Food prep heavyweights sharpen their knives

Food preparation equipment manufacturers have their work cut out as they endeavour to provide operators with savings in the areas that matter most: time and money.

The theory goes that as competitive forces drive vendors to make their products more effective and reliable, the gains made by operators in terms of labour resources, ingredient costs and productivity increase substantially.

The daily hours of preparation time that were once swallowed up by the repetitive manual preparation of foods have now been replaced by greater automation from machines that purport to offer a superior consistency of cuts than those done by hand.

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Additionally, suppliers have finally worked out the secret to designing machines that are either dishwasher-safe or can be cleaned easily.

But it isn’t just productivity and ease of maintenance that counts, insists Stuart Flint, business and training development manager at Electrolux Professional. Good food preparation equipment also allows a chef to dedicate more time to focusing on food quality and flavours.

“In most environments, chefs are looking to innovate and are always striving for the next development that might set them apart from others in the industry,” he says. “Preparation equipment can be crucial in this area, as with slicker mixing and chopping there is more time for menu development and creation. Additionally, equipment such as vac pac machines are aiding the rise of sous vide cooking as a technique.”

Mark Hogan, sales and marketing manager at FEM, believes that ease-of-use and safety remain top in the minds of both designers and operators today.

“There is an increasing move towards using fresh ingredients prepared in-house rather than buying in pre-prepped vegetables, putting the pressure on manufacturers to look again at the design of cutters, slicers and dicers,” he observes.

Smaller pieces of kit tend to be the ones that bear the brunt of the hard work and therefore suppliers are urging dealers to make operators aware of how multifunctional and durable their food prep equipment is.

“The best-designed products will allow for flexibility with fluctuating demand, while sustaining a steady level of productivity in little time, and those that are multifunctional will eradicate high amounts of food prep equipment cluttering a kitchen,” says Guy Cooper, boss of Mitchell & Cooper.

Adam Krause, operations manager at Sammic, suggests operators have never had such a good choice of proven food prep equipment as they do now. “Food preparation equipment is cheaper than ever and new production methods have meant better value for money as build quality has improved and machines are offering more,” says Krause.

He cites Sammic’s CA-301 vegetable prep machine as an example of this, noting the inclusion of extra blades for greater versatility and a two-year warranty, while other categories of product, such as food processors, are able to accommodate far greater capacities than they were in the past.

“Greater insight into ergonomics by manufacturers has also led to equipment in this field being more user-friendly and equipment is now made to be lighter and more moveable, making cleaning easier,” Krause adds.

Food preparation equipment tends to evolve to take account of new trends, says Robin Candy, Buffalo and Waring brand director at RBD-Uropa Distribution.

“For example, the need for juicers today is significantly greater than it was 10 years ago when the demand for fresh juice just wasn’t there,” he says. “Likewise, our Buffalo ice cream machine is now one of our top selling products as chefs discover how easy it is to make their own ice cream and how it can give a point of difference to a dessert menu.

“Because of these trends, the equipment has evolved. Juicers used to be built for one or two juices at a time, now they are designed for volume processing with centrifugal models growing in popularity. Ice cream machines, too, are now quicker and have greater capacity.”

It is fair to say that brand recognition still counts for an awful lot in the food preparation market. Suppliers say that if a chef is happy with the model they use, they’re more likely to stick with the same brand when they buy again, but may move one or two models up to obtain greater power or speed.

So what should dealers regard as good quality food preparation equipment in today’s market?

Neil Richards, managing director of Metcalfe, says strong components are usually reliable indicators of how the kit will measure up. Heat treated gears, powerful motors, high quality stainless steel blades and built-in safety features are all things to consider.

“If an operator is prepared to invest money in higher quality, strong prep equipment then the whole life cost of the equipment is going to be much less than buying cheap inferior equipment because the latter will not last very long in a demanding kitchen,” he says.

Electrolux’s Flint is in agreement that catering equipment distributors need to be doing everything they can to stress the importance of assessing the build quality of the machinery before making a purchase.

“When the build quality is high, the machinery can be relied upon for years to come and will be able to handle tough produce,” he says. “For example, pasta dough can be dry and dense and only the highest quality equipment will be able to continually be relied upon to deliver on this, when substandard equipment will burn out quickly.”

Michael Eyre, product director at foodservice importer Jestic, says the food prep equipment market has been a “hive of innovation and development” in recent years. “Advances in manufacturing techniques and developments in technology have led to a host of user-friendly features designed to reduce time, improve consistency and enhance versatility of commercial blenders,” he points out.

One of the most recent developments where Jestic is concerned has been the development of ‘The Quiet One’ commercial blender from Vitamix, a brand that it exclusively distributes in the UK.

