Convenience stores assessing whether to test new foodservice waters have increasing access to modern equipment options, which can keep them from getting in over their heads.
By Howard Riell, Associate Editor
As foodservice sales grow across the convenience store landscape, equipment continues to evolve as well, from innovative ovens that allow for greater menu versatility to energy- and space-efficient warmers and grills.
Thus, as many c-store menus expand to include sandwiches, pizza, baked goods, empanadas, pastries, cookies, tarts, pies, pretzels, proteins, bread products and more, they are also finding savings in food, labor and energy costs, as well as improved speed and consistency.
With more Americans obtaining meals and snacks from c-stores, retailers have a significant opportunity to increase revenue by adding new, high-quality food products. Technological advances have helped to raise the industry bar.
Of course most convenience retailers who concern themselves with offering good food in a timely manner can upgrade their foodservice programs without paying a heavy cost. Operators looking to update their foodservice equipment packages might consider the following:
• Compact quarter- and half-size convection ovens take up little space, have high output and consume only a modest amount of electricity. Some models have four-shelf capacity. Other features include an optional high-speed broiling feature ideal for products topped with cheese such as pizza and some Hispanic dishes.
• Fast-cooking or “speed” ovens not only produce at a very fast rate, but are consistent in the heating process, and with the enhancements in heated airflow of later models, can produce even browning.
“Combo-technology and double-sided grills are more effective than warmers and convection ovens, as food can be cooked far quicker without the need for hot holding,” said John Reed, the owner of Customized Culinary Solutions, a culinary consultancy in Skokie, Ill. “With pre-programming capabilities and higher output, labor efficiency is improved and the floor space reduced. You have higher yields, less operator training and more consistent offerings. This takes the c-store away from re-heating operations to cook-from-scratch mentality.”
Smaller equipment can provide c-stores diverse and convenient product options. For example, snack toasters on the market utilize quartz infrared heat, with elements reaching 1,100 degrees, even in a 120 volt-format, with preheat times of just 20-25 seconds. Single- or double-deck units can be used for quickly heating pastries, bagels, sandwiches, quiche and desserts.
Pre-made sandwiches can be finished on cast-iron Panini grills. Key characteristics of the Panini grill include fine-grain cast iron in order to retain heat, and even heat distribution so that multiple sandwiches can be heated at the same time and come out with the same quality.
Warming displays should be simple, fit into any décor, and have some kind of humidity feature to obtain maximum holding times. Dual service allows loading from the back while the customer takes the food products from the front.
For c-stores looking to prepare more offerings on-site, modern cold prep tables don’t take up a lot of kitchen space, helping maintain fresh ingredients longer.
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Today’s technology and the operational simplicity of modern kitchen equipment help retailers when it comes to staff training.
“The main emphasis in choosing all of our equipment is ease of use by staff,” said Shannon Harvey, foodservice and hot dispensed beverage category manager for Ricker’s based in Anderson, Ind. “We want to take personal judgements out of the baking/cooking equation.”
Ricker’s uses Duke Tri-channel units for cold and hot holding, Rationale and Merrychef ovens for cooking and heating foods, Accutemp steamers and Panasonic microwave ovens. Stores offer customers made-to-order burritos, tacos, pizzas and burgers. The steamer unit qualified for energy rebates, Harvey pointed out, while the oven saves money on both labor and food cost.
“Pizzas and burgers are cooked in the Merrychef units,” Harvey said, “while other items are served from hot holding units.” The ovens are used around the clock for all dayparts, she added. “They help to decrease waste due to quickly cooking as needed, rather than hot holding and potential waste.”
Lori Gunnlaugsson, with owner Kevin Schartner, heads the 30-year-old, family-owned S Stop Inc., a convenience retailer based in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. The company purchased its first convection countertop oven—the Tyson 620 Commercial Convection Countertop Oven—almost a year ago through Eby-Brown.
What the team found was that with the Tyson 620 Commercial Convection Countertop Oven, the store could broaden its menu and expand its overall foodservice program.
“What I like about the oven is that it is small, it cooks really well and it doesn’t stink up your store,” said Gunnlaugsson. “There is no hood needed. It’s just a small, cute little convection oven that really works great.”
FITTING THE BILL
There are no plans at present to expand the c-store’s menu any further—for now.
“We are a small family-owned operation, and we serve things like chicken tenders and fries, things like that and sometimes during the Lenten season we will do fish and fries,” said Gunnlaugsson. “Before this we mainly had soups and brats. But the new oven cooks Tornados really good. We will cook them and then throw them into the warmer. Everybody is looking for that around noon, and sometimes they get sick of the fast food.”
While food cost has risen by approximately 10% since installing the oven, sales have also trended upward, Gunnlaugsson added. “I don’t know if it was just the timing of the oven, but our sales in general this whole last year have been a lot higher.”
Most recently, Schartner has added eggrolls to the mix to diversify the menu.
“If you want to expand a little bit and give people more than that soup and roller grill, it gives you a chance to make things like chicken tenders or onion rings or French fries and mozzarella sticks.”