The heat is on

Heated merchandisers are becoming more flexible, energy efficient and stylish.

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

Not so long ago, the hot food offerings at supermarkets had a lot in common with school cafeteria menus—steam tables full of unappetizing food that was either overcooked or underdone and had plenty of fat and salt. The only thing missing was the lunch lady ladling the gravy over the mystery meat.

Grocers are now serving up restaurant-quality meals and the heated merchandisers are keeping pace with new technology to ensure that the meals not only taste good but meet food safety standards.

“When I see a supermarket that is having success with its deli and prepared food offerings, most often it is because it is being run like a foodservice operation, not like a grocery store,” says Tom Douglas, corporate chef for Eaton, Ohio-based Henny Penny Corp.

As customers come to expect higher quality, Douglas says many grocers are choosing to stop their hot food preparation for several hours between lunch and dinner to enable new, fresh food to be cooked and put out on the floor. “Retailers are learning that having one or two pieces of lasagna drying up in the heated merchandiser not only means that you don’t sell those two pieces of lasagna, but it creates the overall impression with the shopper that the food is not fresh,” he says.

Douglas adds that these upscale offerings require more preparation, planning and frequent menu changes. “They want to make things that are a little nicer, like sliced prime rib, steak or a better piece of fish,” he says. “That requires a different set of skills in preparation and in making sure that the food meets quality and safety standards once it is out on the floor.”

While improving overall food quality is crucial to appealling to customers who are replacing restaurant meals with prepared foods purchased at supermarkets, Douglas says grocers also need to be educated on the best methods for preparing and displaying food so it will last once it is in the heated merchandisers.

“We have to teach them the correct way of cooking and the correct temperatures so that they can get the maximum time out on the selling floor,” he says. “They have to be shown how to take care of the food. We explain how to preheat the pans and dishes before putting the food in the merchandisers.”

Moving things around
As grocers look to entice consumers with higher-end prepared foods, industry experts say they are looking for smaller heated merchandisers that can be located in multiple areas of the store, depending on the time of day and customer demand, among other factors.

“We’re seeing an interest in smaller hot cases,” Douglas says. “They are taking these cases and using them for very specific purposes, such as Chinese food, comfort food or barbeque.”

Todd Griffith, vice president, sales and marketing for Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based Alto-Shaam, says that there is an increased interest in smaller units that maximize vertical space. “Grocers are doing everything they can to make the best use of a limited footprint.” he notes. “We offers units that maximize product volume and can be used on an endcap, for example, where they can be real revenue producers.”

He says retailers are also asking for custom fabrications so that there is a consistent look to all of the cases—heated and refrigerated. “Retailers want the same upscale look and feel for their heated merchandisers as they do their refrigerated cases and other cases in the store,” Griffith says.

Henny Penny’s Douglas says that by integrating hot and cold merchandisers, retailers can offer shoppers options that best suit their current needs. “They can have the same meal offered three different ways—hot, cold but fully cooked and ready to be microwaved, and the raw components,” he says. “Even if the shopper wants to grab the prepared meal at that point, they will see what ingredients are in the meal and may be inspired to pick them up on their next visit.”

Griffith notes that Alto-Shaam’s heated merchandisers provide flexibility because they do not use water. “We have long been a proponent of not using water to keep food hot,” he says, adding that grocers not only have more flexibility in placing heated merchandisers, they save on service and maintenance and do not have to break up the floors to install plumbing.

The merchandisers also make it easier to maintain consistent temperatures. “Our merchandisers pro­vide a gentle, controllable heat source that doesn’t dry out the food with excessive temperatures or air movement,” Griffith adds, ex­plain­ing that keeping food at the appropriate temperature requires compensating for the store environment, including heat and air conditioning. “It is a challenge to keep food hot in an open air environment, but we are constantly perfecting the technology.”

In addition, he says Alto-Shaam’s unique Halo Heat technology uses almost two-thirds less energy than competitive heated merchandisers and zoned-controlled heating allows retailers to adjust the temperatures in various areas of the case to accommodate a variety of food items. “This way, the retailer isn’t stuck with filling a case with just one type of item and hoping it will sell,” he says.

According to Griffith, the company’s heated merchandisers also provide merchandising flexibility, as each shelf can accommodate different foods and packaging. “Our glass shelving is energized, so heat is conducted through glass. This eliminates hot and cold spots and provides a consistent temperature for each type of food, which ensures quality and food safety.”

Some units, such as those from Milwaukee-based Hatco Corp., can sit on a counter. “While these smaller merchandisers are popular with convenience operators, grocers can use them as well for grab-and-go items like sandwiches and boxed slices of pizza,” says Rick Anger, Hatco’s director of special accounts. “Our mini-merchandisers work well for impulse purchases. Grocers can put them on a cart near the cash registers.”

Focus on safety
Aside from taking up a huge amount of floor space, some industry experts say that merchandising hot foods in open pans can be perceived by customers as being unhygienic.

“For many shoppers, this can be a huge hurdle to purchasing prepared foods,” notes Ernst Goettsch, managing director for Carol Stream, Ill.-based Fri-Jado Inc. He says the company’s multi-deck merchandisers eliminate those barriers.

“The heated product is displayed in packaging, which is still self-service, so that the customer can grab and go, but it is clean and appealing,” he says, adding that these units can sit next to a refrigerated case so that customers can get a soda with their meal.

The company’s Multi Deck 3- and 4-level have been a big success since they were introduced. “We are now proud to launch their ‘big brother’—the 5-level Multi Deck,” Goettsch notes. Compared to the 3- and 4-level Multi Deck, the 5-level Multi Deck has five shelves, allowing retailers to offer more product in the same dimensions as the MD 3-level.

Fri-Jado’s heated merchandisers use technology that provides consistent heat all the way around the product, addressing concerns about safety and quality. “You don’t want to have the product continue to cook from the bottom when you put it in the merchandiser and have it be cold on the bottom,” Goettsch adds. “Our unique design takes away those worries about food safety and quality.”

Industry observers say that innovation in packaging will make it possible to offer more pre-packaged items from heated merchandisers going forward.

“Heat-resistant cartons are already available for items like soup and the chicken domes are popular, but there need to be more options,” says Goettsch, noting that having more heat-resistant packaging alternatives for items such as pizza, hamburgers and complete meals will help prepared food sales grow going forward. ß“Everything from the merchandisers to the packaging should have an upscale appeal, as that is what is going to drive consumers to choose to pick something up, or not.”

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