As supermarkets struggle to distinguish themselves from Wal-Mart and each other, the importance of food-service quality for home meal replacements and other freshly prepared products cannot be overstated.
But to get that quality, you need the right cooking equipment, and these days equipment suppliers are going to great lengths to provide top-flight machines. Indeed, food-service equipment must meet an especially high standard given the role it plays -- making food to eat. As a result, in-store cooking is becoming safer, more standardized and more energy-efficient with the help of user-friendly control systems. And maintenance of equipment is becoming easier.
Overall, these advances in equipment technology are making it easier for large chains to operate sophisticated food-service departments, especially given the high rates of turnover in supermarkets, said observers.
Even display cases are taking on a high-performance feel. One trend features a greater emphasis on heated display cases. For example, Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., highly regarded for its prepared foods, has installed heated island merchandiser cases for rotisserie chicken. This has increased sales by 10%, noted Danny Beran, the chain's director of procurement. "Once the quality expectations have been met, the island merchandiser is another model for rotisserie sales," he said.
Bashas' Supermarkets, Phoenix, recently began using a carving station inside its hot display service case. This equipment, which can display a whole turkey breast, slides in and out of the case, whereas previous models were stationary, said Jay Volk, Bashas' vice president of food services.
Energy efficiency is a relatively new focus in the food-service equipment arena. Indeed, food-service equipment lacked any measure of energy efficiency until two years ago, according to David Zabrowski, research engineer at Fisher-Nickel, San Ramon, Calif. At that time, the California Energy Commission helped to develop the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star performance standard for reach-in refrigerators, and today Energy Stars are awarded to the top 25% of performing equipment.
In August, Energy Star recognition began for fryers, steamers and hot-food-holding cabinets, based on the energy efficiency levels of equipment, said Zabrowski. Current discussions concern requiring data on idle rates for ovens fryers, on energy consumption for refrigerated prep tables, and on energy efficiency for range tops.
One type of energy-saving equipment is the combi oven, which combines various functions such as steaming, roasting and baking in one piece of equipment. Bashas' has been using combi ovens for two to three years from manufacturer Alto-Shaam, based in Menomenee Falls, Wis. "The combi oven cooks larger quantities and wider varieties of food in a faster time frame," said Volk.
In the combi unit, the heating element is a cost-saving thermal cable instead of a calrod, explained Jack Scott, Alto-Shaam's national sales manager. "Conventional rotisseries use a calrod element on the bottom of the display case. But with the thermal cable, the combi steamer saves between $2,500 and $3,000 per store per year." Alto-Shaam's current combi model also keeps moisture separate from the heating element, helping to prevent maintenance problems, he added.
In addition to energy efficiency, supermarkets are looking for high standards in productivity, maintenance and reliability. In assessing equipment for those features, food retailers can use a comparison tool from the American Society for Testing and Materials. "If you line up four or five pieces of equipment, you cannot [compare] them, but with performance data you can," said Zabrowski.
Another area of growing interest is food safety and quality. For example, as blast chillers and rapid-cook ovens gain in popularity for preparing home meal replacements, retailers are leveraging advances in thermometers and heat sensors to gain a history of what occurred, noted Dr. Jerald Chesser, associate dean and professor at California State Polytechnic Institute in Pomona. "The biggest push in technology is in new ways to track time and temperature," he said. "This is important on the supermarket side due to the volumes that they sell." Machines that handle rotisserie or baked chicken have control of time and temperature, but they must also have a backup paper trail for HAACP purposes, he added.
Safety implies wholesomeness and quality, which is also supported with high-caliber thermometers and surface check units, said Chesser. "When you hear the word quality, people think of flavor. But it also includes color, appearance, texture, moisture and wholesomeness."
Temperature control technology is also important for blast chillers, which can reduce spoilage that results from overcooking and undercooking. "What continues to come out is that the blast chiller is the best method for cook-chill-retherm," said Chesser, adding that the best appearance and moisture level comes from combining a blast chiller with a combi oven.
