These days, many "culinary-driven" food retailers are not just competing with each other, but with restaurants as well.
The prize: time-starved consumers who are increasingly willing to spend money on meals prepared outside the home. In many markets, these shoppers are snapping up sophisticated prepared meal options from food retailers, including sushi and restaurant-style entrees like pecan-encrusted salmon served with a starch and vegetable.
But to compete for this shopper, supermarkets must be armed with food-service preparation equipment that can reduce the costs of preparing away-from-home foods, enhance the quality of the foods and make life easier for their store associates.
Many retailers today are drawn to combination ovens, induction cooking units and rack ovens. Some supermarket chains even have red-brick gas-fired pizza ovens, using them to create mouth-watering pizza as well as stoke the eye appeal of their food-service departments. Meanwhile, soup tureens are becoming more common in supermarkets that make soups from scratch.
This SN Special Report takes a look at some of the equipment vendors are offering and leading retailers are using.
In Royal Oaks, Mich., Tom Vilonte Jr., store director of a 40,000-square-foot family-owned Holiday Market, oversees a high-end, in-store catering kitchen that daily turns out specially prepared entrees for its supermarket and off-site customers.
Holiday Market also sells sushi, salads, soups, and typical deli items, including rotisserie chicken. And the store operates a made-from-scratch bakery that uses rotating ovens to enhance production volume.
A sophisticated in-store food-service operation is not unique among supermarkets in Vilonte's high-end market, but Vilonte noted that the department plays a key role in "capturing dollars when people don't have time to cook. It keeps me in the game."
Holiday Market's kitchen has a full complement of food-service equipment, everything that a normal commercial kitchen would have. Steam kettles, with which Holiday Market makes its own soup stock, "make us unique," Vilonte observed, while plug-in induction burners allow the store to do cooking demonstrations in a variety of departments.
Holiday Market does cooking demonstrations three or four times a week, sampling product, entertaining customers and reinforcing its image as a food-service destination as well as a supermarket. And it sponsors cooking classes about twice a month.
Vilonte thinks that prepared foods play a bigger role than just providing convenience. "People of my generation are time-starved, but they don't know how to cook. If we don't teach people how to cook, how are we going to sell groceries?"
Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas', a chain of 152 supermarkets, is well known for its extensive food-service operations. Food-service sales have been going up approximately 8% a year at Bashas', making it one of the fastest-growing categories in the chain.
In its newest stores, Bashas' offers pizzas baked in a red brick gas-fired pizza oven, from Bellingham, Wash.-based Wood Stone. Jay Volk, Bashas' vice president of food service, said the oven is durable and delivers a very high-quality product.
And it is just as powerful a point-of-purchase display as it is a pizza oven, Volk added. "That oven looks very homey. It's really the centerpiece of our deli area and a big part of our business. It's part of the image we're trying to create."
Bashas' uses a variety of equipment from Alto-Shaam, Menomonee Falls, Wis., including a hot case for displaying hot foods, a hot table to showcase pizzas by the slice, and a self-service display warmer in the lobby areas of their stores where they sell rotisserie chickens, meatloaf, turkey breasts, baked and fried chicken, and more.
"This is Grab and Go," Volk said. "It's in all of our Bashas' stores, and it's generated a big lift in sales." Volk described the display warmer, which has a coil heating element, as very energy-efficient.
Bashas' newer stores have 12-well hot case displays for entrees and typical deli foods like fried chicken tenders and mashed potatoes, while older stores have eight-well displays. All Bashas stores have convection ovens, Volk said, and 50 stores also have combination ovens. Both types are from Alto-Shaam. "A lot of our Chef's Entrees are done in the combi. We can use dry heat, steam. The combi gives us a variety of capabilities. It's one piece of equipment my stores don't want to do without. It's user-friendly and very versatile."
Bashas' stores also have a taco grill; a traditional deli selling sliced meats, cheese and salads; soup tureens; and a bakery where many items are made from scratch. In the bakeries, they use Hobart mixers and Revent ovens and proofers, all chosen for their durability and dependability.
Volk, who has been with Bashas' for a decade, said the chain considers its food-service department a "differentiator." Most stores have a chef on premises, allowing Bashas' to create a Chef Entree program, a daily entree that is the equivalent of the day's special in a traditional restaurant. The 3-year-old program, created by Volk and his head chef, Chef Celia, has been a tremendous growth area for the company.
In Brookfield, Wis., Bob Grasch, co-owner of Grasch Foods, an independent food retailer, offers an extensive menu of hot and cold cooked food items. His store displays hot foods in a 12-foot display case; plus, he has an 8-foot chilled entree case, 12 feet of prepared salads, and 20 feet of carving meats, cheese and sausage.
