New Food Technology is Hot (and Cool)

Convenience stores are embracing the latest equipment as they look to keep up with QSRs and fast casual restaurants.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.

In the summer, customers line up from morning until evening at Maverik convenience stores to take the f’real machine for a spin. From the time the North Salt Lake City-based chain piloted the program in some of its units several years ago, customers can’t seem to get enough of the novelty of whipping up their own dairy-based milkshakes, smoothies and frozen cappuccinos in the f’real blender.

But it’s more than just novelty that keeps consumers coming back and waiting in lines to make their own shakes, said Janalee Clements, senior product manager for Maverik, which has 200-plus stores in 10 western states. “The drinks are very high quality and people love them.”

In fact, the f’real program, developed by f’real foods in Orinda, Calif., has been such a hit that Maverik has rolled it out to the majority of its stores.

“Our volumes are so high that we had to put two individual blenders and freezers in each of our stores,” Clements said.
Although the original f’real blender/merchandising freezer unit was great, according to Clements, the new souped-up model “is even more awesome.” She explained that the full-size LCD touch screen makes it easier for customers to place (and customize) their orders.

The new freezer has a much larger cup-holding capacity plus a mechanism that pushes new product forward to keep the unit always looking full and makes it easy for customers to reach in and grab the beverage they want.

Maverik, Clements added, has also asked the f’real company to specially design a unit with a double-door freezer and two blenders with a single sign that spans the entire set-up to give the program a more cohesive appearance and enhance customer flow for its stores.

Ice is Hot
Larry Miller, president of Miller Management & Consulting Services in Sanford, Fla., said he also saw customers lined up to use the f’real blender at a Sheetz store in Kentucky.

“It was obviously a big draw and people were very excited to use it,” Miller said.

On the other hand, it’s never a good thing when customers are given the cold shoulder by a c-store’s fountain ice machine. According to Vickie Thomas, project and procurement manager for Circle K Midwest, customers were so upset when the ice machines malfunctioned that they actually took to Twitter to warn their friends.

Until recently, the stores’ ice machines dispensed cubed and crushed ice out of two different chutes. “Once we offered our customers a choice of crushed or cubed ice we noticed they loved the crushed ice,” Thomas said.

Thomas explained that the single crushed ice side often ran out of ice because of the increased demand for crushed over the cubed ice. Recently, the company partnered with Manitowoc to design a solution to speed up the customer flow for crushed ice. This solution dispenses both the crushed and cubed ice out of both ice chutes, allowing customers to have both ice types out of a single chute, decreasing the time they have to wait in line.

“The ice is crushed as it comes out of the fountain as needed,” Thomas said. “And there’s very little difference between the cost of this new piece of equipment and the old one.”

Creating Foodservice Theater
At Tedeschi Food Shops, hot is the cool thing, especially at the chain’s newly opened fresh-foodservice-forward location in Marshfield, Mass. To help make the in-store deli more dynamic, Bob Goodwin, director of fresh foods for the nearly 200-unit, New England-based chain, wanted to add rotisserie chicken to the menu.

“I didn’t want the typical rotisserie set-up on the back wall; I wanted one that would cook three or four chickens at a time right out front,” Goodwin explained. “We needed theater.”

In place of requiring customers to go to the counter for soup, Goodwin installed a self-service station. “Our soup sales quadrupled last winter,” he said.

But Goodwin’s real pride and joy is the store’s TurboChef oven. He credited the oven’s rapid-cook technology with playing a key role in the successful execution of the chain’s new signature Tedeschi Tempore sandwich.
The Tempore, with its multiple layers of meats, cheese and condiments surrounded by a thin, wood-grilled pizza crust, would be tricky to heat up in a conventional or microwave oven.

“If we tried to get the insides hot, the crust would get hard or burn and if we wanted to keep the texture of the crust intact, the insides would be cold,” Goodwin said. “The TurboChef unit allows us to serve the sandwich exactly as it should be.”

It seems that Tedeschi’s customers agree. Goodwin said that since their introduction the Tempore sandwiches have been “flying out the door.”

The Wonder of the Wok
Although Jerry Weiner introduced TurboChef ovens and heat induction woks into the Rutter’s Farm Stores foodservice program more than three years ago, he is still “amazed” at their versatility. “Every time I look at them I think, ‘What else can I do with them?’ and there’s always something else,” he said.

Initially, the ovens were brought in to bake the breads and sandwich rolls that Weiner described as “the driving theme” of the York, Pa. chain’s extensive fresh foodservice program. Recently, Weiner added biscuits, muffins and grilled cheese sandwiches to the rapid-cook’s repertoire.

“For our grilled cheese sandwiches, we had panini presses in some, but not all, of our stores and we wanted to find another way to achieve the same taste, texture and finish profile,” Weiner said. “When we make them in the Turbo, they taste just like they came off the grill.”

Forty of the chain’s 56 stores are equipped with TurboChef ovens. Sixteen of them also have woks. Purchased to prepare stir fry meals and provide Rutter’s with a springboard into the dinner segment, the woks are now used from morning through evening to prepare everything from breakfast bowls (elaborate scrambles of eggs and add-ins served on hash browns) to spaghetti and meatballs. The woks are seldom empty. When they aren’t cooking meals to order, they are sautéing onions, mushrooms, peppers and other vegetables to store in warming drawers for topping sandwiches and other customizable menu items.

Stop the Sog
Holding fried and battered foods has always been a major headache for foodservice operators.

“If you put them under a heat lamp, the taste and texture of fried chicken, fish and shrimp can quickly degrade and the food can become soggy and unappetizing,” said Miller, of Miller Management.

To keep these foods tasting just-cooked, he suggests an infrared holding cabinet, like the ones made by St. Louis-based Duke Manufacturing Co.

“These cabinets don’t just keep applying heat to the food; they maintain the correct temperature and control the moisture content as well so fried items can stay crispy on the outside and moist on the inside,” Miller said. “You can also program the cabinets to hold any kind of food and the compact footprint is perfect for a QSR or convenience store.”

While lighting may not always be top-of-mind when it comes to considering equipment, Tedeschi’s Goodwin says it should be. “Using the right LED lighting protects cold cuts from fading, brings out the bloom in meats and, overall, keeps foods looking fresher and more appetizing,” he explained. “It’s also a major energy saver.”

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