“A magnetically-secured sound cover makes the appliance up to four times quieter than other leading appliances on the market, something which has become essential for operators looking to use the appliance in a front-of-house environment while also keen to maintain the surrounding environment for those guests within the establishment,” he explains.

“In addition to the sound cover, The Quiet One features an impressive 34 fully customisable programmes, allowing the operator to consistently prepare countless blends with outstanding precision.”

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Elsewhere on the product front, Robot Coupe’s R&D efforts have centred on improving the ergonomics and functionality of its machines, with the Blixer range of products developed for the healthcare market one example of the fruits of its labour.

“Robot Coupe has also developed the widest range of cutting blades [53 in all] for vegetable preparation machines available on the market, including discs for a perfect 2x2x2mm brunoise right through to a specialist horseradish grater,” says the company’s UK managing director, Ed Cotterell.

Robot Coupe is currently launching the Robot Cook — the first commercial heavy duty cutter mixer with a heating and cooking function — in response to demands from its customer base.

“There are products on the market from domestic appliance manufacturers that are used in the hospitality industry, but they are not conceived or built for the rigours of a commercial kitchen and therefore constantly fail,” says Cotterell. “The Robot Cook is conceived and engineered specifically for the commercial environment.”

Metcalfe provides a wide range of foodservice equipment so can say with some authority that manufacturers are vying to stay ahead of the game by producing appliances that are more efficient, more reliable and offer higher output and yield.

Managing director, Neil Richards, points to the Ceado ES700 centrifugal juice extractor as a classic example of this. “It produces a 16% higher juice yield from fruits and vegetables compared to other juicers on the market by using a combination of new efficient motors, high specification blades and a double feed hopper which allows fruit and vegetables to hit the blades at the optimum angle to give a high juice yield,” he says.

Richards pinpoints the Edlund ARC XL manual produce slicer as another product that has shaken up the category it is in by delivering a superior performance and being simple to clean.

Krause at Sammic believes the role of food preparation manufacturers — and indeed the distributors that specify and supply the equipment — is only going to increase moving forward due to operators paying closer intention to sourcing fresh food and tightening up on wastage.

He remarks: “As food becomes more expensive, food operators will want to be able to prepare more themselves to save money. If a caterer can buy fresh, unprepared vegetables, they can not only buy products in season, taking advantage of price and availability, they can also buy when food is ‘on offer’.

“The challenge for the equipment manufacturer is to promote ‘best value for money’ and ensure that caterers understand what they are getting for their money as more products enter the market from the Far East. By the nature of this type of equipment, build quality cannot be compromised as safety is of paramount importance.”

Eyre at Jestic expresses similar sentiments. He suggests the biggest obstacle facing suppliers is the saturation from imported equipment that potentially doesn’t have a distribution or service network.

“It is imperative to ensure the continued upkeep and maintenance of a commercial blender, while also providing potential operators with a clear communication and sales channel. Having a comprehensive network of dealers and distributors behind a brand is essential in today’s market,” he argues.

FEM’s Mark Hogan also feels strongly about the issue, calling the proliferation of lower cost copycat brands the number one challenge for existing brands. “However, some of these cheaper models do not carry the relevant kite marks and getting spare parts and repairs may be difficult,” he says. “In a commercial environment buyers need to balance long-term reliability against initial capital cost.”

When all said and done, dealers can at least be assured that reputable brands are doing everything in their power to produce food prep kit that is as user-friendly and fast as possible. And in doing so, it should give chefs the freedom to deliver an ambitious and diverse menu with ease.

Food for thought

Food preparation equipment has traditionally been seen as more relevant to some sectors than others, with the education market in particular driving plenty of demand for appliances such as vegetable slicers right now.

“In the school kitchen, swift preparation of food is hugely important and with the upcoming introduction of UIFSM there will be a need to cater for more children in what is likely to be the same sized kitchen as before the law was introduced,” says Stuart Flint, business and training development manager at Electrolux Professional.

“For me, the key to a good vegetable slicer is versatility and it could aid chefs in the education sector massively in meeting the challenges ahead. If one piece of equipment can slice, grate, shred and dice different foods backed by safe handling operations, it will be a great benefit.”

Neil Richards, managing director at Metcalfe, agrees that food preparation market is seeing a resurgence in the more traditional machines, such as slicers, peelers and mixers thanks to the investment by the government in school meals.

“School kitchens are returning to the basics of preparing fresh food on site and therefore need to invest in traditional food prep equipment to meet the needs of free school meals,” he says.

Michael Eyre, product director at Jestic, says the evolution of food preparation equipment has been somewhat diverse in recent years, with manufacturers developing and expanding their range to include a full series of appliances that suit individual needs as well as operator expectations.

“The introduction of pre-set programmes, specialised blend techniques, powerful motors for enhanced blend speed and eye-catching designs that enable operators to use products in a front-of-house or open plan kitchen environment have all quickly become common place.”

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