The kitchen depends on two Alto-Shaam combination ovens chosen for their versatility, four Alto-Shaam cook-and-hold ovens, and a Southbend Waldorf open-style cooking range and grill that is completely open to public view.
"Different foods require different kinds of cooking methods so combis are wonderful," Grasch said. "And we have cook-and-hold ovens where we can cook food overnight, particularly our prime top roast, and by the time we come back in the morning and they're done perfectly and very tender."
A "versatile" Henny-Penny oven helps Grasch's sell some 300-plus rotisserie chickens a week. "Anything we do," Grasch said, "people are welcome to sample. We do six home-made soups a day, and they can try that. They can try our casseroles, anything."
Food service is a fast-growing part of the operation, Grasch said. "People are doing less cooking. What we offer are quality style foods that you could get at a restaurant, but we charge less money. We're competing for the people who want to go out to a restaurant."
One of the fastest-growing and seemingly almost indispensable items in the food-service department is the combination oven.
David A. Zabrowski, senior research engineer, PG & E Food Service Technology Center, San Ramon, Calif., a scientific testing facility for benchmarking the energy performance of equipment used in commercial kitchens, described combination ovens as "huge in popularity" among supermarkets with sophisticated food-service operations.
"Combination ovens are very big with supermarkets that sell rotisserie-style chickens," he said. "They have nicer cleaning features that old-fashioned ovens don't have. You can spray them with a degreaser and hit steam for 10 minutes and they self-clean, so the labor savings are tremendous."
Reggie Daniel, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based Daniel Design, a commercial food-service design consultancy, said he is also seeing a strong trend toward using combination ovens in supermarkets.
Combination ovens, said Daniel, "are not as expensive as having to work with multiple pieces of equipment, such as convection ovens, steamers or tilting skillets. You can literally do almost everything in a combi."
"Combination ovens are a production horse," said Randy Karns, president of Simpsonville, S.C.-based BKI Worldwide, a supplier of food-service equipment. "Depending on size, combination ovens can do 50 to 70 birds in 30 minutes vs. 70 minutes on a rotisserie."
Todd Griffith, national manager for Menomenee Falls, Wisc.-based Alto-Shaam, a manufacturer of commercial food-service equipment, noted that combination ovens support the current trend to menu expansion in supermarkets.
Many supermarket chains, Griffith noted, have taken the deli concept to a whole new dimension. "They're doing it by how they cook and display food and by offering a greater variety of foods to appeal to a wider demographic base."
Supermarket operators are also choosing combination ovens for their labor-saving features, Daniel said. "There are tremendous labor savings with combination ovens. You can literally take one person and feed 1,000 people. It's just a matter of prep time. You can cook the day before, use a blast chiller to chill the product down and retherm it on demand.
Another type of equipment starting to show up more regularly in supermarket kitchens is the mobile merchandiser display that can be dispatched to different parts of the store for holding Grab and Go foods. "Companies that embrace Grab and Go can see their chicken sales increase 20 percent," said Karns.
BKI recently introduced a mobile, energy-saving Grab and Go display unit, the Multi-Deck Warmer, that uses heated glass shelves, a new technology that supplies consistent, even heat distribution. It keeps all the products on display warm at an even temperature.
Alto-Shaam is currently working with a few retailers on rolling out a new mobile concept, called a "Carvery." It's a 4- to 8-foot piece of self-contained station that integrates into a deli line. It includes a granite carving station with thermal shelves for carving and display, induction cookers and warmers, and drop-in food pans.
Some supermarkets, including Wegmans Food Markets and the convenience store chain Noco, are already using the Carvery as a demonstration/sampling station, said Griffith.
Leesburg, Fla.-based Resfab, a leading supplier of ergonomically designed rotisseries and fryers, has just introduced a rotisserie that comes equipped with a staging drawer designed to minimize kitchen accidents by keeping water, blood and grease off the floor.
Vicki Janus, Resfab's national sales manager, said the staging drawers "keep liquids and grease from dropping to the floor as the chickens are placed in and taken out of the rotisserie. That reduces accidents and liability costs." A number of chains are already using or testing the equipment, Janus said.
In the bakery, a lot of supermarkets are reducing equipment and labor costs by converting to partially baked bread as opposed to breads baked from scratch. "All you need to do with par-baked breads is take them out of the refrigerator and pop them in the oven," Zabrowski said. "It's an equipment trend because supermarkets need less auxiliary equipment such as mixers, proofers and dividers."