Hot stove

To attract customers seeking simple meal solutions, stores are installing high-end cooking equipment that is simple and efficient to use so they can change up the menu often.

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

When was the last time you turned on the stove at home? While in previous years this might be a difficult question to answer for some, more consumers are putting their culinary skills to the test these days. However, even die-hard home cooks need a break every once in a while and want to pick up a rotisserie chicken or other heat-and-eat meal at the supermarket instead of fast food or a more expensive restaurant alternative.

While grocers want to take advantage of this opportunity, they also have to be mindful of labor costs and energy and capital expenditures, so they are seeking equipment that is energy efficient and easy to use and maintain.

“We’re seeing more and more interest by supermarkets in cooking equipment as they continue to emphasize their prepared food offerings,” says Corine Maquet, sales manger for Inglewood, Calif.-based Rotisol-France. “They want equipment that will help them highlight the attractive and upscale nature of their prepared offerings and convey the freshness of the product.”

She says more supermarkets are expressing more interest in gas-powered rotisseries than in the past because they attract customer attention and can be adjusted to meet the cooking needs of a variety of items.

“These types of rotisseries used to only be of interest to restaurants, but they provide the theater that supermarkets are seeking in their stores,” she says. “The flames can be adjusted to accommodate a variety of items, from whole turkeys to salmon to prime rib and pork tenderloin.”

Variety is also a hot-button issue when it comes to meal replacements, according to industry experts. While the chicken spinning on the rotisserie can provide a quick and easy answer to the “what’s for dinner?” question, shoppers don’t necessarily want the same thing on every visit. Inventive side dishes and a rotating lineup of entrée choices will keep them coming back, according to experts.

“Retail supermarkets has been the beneficiary of the economic downturn, offering consumers continued alternatives in dining options, capitalizing upon not only providing solutions to food consumed at home in prepared form, but many retailers have also progressively developed dine-in options to consumers as a viable alternative to traditional restaurant operations,” says Todd Griffith, vice president of sales and marketing for Alto-Shaam, based in Menomonee Falls, Wis.

In terms of enticing consumers with a varied menu, Griffith says multi-use equipment such as combi ovens can make changes easy.

Multiple uses

“The simple solution regarding equipment selection is to choose equipment technology that operates flexibility in menu application,” he says. “Multi-use cooking technologies will at a minimum reduce redundancy of other equipment that is typically utilized for limited production of food items. Alto-Shaam Combitherm ovens are a great example of this technology, combining cooking functions and capabilities of multiple pieces of foodservice equipment into a single piece of equipment.”

He says there are cost benefits to multi-use equipment, including lower initial capital expense, space, utilities, ventilation, labor and ongoing operating costs. “This type of technology also allows ongoing development of the menu without reinvestment in additional equipment,” he says. “The training at that point simply becomes a cooking procedure or program.”

Offering barbeque and smoked meat options is one way to attract shoppers with unique tastes and flavor, according to Leon Kaufmann, marketing/graphic design for Southern Pride, a maker of barbeque ovens and smokers based in Marion, Ill.

“The high quality and uniqueness of the food product cooked in our equipment is what drives sales and creates repeat business,” he says. “Offering barbeque, smoked or roasted products with quality and capacities matching restaurants can expand a grocer’s hot and cold food sales and carryout catering business.”

The fact that Southern Pride’s equipment can be used in the deli or meat department or shared by both is an added value to the store, he says. “Because of the user-friendly controls and operation, it does not require highly skilled employees and the maintenance-free design is reliable in heavy-duty applications,” he says.

The SelfCooking Center from Rational USA, based in Schamburg, Ill., can help supermarkets expand their menus without adding experienced chefs or multiple pieces of equipment, according Vinod Jotwani, director of marketing. “This is a step above the traditional combi oven,” he says. “The panel shows the cooking modes, and with the push of a button it roasts chicken, steams fish, pork tenderloin, you name it. It is very easy to use and staff doesn’t have to monitor the cooking process.”

Cooking consistency is also critical, he says. “A supermarket chain offering chicken wants that chicken to be made to the same standard, no matter where it is being sold,” he says. “With our Internet based-system, the same recipe can be sent out to 1,000 pieces of equipment at the same time and if the recipe has to be tweaked, it can be done easily.”

“Equipment technology also brings the benefit of programmability, further simplifying equipment operation through menu icons and one-touch recipe program selection based upon visual display of a picture showing a food category or specific menu item,” says Alto-Shaam’s Griffith.

