High-tech cooking equipment that saves energy and space is gaining favor with grocers.
By Kim Ann Zimmermann
A retailer simply roasting up a few chickens in a rotisserie no longer qualifies as a prepared foods program. Today supermarkets, warehouse clubs, convenience stores as well as other channels are stepping up their prepared meals programs to better compete with restaurants for consumers take-out lunch and dinner business.
Industry observers say that to do so, grocers are investing in sophisticated, energy-efficient equipment that can cook restaurant-quality meals from start to finish with just the touch of a button. Due to budgetary and space constraints, observers add that savvy supermarket executives are stocking their kitchens with cooking equipment that can get the job done with minimal labor and energy costs.
Retailers continue to focus on prepared foodservice equipment solutions that are reliable, flexible, multi-functional and simple to operate, says Todd Griffith, vice president of sales and marketing for Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based Alto-Shaam, Inc. “They also want equipment that is cost effective in terms of operating efficiency, cost of operation and ROI,” he adds.
“Over the past few years, home meal replacement has been on the rise and consumers have come to expect more than just the rotisserie chicken when they walk into the supermarket searching for a quick lunch or dinner solution,” says Vinod Jotwani, director of sales and marketing for RATIONAL USA, based in Schaumburg, Ill. “Even as we slowly come out of the economic downturn, consumers still want quality food at a decent price.”
To retain the customers who have turned to supermarkets for prepared meals as they reduce their restaurant visits, grocers are looking to upgrade their prepared food programs without expanding their backrooms or adding equipment, say observers. “We are seeing grocers going toward multi-functional equipment that is able to cook all of the foods they want to offer with one piece of equipment,” adds Jotwani.
Even baking equipment, which typically has a large footprint, has been downsizing, according to observers. “We’re seeing grocers gravitate toward smaller, hybrid convection ovens that can handle a number of different items rather than the larger rack ovens,” says Jason Prondzinski, vice president of national accounts for the Troy, Ohio-based ITW Food Equipment Group, which includes the Hobart, Traulsen and Baxter brands.
Shawna Goldfarb, director of foodservice/in-store for the Shelton, Conn.-based WP Bakery Group, also notes that grocers are looking to squeeze more cooking power into a smaller space. In response, the company is unveiling the Superior Tower, a system that combines the company’s Brilliant convection oven and its Matador stone plate oven and offers an option proofer.
“The ovens are stacked, so grocers can cook a wide variety of items in a very small footprint,” she says.
Many observers say that stackable equipment is an excellent space saving measure and retailers are showing a growing interest in the option. Steve Maroti, president of North Bergen, N.J.-based Hickory Industries, Inc., says the company’s N/7.5G rotisseries can be stacked two high.
“Supermarkets are looking for outstanding visual presentation, but they are also seeking greater efficiency and space utilization,” he says. “[Our rotisserie] is highly visual and promotes impulse sales.”
In fact, in some instances equipment is straddling the kitchen and the selling floor to save space while also providing a “theater” aspect to attract customers, according to observers. There are also instances where the reverse is true and the majority of the piece of equipment is actually outside the store.
“Many places position our smoker so the front of the oven sticks through the wall into the kitchen while the rest of the oven is outside,” says Leon Kaufmann, marketing director for Marion, Ill.-based Southern Pride. “This means that it takes up virtually no extra space in your kitchen.”
Southern Pride recently introduced the Rolltisserie, a small mobile rotisserie smoker, which Kaufmann believes could benefit grocery stores in a couple of ways. “They can cook on it out in front of their store to generate interest, as well as rent it out or cater on site with it,” he says.
Observers also say there is a growing interest in equipment that can be used to prepared multiple types of food as a way to maximize their space and investment. Hickory Industries Maroti says their Churrasco grill can operate as a multiple-item rotisserie for one meal segment and a normal grill at another time of day. Kaufmann says Southern Pride smokers can be used without wood to cook foods that do not require a smoked flavor.
Many manufacturers are also emphasizing that their equipment can be used to cook a variety of foods. Tom Douglas, corporate chef for Eaton, Ohio-based Henny Penny and a certified executive chef, says he has been working with customers to expand their menus.
“There are a ton of things that supermarkets can do with our equipment and we’re working with our customers to find more ways to use their equipment so that it has more value for them,” he says. “We’re teaching people that rotisseries can be used for more than chicken. You can make breakfast items such as cinnamon rolls, French toast, bacon and sausage.”
Observers say that equipment manufacturers have been focusing on making the equipment easier to use as well, resulting in a reduction in labor and improved food quality.
“The systems today are very easy to use,” says Douglas. “What is great is that the recipes can be entered into the equipment’s memory, so that no matter who is working the machine, the product cooks the same every day.”
Alto-Shaam offers a unique set of resources to retailers via the Alto-Shaam Culinary Institute, which Griffith says is “a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to supporting our customers.” These resources include educational opportunities to evaluate technology for specific applications, ongoing culinary support in terms of actual research and menu development support, recipe testing, menu programming and ongoing field culinary training and support.
Jotwani says RATIONAL takes great pride in the training, support and educational events they provide for grocers. “One of our newest events is Academy RATIONAL,” he says. “We host these events throughout the U.S. to provide extended training free of charge. We have 150 certified chefs and let our customers know that we are their partner.”
The training is not limited to new customers, he notes. “New employees can also benefit from the training as well as anyone who wants to learn more or refresh their skills,” he says.
Observers also note that while grocers are looking to streamline the cooking process, a quick and easy cleanup is almost as important. To that end, the Deli Multisserie from Carol Stream, Ill.-based Fri-Jado offers a fully automated cleaning program. According to company officials, the boilerless equipment also requires less maintenance of its components and does not suffer from lime scale deposits.
Networked equipment is another trend that can greatly benefit retailers. While the obvious benefit is the ability to download new recipes, observers say it can also help retailers monitor usage and energy efficiency. Additionally, WP Bakery’s Goldfarb says that retailers can control the equipment from an outside location. “Users can view information such as the items currently being baked, what has been baked previously and energy usage,” she adds.
The ability to monitor energy usage is significant as observers say energy costs are still a key concern for grocers. Goldfarb says that with WP Bakery’s Superior Tower system each deck is controlled individually, eliminating a lot of energy waste. “If another deck is needed, it can be ready in eight to 10 minutes,” she says.
Another example of energy-saving technology is the N/7.5G rotisserie from Hickory Industries. According to company officials, it uses efficient forced air gas burner technology. “Energy costs are less than four cents per chicken,” Maroti says.
Observers say sustainability will continue to drive equipment development going forward. “Equipment that is green and able to bring profit to the back of the house operation is what matters most to grocers today and in the future,” says RATIONAL’s Jotwani.