Seeing the light

The average professional kitchen might be dominated by heavy duty equipment, but more often than not it’s the less conspicuous chef tools that play the starring role in getting the dish from the prep counter to the plate.

Utensils for commercial kitchens form part of a multi-million pound industry and with chefs usually quite particular about the instruments they use, a good piece of kit will invariably be replaced with the same brand once it has reached the end of its life.

Suppliers are constantly looking to come up with new versions of their products, as well as items that lend themselves to modern ways of cooking. Sometimes this means the introduction of new materials or aesthetics, other times it is more practical changes to satisfy a specific need that has emerged. Either way, the wheels of the market place are very much in motion.

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“Manufacturers are responding to demand for innovations which make life in the modern kitchen simpler,” observes Guy Cooper, managing director of Mitchell & Cooper. “In turn, this is having an effect on even the most basic of utensils, which appear to be getting a revamp. Manufacturers are refining classic items by making them easier to use and more robust.”

Mark Hogan, marketing manager of Foodservice Equipment Marketing, says the effect that compliance is having on the type of equipment supplied to the market should not be underestimated. “New products and utensils are continually being developed and launched to respond to changes in trends and the introduction of new legislation,” he explains, citing the new EU allergens regulation introduced last December as a prime example of that.

Hogan says FEM has reacted to that legislation. “We have expanded our range of allergen safe products, from just supplying the San Jamar Allergen chopping board to now supplying a complete kit — the Allergen Saf-T-Zone system — as well as supplying the components separately. The range is designed to ensure that there is always dedicated allergen-free equipment and utensils ready to use.”

The allergens legislation is certainly forcing caterers to make sure they have the right equipment and practices in place to comply with rules which require that 14 specific allergens are clearly signposted on food packaging.
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Even when they are serving up food they have cooked themselves, as well as food that has been removed from its packaging, serving staff should be ready to answer questions on ingredients and about which allergens may be present.

John Mitchell, a partner in the regulatory, risk and compliance team at Blake Morgan, says the new rules carry huge implications for any business that serves food to the public. Therefore the kitchens of every establishment must be prepared.

“Business owners and their staff need to be ready to quickly and accurately answer questions on which allergens, such as gluten, eggs, fish and nuts, are present in the dishes on offer,” he says. “It may be helpful to have a list of ingredients for each menu item at hand to ensure that the information is readily available.

“Businesses could at any time be inspected by environmental health officers and failure to comply with food regulations can carry a fine of up to £5,000 per offence,” he comments. “Companies also leave themselves open to legal action if they serve up food containing allergens to an allergy sufferer who has asked for information about ingredients and has ordered on the basis of incorrect information.”

Aside from food allergens, another hot topic in the utensils market is food portioning. Operators are beginning to wise up to the fact that not setting correct portion sizes either leads to consumers leaving food on their plate or ingredients having to be thrown out because they exceed their date. Either way, it creates cost for the business.

FEM’s Hogan says Vollrath is one of the brands that has moved to tackle this head-on. “Vollrath’s new colour-coded portion-control serving utensils eliminate mistakes in portion sizing, which can create staggering extra costs to businesses,” he comments.

Portioners are a critical part of Mitchell & Cooper’s offering and the company has worked hard to provide the market with a range that delivers genuine value. Cooper says that while a standard variant aims to ensure no profit loss, as well as increased value in the eyes of the customer, it has taken the concept one step further in a bid to increase efficiency.

“With a food grade stainless steel bowl, Bonzer portioners allow for smooth, controlled portioning, while a one-piece sprung handle mechanism gives the benefit of quick and easy food release,” he explains.

“A lack of springs and food traps means they’re extremely easy to clean, while colour-coded, ergonomic handles improve ease of use, ultimately assisting operators in adhering to food hygiene and safety laws through easy identification. It is this type of development which allows the chef to choose tried and trusted concepts yet enjoy the advantages of newer ideas for an improved catering operation.”
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There is a feeling in the industry that some of the newer trends to have emerged in recent years are now really making their mark on the sector.

One of these is food smoking, which has become hugely popular in recent years as more chefs seek to add new twists to old menu favourites.

“As such, items such as the smoking gun are fast becoming a kitchen must-have, offering a quick and simple alternative to the often time-consuming and messy nature of traditional smoking methods,” says Heather Beattie, Vogue brand manager for RBD-Uropa Distribution. “The smoking gun can be used with everything from meat, fish, vegetables and cheese right through to desserts and even cocktails, and is battery operated so ideal for both front- and back-of-house use.”

Operators’ expectations of utensils have certainly grown over time. There is an appreciation that you pay for what you get in this market place, and most chefs accept that if they really want a piece of kit to do a job properly then it may come at a premium.

‘’While there is of course an expectation that all utensils meet a certain level of quality, there are arguably some that chefs place greater value on than others,” says Beattie at RBD-Uropa Distribution, who notes that an item like a peeler can be replaced at a small cost if it is misplaced in a busy kitchen whereas knives are far more integral to a chef’s working life and therefore tend to represent an investment purchase.

“This means that quality often drives the purchase decision, with cost a secondary, but still important consideration,” adds Beattie.

CESA’s annual Light Equipment Forum always provides a barometer of the trends driving behaviour in the small equipment space. Visiting distributors to the event last year commented that the market is showing a strong appetite for new utensils on a yearly basis although it’s not a case of ‘innovation for innovation’s sake’.

Simon Frost, CESA’s chair, thinks the category is in good shape right now. He says: “The market will continue to grow. This is not only because of the growth in the industry as a whole, but also because of the increasingly diverse menu developments, with new styles of cuisine coming to the high street. Light equipment plays a key role in delivering these new tastes.”

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The shopping lists of operators are certainly governed by more than just the price of the item, which is probably one of the reasons why commentators highlight the fact that a significant level of R&D is taking place among the top players.

FEM’s Hogan comments: “Operators are looking for durable utensils made of hardwearing materials, designed to withstand continual high temperature commercial washing without warping. Other criteria includes antimicrobial impregnated handles to protect against harmful microbes and bacteria.

“It is worth purchasing good quality utensils backed by a decent warranty. Although they will cost more than cheaper alternatives they will last longer, be more reliable and ensure that HACCP requirements are met.”

Cooper at Mitchell & Cooper agrees. He points out that operators need to remember just how frequently the average utensil is used: “It can be said that the smaller pieces of kit are the ones that bear the brunt of the hard work, and therefore operators need to be considerate of how durable their utensils are. In busy catering environments, high quality items will be a worthwhile investment by way of increasing efficiency.”

Utensils suppliers remain buoyant about their prospects for 2015. The number of new restaurant openings in the UK is set to increase in 2015 and many top operators are looking to extend their footprint, all of which has a knock-on effect for the sale of utensils.

RBD-Uropa’s Beattie says that its aim is to ensure it offers a “comprehensive” portfolio of utensils suitable for any catering professional, from chef tongs and potato mashers to peelers and spatulas. “The beauty of the Vogue range is not only the choice and variety available, but the level of quality achieved at such an attractive price point. Larger utensils, such as pasta makers and sausage stuffers, are also available from Vogue, and are expected to grow in popularity and the trend for authentic homemade food continues to gain momentum.’’

As customers look to broaden their menus, the demand for utensils for specific and specialist purposes looks well-placed to expand. As every supplier is keen to stress, the right utensils and light equipment can make all the difference in food preparation.

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