The second a potato is peeled, or a beef joint is carved, the flavour of the food starts to deteriorate. Flavour enhancers and preservatives can arrest the process to an extent, but operators increasingly favour on-site food preparation for its superiority to centralised mass-prepared food and wholesale distribution.
The high street is alive with quick service restaurants (QSRs) that have mastered the art of providing freshly produced food at mass production prices, and it is advances in catering equipment that have made this possible.
Subway and Pret-a-Manger are celebrated examples, but other chains and thousands of independent cafes, bars, pubs and restaurants are thriving because they are serving fresh food quickly and cost-effectively.
“There is a huge move towards fresh,” says Neil Richards, managing director of Metcalfe Catering Equipment, which distributes its own range of equipment alongside global brands. “Menus are featuring a lot of dishes that involve freshly prepared ingredients such as freshly cut chips, freshly sliced meats, fresh bread and homemade burgers.”
Richards believes that the UK foodservice scene is now behaving more in step with what he sees across the better restaurant markets in Europe.
“Metcalfe has seen a big increase in sales of items such as hand-operated chipping machines, meat slicers, burger presses and planetary mixers as a result of this demand for freshly prepared food. You will see items such as slicers, blenders, juicers and mixers in every bar, restaurant, hotel, deli, sandwich bar or cafe everywhere you go in Europe. It is something that has always happened in Europe and is now more prevalent in the UK,” he says.
Fresh means fast, as the UK’s largest food prep equipment wholesaler Nisbets, recognises. But with food prep, an operator also needs quality and reliability. “Everybody needs equipment that can save time, yet give exceptional results while maintaining outstanding quality,” says Heather Beattie, product and brand manager at Nisbets.
Mark Hogan, marketing manager of Foodservice Equipment Marketing (FEM,) agrees. “Keeping costs down and the trend towards fresh and seasonal produce place pressure on restaurants to prepare their own meat and vegetables. Quick and accurate prep of raw ingredients is essential to the efficient operation of a commercial kitchen,” he states.
Food prep equipment is not only a rapidly growing market, it is also more profitable for dealers than the bread and butter prime cooking kit because there is more choice, greater innovation and less competition.
Metcalfe’s Richards says: “Prime cooking equipment, warewashing and refrigeration are the highest volume of sales for any dealer because that is what every catering outlet needs, regardless of what they prep. However, despite the high list prices, margins are tight on these items and the market is very competitive. Food prep equipment probably has better margins as a percentage for the dealer, but is not as high volume or as high ticket price as the cooking equipment. Therefore, the dealer will make more margin specifying and selling good preparation equipment,” he adds.
The heavier equipment in any kitchen is also easier to take for granted, particularly as it beds in over a decade of continuous use. Food prep kit, while built to last, moves along more quickly from a technological standpoint, meaning dealers always have something new to say to their customers.
And from the kitchen side, chefs cannot get enough of a new gadget, particularly when it taps into an emerging gastronomic trend.
Ian Houldsworth, managing director of equipment manufacturer Sammic, sees what the company describes as “dynamic preparation” equipment as vital to staying in touch with customers. He gives the example of sous vide equipment as an area of technological, gastronomic and commercial innovation that has helped dealers strike up fresh conversations with operators .
“The sous vide revolution continues to gather pace. It is not just a fashion fad, it is a major trend that allows rational work planning and execution; reducing shrinkage and keeping in nutrients, Houldsworth explains.
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Constant innovation also keeps top-end food prep brands and distributors one step ahead of margin-squeezing Chinese equipment importers. Metcalfe promotes its products as premium in price, quality and functionality compared to the Far Eastern alternatives that are entering the channel.
“There have been a lot of cheaper, inferior products flooding the market from China over the past five or six years and we simply can’t compete on price,” Richards admits. “However, what customers are realising is that British and European designed and manufactured machines like the Metcalfe range of products are made to very high standards, and to last in tough foodservice environments.”
Manufacturers and distributors agree on key drivers of the food prep market: freshness, speed, return on investment, ease of service and operation, and compactness, but they deviate on what they believe the very hottest products will be this year. Naturally, they begin to extol the virtues of their strongest products and sectors.
Food Equipment Marketing, for instance, is focusing on its Vollrath heavy duty planetary mixers, Hamilton Beach blenders and the Allergen food preparation safety system.
Metcalfe will promote its core products: mixers, slicers, peelers, food processors and vegetable prep systems this year, but has also ramped up activity for the multi-function Hot Mix Pro and Roband Grill Stations.
Nisbets wants to highlight the Dito Sama portfolio of food prep equipment, which includes slicers with a capacity of 500kg per hour that can achieve 70 different cuts — ideal for larger restaurants handling up to as many as 800 covers per service.
Sammic says its Combi Veg Preparation machines and processors will be its biggest sellers this year. “The CA-301 and CK-301 units have been three years in the making,” reveals Houldsworth. “The aim was to create machines that are quiet and compact but have a large output. We have achieved this. The machines are easy to use but are highly durable, heavy duty machines.”
Food preparation may not have the big ticket prices of a major prime cooking equipment installation, but it provides a constant flow of business between a dealer and its customers, and the opportunity to promote innovative, high margin product lines that deliver tangible benefits to a kitchen over quite a short timeframe.
With the British public increasingly demanding fresher meals from even the simplest of high street outlets, the importance of high quality and high speed food prep equipment will only increase for busy operators.