Another big change in the past 18 months, said Chesser, is that most manufacturers have placed a computer connection on their ovens so operations can be programmed into memory. Because it takes time to program each machine for many food items, the information can also be stored on a CD-ROM and downloaded from a laptop connected to the oven. "The worker just has to place the food in the oven," he said.
To help supermarkets produce fresh doughnuts on the fly, a combi oven called Mealstream is now starting to be marketed in the U.S., said Harry Starkweather, president and chief executive officer, E-Source, Dallas, an online food-service equipment distributor. Manufactured by Marychef in the United Kingdom, Mealstream produces fresh doughnuts in less than five minutes, he said. "Statistics show that supermarkets typically bake in the morning," said Starkweather. "However, one-half of the doughnuts are purchased after 5 p.m. If they had a freshly baked product, they would sell more."
While essential to life and cooking, water poses the biggest problems in maintaining food-service equipment. Thus, Alto-Shaam recently introduced a Combitherm steamer oven, which uses boilerless technology, thereby eliminating "85% of the repair and maintenance issues associated with combis," said Scott. "By eliminating the boiler, you introduce reliability." The Combitherm also follows the food-service equipment trend of recording and documenting HAACP information.
Stew Leonard's, the famous three-store "Disneyland of supermarkets" based in Norwalk, Conn., is about to install the new Combitherm steamer oven at its Norwalk store in early October. Zita Sebastian, store operations director, confirmed that "no water is needed to generate heat, which cuts down on maintenance." In addition, she said, the equipment "will help us to produce consistent quality in our foods." Ease of use is also a consideration for Sebastian. "You turn on the display and that's it. There are no human errors associated with it such as the mistake of forgetting to turn the temperature up."
Groen, Jackson, Miss., a division of DI Foodservice Cos., has also addressed the maintenance issue with its new Smart Steam Boilerless Steamers and Vortex. Dipak Neghandi, engineering manager, kettles and braising pans, said this equipment has eliminated the boiler and related maintenance such as deliming and drain valves. "They also reduce water consumption," he said. "In addition, we have moved the heating element away from the water to increase its life and reduce maintenance."
When water is required, the connectionless combi oven and steamer, introduced in the past year, makes that easier to fulfill, noted Chesser. "Boilers or steamers require water, and sometimes elaborate renovation such as breaking through walls in the kitchen is required to install them," he said. "With the connectionless combi, water is added manually. It does not require the same drain-off connection."
Of course, water is also an issue when it comes to producing beverages like coffee, which is important to supermarkets involved, for example, with co-branding, observed Robert Theilen, regional sales manager at CUNO, Meriden, Conn., which specializes in filtration products. "Co-branding companies such as Dunkin' Donuts are very conscious of maintaining their 'signature' and that means the products must be consistent when produced," he said. "Water quality plays a big part in this -- especially on the coffee side."
The energy efficiency of water-using equipment is often impaired by poor water quality that forms hard scale build-up, especially in steamers, but several filtration technologies can stop water from forming scale. "People assume water's safe, but contamination can occur after the water is treated," said Theilen. "When products consist of 98% water or more, it would make sense that water is treated as a critical control point. Filtration can provide added peace of mind."
CUNO's ScaleGard Pro systems are designed to reduce the ability of water to form scale, yet retain the minerals that make hot beverages such as coffee or espresso taste good. Less scale can mean efficiency gains from reduced downtime and service calls as well as normalized energy costs.
Since water conditions and problems vary, it is difficult to quantify efficiency gains, said Theilen. However, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, 1/8-inch of scale can increase energy consumption by up to 27%.
To improve maintenance, manufacturers are also moving toward gas-operated equipment such as atmospheric burners instead of infrared burners, according to Zabrowski. "Atmospheric burners are less costly to produce and maintain because there are fewer parts and more robust parts compared to infrared burners, which are notorious for being fragile," he said. "Gas fryers with atmospheric burners are now 55% to 60% efficient whereas infrared burners are 50% efficient."