“[This month] Alto-Shaam will be introducing a new control technology for its Combitherm ovens that will take these user-friendly features to the next level.  The Combitouch technology will even have the ability to offer interactive training videos displayed right on the LED screen so that operators can search a variety of ‘help’ options and educate themselves as they use the equipment.”

Experts say retailers should also take advantage of the hands-on training available from equipment suppliers. The reality is that our labor force will always have turnover and there will be a need for ongoing operational support in the field,” Griffith says. “Service and support continue to be a differentiating factor between many channel suppliers.”

While there are many instances where simplified operation is important, the air-o-steam TOUCHLINE combi oven from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Electrolux Professional offers automatic, pre-set and manual settings, according to company officials. The automatic mode offers eight cooking categories. The user chooses a category and cooking time, temperature and ideal cooking climate are calculated, according to Guillaume Durand, the company’s director of marketing.

Flexible approcach
The pre-set cooking function enables users to save and reuse preferred recipes, while the manual setting enables chefs to have complete control of the functions.

Durand calls the oven intuitive and green. “It symbolizes our commitment to technologically advanced and environmentally sustainable products,” he says. The oven has high-efficiency, low-pollutant gas burners to keep CO2 emissions low and reduce gas consumption by 20% when compared to traditional burners, he says.
The company also offers a Pressure Braising Pan, which officials describe as a fast and gentle method for preparing a variety of foods. “It is good for meats, rice, risotto and a number of other dishes,” Durand says. Food cooks under the pressure of saturated steam rather than water, which reduces cooking time by an average of 50%, he says, while improving cooking results and increasing meat yield by more than 15%.

Retailers also need to be flexible as to where the prepared meals are merchandised in the store, according to industry experts. While previous generations of equipment required separate ventilation, relegating them to the backroom, many cooking equipment manufacturers offer ventless systems that can be placed anywhere in the store to generate customer interest.

“Putting these systems where the customers can see the food helps sales,” says Ernst Goettsch, managing director for Carol Stream, Ill.-based Fri-Jado. “Our ovens and Multisseries combine cooking and presentation into one piece of equipment, providing a simple operation for the retailer.”

He says that the company encourages retailers to position the equipment near the checkout counter to accommodate customers who are looking for a quick meal solution.

The company offers a Deli Multisserie, which provides a 270-degree view of the cooking process and built-in halogen lighting to highlight the product, Goettsch explains. The company also offers a Bakery Multisserie for baking and displaying baked goods such as rolls, bagels and pastries. With its intuitive flat glass control panel with a touch-sensitive wheel, the Multisserie is simple to operate, according to company officials.

Easy on the oil

Supermarkets can also set themselves apart from fast food operators by promoting healthier alternatives, according to industry executives. While fried chicken continues to be a staple of the prepared foods department, equipment manufacturers are offering preparation methods that require less oil. For example, Eaton, Ohio-based Henny Penny debuted Evolution Elite, which company officials describe as a reduced-oil-capacity fryer. They say the fryer allows supermarket operators to save time and money by cooking the same amount of product using 40% less oil than a standard 50-pound fryer. The fryer will be offered in two models—natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas.

“There is certainly a perception around health issues that supermarkets are looking to address in their frying operations by eliminating trans fats and using healthier oils,” says Jason Moles, Henny Penny’s field marketing manager. Since healthier oils are more costly, the efficient use of oil is even more critical to keep operating costs under control, he says.

While using less oil produces a healthier product, it also saves on operating costs, according to Moles. “One of the most consistent things we’re hearing from operators is that they want to save on operating costs, and oil is among the biggest operating costs of frying equipment,” he says. “They are looking for ways to maximize their oil and reduce costs in the best way possible while maintaining the highest level of quality.”

The Evolution Elite also has the SmartFilter Express, which allows staff to filter the oil in four minutes or less at peak operation, preserving oil quality and the Oil Guardian auto top-off feature automatically maintains optimal oil levels at all times while constantly replenishing oil quality and extending oil life, company officials note. “Using too much or too little oil can have an impact on cooking time and taste,” Moles says.

Fresh menus

Many cooking equipment manufacturers work with supermarkets on menu development and recipe refinement, and industry experts encourge supermarkets to avail themselves of these opportunities.

“We can work with grocers on menus, offer training and even do some on-site cooking demonstrations if requested,” says Rotisol-France’s Maquet.

Moles says Henny Penny’s “Chicken is King” program is popular. “We take them through the process of setting up a menu and focus on the great amount of things that you can do with chicken and our equipment.”

“There are many factors that must be taken into consideration when developing a retail foodservice concept and many retailers are relying more upon the expertise and partnership with foodservice and restaurant design consultants to work with them in the planning, development and execution of a successful concept,” say Griffith.

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