CSP Magazine

C-Store Kitchens Tool Up for Growth

For c-stores looking to win at the prepared-foods game, versatile, easy-to-use and highly functional equipment can be a powerful tool. High-tech, user-friendly equipment and compact cooking models that can fit in just about any space are increasingly crucial for cutting-edge c-store foodservice programs.

This February, over two days in Orlando, Fla., The NAFEM Show, held by the National Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM), brought together more than 600 equipment-supplier exhibitors and more than 20,000 attendees.

Amid the many ovens, toasters, blenders, holding cabinets and cookware, one central theme stood out: How can kitchens benefit from smaller, multifunctional equipment?

This idea of versatility and its effect on foodservice sales wasn’t lost on manufacturer attendees, many of whom talked up the opportunity for c-stores specifically.

“Equipment companies understand that the convenience segment is more important than ever,” said Charlie Souhrada, vice president of NAFEM. “As customers’ palates have become more sophisticated, they’re extending their expectations over to the c-store. For c-stores to compete for that customer, they have to match up to their restaurant brethren that are already serving made-to-order food and custom beverages.”

Manufacturers have clearly been working on solutions for the convenience industry. Smaller-footprint, multiuse equipment built to solve the quandary of space constraints had a significant presence on the trade-show floor.

“Space concerns continue to be huge,” said Souhrada. “Countertop solutions are now a major focus; we’re even seeing equipment going vertical to optimize the space.”

Rational, a Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based equipment company, demoed its smallest combi-oven model, the new SelfCooking Center XS. Designed for c-stores and other small operations, the “intelligent” combi oven combines steam and convection heat for baking, grilling, steaming, roasting and poaching. The multiuse oven measures only 21 inches wide and 25 inches deep. And Rational isn’t the only manufacturer to have rolled out small-footprint combis in recent years: Alto-Shaam, Manitowoc and Eloma also have space-saving models.

Beyond size, equipment functionality is crucial as well, especially for c-stores that are looking to elevate their foodservice programs into numerous dayparts and occasions.

“One of the key trends for our industry is small-footprint models, yes, but also multifunctional, so equipment can be versatile across dayparts,” said Souhrada. “We’re seeing more and more equipment being able to prepare and maintain many different menu items throughout the day.”

To meet the needs of c-stores offering all-day breakfast, the new Dual Zone station from Antunes, based in Carol Stream, Ill., features two independent cooking zones, which gives operators the flexibility of staggering cooking times. The compact cooker allows c-stores to prepare eggs fast and fresh on demand, rather than making them in big batches and risking freshness and food integrity.

Equipment that answers the need for grab-and-go solutions was another top trend at this year’s show. “Grab-and-go is very important, not only from the customer’s perspective, but also for c-stores that are dealing with issues like the high cost of labor,” Souhrada said. “Grab-and-go is a good way to mitigate the peaks and valleys of labor costs.”

Many of the newest grab-and-go cabinets were paired with heating modules in one multiuse equipment piece. Burlington, Vt.-based Blodgett displayed a versatile tool from its BCT Series of roll-in and  countertop combis that also combined heating shelves and a grab-and-go display. Its programmable touchscreen allows the heating shelves to be set at varying temperatures for different options, so retailers don’t have to buy separate equipment pieces for multiple food items.

Another trend is the use of technology to simplify equipment operation and training. “We’re seeing technology creep more and more into how equipment is controlled, and this has simplified operations. By eliminating a lot of the complicated bells and whistles, the equipment is easy to install, run and maintain. That’s very important today,” said Souhrada.

For example, several cookers at the show had recipe-programming capabilities. As c-stores stretch into limited-time promotions and work with suppliers to develop consistent recipes, they can use these new cookers to program recipes, send the information directly to the machine’s app across all units, and then track when and how individual stores are using the recipe.

One such technologically advanced piece of equipment came from Moffat USA, based in Winston Salem, N.C. Its TurboFan Double Stacked Convection Oven stands tall, with enough shelving for 10 half-size sheet pans. At 24 inches wide, it’s designed for space-challenged kitchens. The model features a touchscreen control, icon-driven program menu and a USB port for easy recipe uploads.

Another oven, the Express AXP22T highspeed combi oven from Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based ACP Inc., features touchscreen technology that can store and organize up to 360 recipes, which can be downloaded and transferred among numerous machines via USB, Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

Operators can also use the app tools to track what customers are ordering in real time. This includes self-service equipment.

For example, Woodridge, Ill.-based Rancilio Group’s Egro BYO with Echo System self-serve coffee machine, designed specifically for c-stores, is connected to an app program and interfaces with a tablet that sits behind the checkout counter.

When a customer orders and prepares coffee, cappuccino or other specialty drink, the data is sent to the tablet in real time. This can prevent customers from preparing a higher-cost specialty beverage and putting it inside a regular coffee cup at a lower cost. The Egro BYO ensures that the customer pays for exactly what he or she ordered, and it helps operators cut their losses due to “pilfering” of product. The company also plans to add a photo feature, which would send a picture of the customer along with their order to the tablet.

Sustainability is also increasingly factoring into kitchen-equipment innovation.

“It all works together,” said Souhrada. “The key trends are sustainability, technology and using that technology to enable the equipment to be more versatile.”

Mendota Heights, Minn.-based Restaurant Technologies showcased its Total Oil Management system, a small-footprint solution.

The technology automates oil ordering and delivery; its tracking function lets operators know how much oil they’re using and discarding in each unit. Meanwhile, an automated delivery and disposal system means employees don’t have to handle hot oil.

What’s next for foodservice equipment? According to Souhrada, keep an eye out for even smaller combi ovens designed for c-stores, and self-cleaning equipment that can tidy up with the push of a button. “Whether it’s rapid-cook ovens or blenders for shakes and smoothies, the right equipment will be available to provide the customer with something fresh, tasty and indulgent,” he said.

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