By Jeffrey Steele, Contributing Editor
New innovations in foodservice equipment are constantly impacting the convenience store sector. Equipment quality continues to improve, based on advances in technology that affect how products are heated, how they are held at proper temperature and in the analytics of forecasting foodservice demand and scheduling food production.
As foodservice programs continue to evolve, c-store operators continue to strategize to stay ahead of that vitally important foodservice equipment curve.
“If you’re not constantly evaluating your operations and the food you’re delivering, while also managing your costs, you’ll lose in some way,” said David Bishop, managing partner at Balvor LLC, a sales and marketing practice based in Barrington, Ill.
Sometime the losses aren’t immediately apparent.
“You could be losing on margins because you’re not as efficient, or on sales because your quality isn’t as good. It’s all about looking at how I can provide the consistent quality my customers’ demand, while also seeking to manage costs.”
REVIEW AND INVEST
The most important reason c-store foodservice operators must regularly review and invest in new foodservice equipment is their need for efficiency.
“We have to be efficient,” said Bob Derian, corporate chef for Atlanta-based RaceTrac Petroleum Inc., which operates more than 600 stores under the RaceTrac and RaceWay banners in 12 southern states. “We have to be sure we can cook foods consistently and sell food quickly while maintaining food safety practices. Keep in mind too that a smart foodservice designer will develop the menu first and then purchase equipment to execute upon that menu later. Many c-stores purchase a nice piece of equipment first, but then that limits what they can offer.”
Adding innovative foodservice equipment, such as combination ovens as opposed to regular convection ovens, has enabled RaceTrac to realize a top corporate priority, offering its customers higher-quality menu items. Given the speed-oven technology available today, RaceTrac can cook foods faster, while not worrying about problems associated with using a microwave. This cutting-edge technology also reduces space and increases offerings on the RaceTrac menu.
“We have a speed oven that is used as our pizza oven, but can cook many different types of foods,” Derian said. That’s a huge win when compared with the limitation of foodservice equipment a decade ago, he added. Back then, the huge ovens consumed significant space and could only be used to bake pizzas.
For other operators, a preferred approach may be to invest in newer versions of their tried-and-true foodservice equipment.
One such example is Chris Carter, owner of Shout & Sack, a 40-year-old convenience operation, located on historic Route 66 in Vinita, Okla. Carter recently purchased his fourth fryer from Broaster, which helps cook the c-store’s primary menu item.
“(It helps me) keep up with my chicken business, [including] bone-in chicken breasts, wings, chicken strips, all hand-breaded,” Carter said.
Carter also just added a Federal Industries deli case. “It will run as a peninsula on an endcap,” he reported. “I can get three times as many items in the same amount of space. I’m just expanding that for my grab-and-go business.”
State-of-the-art software, when combined with foodservice equipment, can yield wholesale gains in efficiency, Bishop said. The location of Louisville, Ky.-based Thorntons Inc. he visited recently in suburban Chicago had introduced Spark Analytics software. The program enables the chain to examine buying patterns, days of the week and even weather forecasts to decide how much of certain foods should be prepared. The system produces a strip bearing the time it was prepared and time by which it must be sold.
“With the Internet of Things (IoT), these analytics are just as important as the traditional equipment,” Bishop said. “They ensure consistent quality while managing food costs. It’s increasingly becoming clear that in this day and age, technology can enable and enhance the capabilities of traditional ovens and other food prep. The technology and analytics are enabling stores to produce quantities closer to expected or forecasted demand, and they’re doing that through analytic tools examining historical sales to adjust what’s prepared on a daily or hourly basis.”
Speed-oven technology, such as that provided by Merrychef and TurboChef, is among the most promising innovations arriving in c-stores today, Derian said. Speedy ovens deliver a combination of microwave and convection cooking in the same oven.
As a result of that dual capability, RaceTrac can preset the ovens so each item cooked has its own setting. That setting can then use different levels of each cooking type in order to ensure the best products.
“It used to be that you had an oven where everything was cooked, and you simply got what you got,” Derian said. “Now we can adjust the settings for time and temperature to fan speed and microwave percentage levels in order to cook frozen or thawed items perfectly. They are super user-friendly at the store level once they are programmed in a test kitchen.”
At Circle K stores in his neck of the woods, Bishop has noticed a rollout of new coffee equipment that produces hot chocolate, espressos and cappuccinos.
“They are essentially using the same type of machine as Starbucks baristas use, with the distinction that it is self-serve,” Bishop said. “You just can’t beat these price points. So if the machine pours and delivers just as good a cup of coffee as Starbucks, but for $2 less, the rational person would ask, ‘Why not go to Circle K?’ What would appeal to any retailer is attracting business from those not currently buying coffee at their stores.”
When it’s time to turn thumbs up or down on a new piece of equipment, Carter does his homework. “Lots of my friends have convenience stores,” he said.
“I let them be guinea pigs on new equipment, especially with deli cases. There are so many out there at so many price points. A friend of mine bought this Federal Industries case, and now he has them in all 16 of his stores. That tells me he is satisfied. I trust him and always listen to what he says.”
On deli case purchases, he invariably checks with the his community’s health inspector to determine whether there have been problems with the specific model he’s considering.
The final determinant often is level of fit with convenience store operations. “It’s got to work in my store,” Carter said. “I take that into the equation before I punch the button.”
Added Bishop: “It’s important for retailers to evaluate how good a fit the equipment is to their business. Innovation without fit is not necessarily good.”
Derian believes it’s not really possible to plan ahead for the innovations that may be coming next year or five years from now. Still, c-stores can be proactive.
“Equipment companies are watching menu trends and will stay in front of the industry’s needs,” Derian said. “The last seven years alone have a seen a tremendous leap in technology.”