have dropped sharply, making new cooking options available to both professionals and home chefs.

Rutter’s customers simply order the rice or noodles they prefer and then choose from beef, chicken, pork or vegetables, plus any toppings or sauces, to create a custom meal. A store employee whips up the combination in a wok that is placed on an induction stovetop.

Thanks to a special sensor, the stovetop doesn’t become hot until the wok is in place. When the wok is removed from the heating surface, the cook top goes into standby mode. There is no open flame or other heat source, which makes the program safer for employees.

Simple and Significant
Despite the wide variety of foodservice equipment that Rutter’s Farm Stores has adopted, Weiner’s favorite tool remains the stores’ hot drawer warmers manufactured by Prince Castle. The drawers use a patented technology to keep menu items warm and tasty for an hour without continuing
the cooking process or drying out the food.

At Rutter’s, the drawers hold an array of hot, ready-to-assemble foods. Each store is outfitted with a dozen drawers that feature individual timers and heat settings. Weiner prefers the drawer system to a steam cabinet and feels it is mandatory for providing speedy foodservice during busy day-parts.

“In order to sell quality and variety, these kinds of equipment are critical,” Weiner said. “I keep looking for the newest, latest and greatest equipment. So far, this is the best I’ve worked with.”

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