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Top tips to help grocers equip a foodservice kitchen that best enables them to compete in the fast-casual lane

Could a grocery store compete with a McDonald aid’s drive-thru? It most certainly could, as long as it has the means to do so with a well-equipped kitchen. Today’s grocers are working to morph into hybrids of supermarkets and fast-casual restaurants as the demand for fresh, convenient food continues to skyrocket, and those still offering only fried foods and basic fare risk missing out on the burgeoning opportunity.

The trend toward gourmet grab-and-go meals is increasingly heating up as more dual-income families seek ways to simplify their busy lives. Chad Ott, partner with Pewaukee, Wis.-based Mehmert Store Services, says this “really cuts into planning and preparation for the ‘family dinner’ that people grew up with.” In addition, the move toward better-for-you options has heightened consumers’ expectations and demands for more sophisticated options, he says.

“Shoppers are looking for meals that can be taken home and served with little or no work on their part,” says Ott. “Also, they aren’t satisfied with choices that only come from the fryers. They know what they want and won’t return if they don’t see the types of offerings they and their families desire.” While addressing this growing need for ways to help shoppers get a fast, healthy dinner on the table is not without risks, the rewards far outweigh them as a golden opportunity for grocers–as long as they have a kitchen that runs smoothly and efficiently.

Speed Is Everything
One of the most important things to consider when creating a foodservice section that satisfies time- and food-starved shoppers is the need for speed. Juan Martinez, principal with and co-founder of Profitality, a foodservice industrial engineering company based in Miami with offices in Pittsburgh, says a “certain level of speed” is essential when competing against QSRs.

“Most QSR restaurants have a drive-thru; they’re pretty quick, and you have to have equipment that allows you to cook faster,” he says. To compete with restaurants, retailers must produce food that is assembled to order. This not only allows retailers to keep up with demand, he says, but also improves food quality, because fresh offerings are not left sitting around for an extended period of time.

Rapid-Cooking Ovens for the Win

Rapid-cooking ovens are one of the most important pieces of equipment to invest in for speed and efficiency, according to Martinez, who says these ovens work by employing multiple types of heat such as microwave for speed and radiant for toasting. “It’s an expensive piece of equipment, usually, but it provides for speed and offers tremendous amount of flexibility in what you can cook,” he says. Anything from a pizza to a sandwich to beans and rice can be cooked with this type of machinery, and he says he even saw someone cook a whole chicken in one once.

  • But if flexibility is what a retailer seeks, they need not look any further than a combi oven, which offers multiple ways to cook different products.
  • The Benefit of Combined Heat
  • Martinez says combi ovens combine wet and dry heat, which allows food to be cooked quickly while retaining its moisture.
  • “The good thing about a combi oven is there are so many different things you can do with it,” says Ott of Mehmert, including what can be done with a rotisserie or a steamer.

In addition to the oven’s flexibility, its ability to combine wet and dry heat is a better way to cook food and leads to a more moist product that also reduces shrinkage, he says. Many restaurants actually bake chicken in a combi oven and then finish it on the grill when made to order, he says.

Rocking the Rotisserie

Rotisseries have long been a mainstay of the supermarket prepared foods section. While there is plenty of other modern equipment that can cook chicken more efficiently, it can’t compete with the “theater,” as Ott puts it, created by roasting chicken on a spit.

Ott says it’s still a good way to cook food because “a lot of the fat content is draining off it,” making the spit a relatively healthy option. But, he says, too much theater can turn into a dangerous situation if the rotisserie is too close to the shopper. This is something he has observed in real life, creating concern about several hazards, especially when a spit is placed on a countertop where children could touch it. “You just never want to have [any type of cooking equipment] too far out in front, but instead in that middle tier,” he says, where shoppers can “see it but not touch it.”

Cooling Down

A blast chiller is another great way for retailers to boost both efficiency and food safety. It quickly cools food in what Martinez calls “a very soft way” that does not dry it out and meets food safety regulations. He says some retailers will cook food in a combi oven and blast-chill it so that it is quickly ready to package. “They put it in the grab-and-go refrigerated section and that food is ready to heat,” he says.

Safety First

With food safety top of mind, cleanliness may well be the most essential element of a retailer’s kitchen. Ott says retailers who do the best job in the cleanliness department have cleaning programs that are operated on a daily basis. In fact, if a kitchen is neglected for even a day or two, “The person that’s working there is not going to want to have to work double or triple as hard to get it back to where the standard was,” he says.

Ott also says line of sight is extremely important, because if customers are able to see a dirty or disheveled kitchen, needless to say, they won’t be very enticed by the food. Consumers are “very intelligent and also opinionated, and once a bad opinion or rumor starts, the public is hard-pressed” to change its mind about a retailer. For example, if a shopper is ready to make a purchase, then suddenly sees something off-putting in the back of house, it will be an immediate and potentially long-term turnoff, he says.

Sanitization is one of the most important parts of the cleaning process, and using the right systems and products to do so is crucial. Joe Davis, food, drug, retail and healthcare channel leader for P&G Professional, says ensuring accurate dosing through a dilution system avoids making employees guess when diluting concentrated products. “This is safer for the employee and helps avoid dilution mistakes like too much water, which can affect the sanitizing or disinfecting properties of the product,” he says. “Correct chemical and water levels can also help reduce wasted product, leading to cost savings.”
The Energy Conundrum

Another important consideration for a retailer setting up a kitchen is whether to go with gas or electric for equipment such as stovetops. Ott says electric is often cheaper to purchase initially, but in the long term, gas will likely be more cost-efficient, depending on local gas prices. “Typically, we see that the gas equipment is a little bit more expensive at the front end, but as far as savings over time and use goes, the gas costs are going to be less than the electrical costs,” he says.

Simplicity is another way to cut costs, because retailers often end up purchasing multiuse equipment and only using it for one thing. While bells and whistles can have their benefits and may seem initially appealing, they aren’t necessary in certain situations. As Martinez puts it, “Suppliers want to take a man to the moon, but he may only want to cross the street.”

see more: Put More Sizzle in Your Kitchens faucets

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