Congratulations, you’re jumping into the culinary game and outfitting your convenience store with a kitchen. Sure, space is tight, and your budget may be even tighter, but don’t let that stop you from offering fresh, delicious and profitable food. All it takes is a good plan.
I deal with space constraints on a regular basis as the corporate chef at Yesway, a rapidly-growing chain with about 150 c-stores in nine states. Many of our locations have limited kitchen space, but I can assure you that solutions for making the most of small footprints are plentiful. Just look at food trucks. Most chefs confront cramped quarters at some point in their careers. Manufacturers know this and have developed innovative c-store foodservice equipment.
First, define your menu. Do you plan to make food to order or whip it up in batches ahead of time to hold in a warmer? What daypart holds the most profit potential for your location? Will you serve pizzas or sandwiches? Are you thinking of frying snacks or chicken? What’s your labor model? Your c-store foodservice equipment needs will be dictated by the compromise between wants and space limitations.
When I walk into a potential kitchen, I look for a pre-existing hood system, which removes grease-laden vapors, and gas lines. These components are expensive to install from scratch, but they empower you to cook with gas ranges, griddles and ovens, as well as open fryers. Depending on space, I’d immediately consider adding a gas range, griddle, convection oven and/or fryer, which will allow you to prep nearly any dish.
No hood? No problem. Shift gears, and think ventless. These electric cooking machines use filters, catalytic converters and other technology to capture and convert grease-laden vapors into harmless CO2 and water, so they generally don’t need to be under a hood — your local fire inspector will have the final say. Ventless ovens and fryers come in a range of sizes and price points, but none are inexpensive, so choose wisely.
A rapid-cook oven is one ventless option. It uses different types of heat — convection, hot air jets, radiant and/or microwaves — simultaneously to cook food up to 15-times faster than traditional ovens. This makes them ideal for short-order dishes like hot sandwiches and personal pizzas. Recipes can be preprogrammed and selected on a one-touch screen. The tradeoff is these units are pricey and have small oven cavities, so batch cooking is usually not an option. But they are versatile, and a company’s sales representative or chef can help you get the most out of your machine.
For a cheaper route, select countertop convection ovens. They won’t provide the blistering speed of rapid-cook ovens, but are roomier inside — and lighter, which might matter depending on where your oven will live. A panini press is an affordable way to add variety and value to your menu with pressed sandwiches, quesadillas and so on.
Ventless fryers open up a world of made-to-order fried snacks and sides, such as wings, french fries and cheese balls. Before purchasing, consider whether you need to load and drop from the front or sides given your space. A fully-automated option saves labor but costs more.
Finally, ventless conveyor-style ovens are ideal for pizzas but can prepare almost any dish you can make in a rapid-cook oven. They move food past heating elements or hot air jets using a conveyor belt. Determine the width of the conveyor belt and height of the oven cavity in the model before making a purchase, as this will limit the size of dishes you can prepare. These ovens can usually be stacked, doubling your cooking capacity in a small footprint.
The second thing I look for with c-store foodservice equipment is storage — specifically, refrigeration. You need cold and dry storage sufficient to hold enough fresh, frozen and dry ingredients to execute your menu between deliveries. Calculate the volume those ingredients will occupy, and plan accordingly. A small walk-in freezer and cooler are ideal, but upright reach-in units or chest freezers can do the trick, if you get deliveries frequently. Metro shelving on casters works for pantry items. Consider leveraging the beverage cooler for ingredients.
With a well-selected line of c-store foodservice equipment, even the smallest kitchen can create a robust revenue stream for your business.