In choosing food-service equipment, supermarkets should employ testing as a means of improving operational efficiency, said Robert Hinson, principal at R. Hinson and Associates, a consulting firm based in Pendleton, S.C. Equipment testing can show the effects on food quality, yield and labor, he said.
Equipment testing can also show the impact beyond initial or even operating costs, said Hinson. In one study, he looked at the roofs of buildings that used gas or electric hamburger broilers and noticed that they looked different. The one with an electric broiler looked new, but the one with gas appeared to be at the expected point on the replacement schedule. "We noticed that effluents degraded the color of the roof, due to certain acidity in the material," he said. "That represented tens of thousands of dollars in cost."
Hinson also advised looking into the total cost of equipment, including cost to buy, operate and maintain, and the production capacity. Also important are labor costs, which can drastically change the economics of one product over another; food costs; the cost of consumables such as aluminum foil and spices; HVAC ventilation; and flexibility -- whether a piece of equipment can accommodate changes in product offerings.
Ventilation hood design and selection, it turns out, can have a big impact on energy costs in supermarket deli departments.
"In a supermarket food-service operation, some heat is directed up into the vent, while some heat is radiated into space," explained Vern Smith, senior engineer, Architectural Energy Corp., Boulder, Colo., at the Food Marketing Institute's Energy and Technical Services Conference in Seattle earlier this month. "That can play havoc with a store's HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] systems."
To prevent that from occurring, Smith suggested to retailers that they focus on proper hood selection and sizing. "Determine what will be cooking and what appliances you will be using. Get the preferred layout for optimum exhaust ventilation to handle the size of the exhaust air flow."
Smith demonstrated, through videos, how exhaust plumes vary for the various kitchen equipment generally found in a supermarket cooking operation. Charbroilers, for example, generate a larger plume than a stacked convection oven.
"There are light, medium, heavy and extra-heavy plumes," Smith explained. "A medium plume is generated from ranges, fryers and rotisseries. Under-fired broilers and salamanders generate a heavy plume, while an extra-heavy plume is generated by equipment fired using solid fuel such as wood or charcoal."
In most cases, Smith said, wall-mounted or back-shelf hood styles service the needs of the supermarket environment, trapping the plume before it gets pulled into the building and impacting the HVAC system. "The objective it to capture and contain," he said.
Smith suggested some "capture-and-containment" methods. For example, when a "proximity hood," a back-shelf style, was modified with built-in side panels, the exhaust rate greatly improved. Even partial side panels, used to increase the equipment operator's field of vision, improved the exhaust rate over unmodified hood designs.
Another capture-and-containment tip Smith passed along was simply to push appliances as far against the wall, under the hood, as possible. "By increasing the distance the hood extends in front of the appliance to at least 18 inches, you can create a reservoir that can pick up surges off a fryer or from convection oven doors when they are opened."
Smith suggested trading off design for energy management, moving appliances around. "Position low-profile appliances under a back-shelf hood, while high-profile appliances, such as a double-stack oven, would be serviced by its own hood."
He pointed out that often a new installation meets these specifications, but over time and particularly following cleaning, appliances are not placed as far back as they need to be to ensure optimal performance of the store's HVAC system.
Smith also cautioned food retailers to watch for grease on the roof. "Conventional hoods stop less than 10% of the grease that enters into the system. The balance goes up onto the fan on the roof."
David Zabrowski, research engineer at Fisher-Nickel, San Ramon, Calif., also works with supermarkets on ventilation strategies for their exhaust. One of his projects involves a multi-stage system that turns down ventilation when cooking equipment is idle. "Cooking equipment spends more time idle than active," he explained. "With this exhaust system, 25% to 30% energy savings is possible."
But an obstacle to this approach: the fire protection codes and uniform mechanical codes that require a minimum exhaust velocity of 1,500 feet per minute, said Zabrowski. Some of these requirements, he added, were recently reduced to 500 feet/minute, "which is good because more places can be retrofitted with this system now."