Selecting the right cooking and holding equipment for your foodservice offerings can help improve product quality, save costs and expand your menu. This is especially true within the confines of a convenience store’s small footprint.
As the senior corporate chef for Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip, which operates 800+ stores in 11 states, I can tell you that creating a complete menu of high-quality food products requires time and testing to determine the best combination of ingredients, equipment and packaging.
When I first got to QuikTrip, the only cooking platform was a large convection oven and there were no kitchens in any of the stores. With the introduction of our kitchens, we added both high-speed ovens and pizza ovens and have been using those for years to make the majority of our products. Today, we have 809 QT Kitchens.
In terms of holding, our grab-and-go selection uses an open front platform warmer with heating elements directed to the food from above and below.
What’s exciting right now, though, is that we’ve recently introduced some new equipment for our newest platforms, tacos and barbecue sandwiches. Adding this was a big redesign, since we’re using several pieces of equipment we didn’t have before: rethermalizers, hot wells to keep proteins hot and impulse steamers.
A huge portion of our food business is grab and go, which is a different challenge than cooking everything to order. We do a lot of made-to-order items, and pretty much anything that is grab and go can be made to order.
But for grab and go specifically, one of the main challenges is balancing how long we can hold something hot without reducing product quality.
There’s an interplay between all of the different parts of cooking for a challenge like this: the ingredients, the cooking equipment, the holding equipment and the packaging. Finding the best combination of all of those different components, testing multiple pieces of equipment, different ingredients, different packaging and so on, is where we spend a lot of time.
Everything we do is informed by consumer and sensory testing — from the idea to the finished product. Especially for grab-and-go items, we do a significant amount of sensory testing as we’re developing to determine those magic combinations that will create the best quality over time.
Working with our suppliers is crucial; being able to modify a piece of equipment to work in our stores, or adjusting the specifications and formulations of our ingredients, helps us give our customers high-quality food as quickly as possible.
We’re lucky we can rely on our equipment suppliers to help us with large pieces of that puzzle, like working with us on cook settings for a given piece of equipment.
And again, we’re constantly doing sensory work on those ingredients, so we know how they stack up against each other. Good equipment suppliers are a great support to help split up some of the large volume of work that goes into developing our items.
My co-workers on the food team who test equipment and I are looking primarily at food quality, hold times and ease of use. We work with operations to help them figure out operational efficiency, and how easy or difficult something might be to clean and maintain. Even simple things matter up front, like, “Do we have the right power supply for this?”
The more versatility the equipment provides, the better. One of my big objectives as the chef is to figure out how much expansion a piece of equipment allows us beyond what we’re doing today. A piece of equipment that can not only help us out with some of the things we do today, but also open up years’ worth of menu innovation, is much more valuable than something that just is an incremental change to what we already have.
Nick Powell is the senior corporate chef at QuikTrip. He attended the Culinary Institute of America and has been working in culinary R&D for the past 15 years. He’s been at QuikTrip for 10 years, from the very beginning of the company’s move to made-in-store food and full-service kitchens.