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Foodservice refrigeration isn’t just about modular stainless steel boxes buried away in the rear of catering kitchens.

There is also a prominent market for front-of-house equipment, where the issues and trends are completely different even though the end goal ultimately remains to store and preserve food items in the safest conditions.

With the ‘grab and go’ eating culture gathering momentum, and convenience food retailers becoming more localised, now is as good a time as any for catering equipment distributors to get to grips with what’s driving this innovative product category.

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Lewis Bourne, managing director of Bedfordshire-based Genfrost, a specialist supplier of refrigeration units and the exclusive agent for ES SYSTEM K and Lenari Products, sees growth coming from four key market sectors at the moment: farm shops; traditional butcheries; high-end delicatessens; and high-end confectionaries.

Bourne suggests each one has to be addressed on its own merits. “Distributors need to ensure the exact requirement when selling front of house merchandisers. This includes the operating temperature, the location within the store and even the colours.”

The rise of the ‘artisan’ retailer remains good for the equipment industry, but it does pose a new set of challenges compared with what distributors more accustomed to dealing with traditional supermarket customers are used to.
The problem that many independent food outlets have, according to Devish Patel, managing director of UK manufacturer TFSE, is that the range of foods they offer commands a mix of different refrigerated units.

He says that finding counters, fridges and ‘grab and go’ cabinets that match can be very difficult.

“Retail display equipment needs to be flexible enough to lend itself to the surrounding interior design, but also different refrigerated units need to have a common design so they look integrated,” he points out. “Retailers want to get that edge when they present themselves in today’s competitive market and they are asking us to help meet their needs.”

The majority of units that fall into the merchandising category are essentially refrigerators without a door, designed for climate class 3 operation. That in itself creates challenges versus back-of-house units, as doorless refrigeration has less control over ambient temperature and potentially faces more maintenance issues due to greater exposure to through-draughts and dust.

“An understanding by specifiers, installers and operators can help with the location of equipment to minimise the effect on equipment and provision of adequate maintenance regimes to keep equipment clean and in full working conditions,” suggests Nick Bamber, product manager at Foster. “[Multidecks] maintain temperature by creating a bubble of a controlled environment with a cascading air curtain. Break the air curtain with a breeze and the bubble is broken, so positioning a multideck near an open door or an air conditioning vent will prevent the unit from working. The use of glass doors helps overcome these issues and helps to reduce energy consumption,” he adds.

With front-of-house refrigeration, the customer also needs to think about what is going to be merchandised at present and in the future, and therefore the footprint and ‘facings’ are important.

John Lilly, marketing director of True, which manufactures more than 20 front-of-house glass door merchandisers, says that many people have a tendency to forget about temperature when it comes to front-of-house units.

“Temperature is critical, as front-of-house refrigeration is opened many times a day, so a fast recovery time is essential for effective operation,” he says. “True’s heavy duty refrigeration systems pull down temperature faster therefore recover temperature more quickly, preserving stored product integrity. In front-of-house operations it is paramount to rotate stock regularly. We manufacture several ‘convenience’ pass-through front-of-house merchandisers, like the GDM-10PT, which are perfect for this application.”

There are other smaller details to consider when specifying a refrigeration unit that will be located front of house, noise being one of them. Nobody likes sitting in a cafe listening to the sound of a rattling fridge or the whir of a fan motor, so ensuring that features like anti-vibration decor panels have been fitted can make all the difference.

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Technically speaking, cooling systems have not really advanced at the same pace as material design in the case of front-of-house merchandising refrigeration, so a balance has to be struck between looks and functionality. At the end of the day, though, the prevailing challenge is to display refrigerated produce at the ideal temperature despite the ambient store temperature fluctuations.

“It is very difficult to achieve a common temperature on every shelf tier of an open, self-service unit when the room temperature will be dependent on variables like the time of year, outdoor temperature, the number of customers in the shop and whether windows and doors are left open,” says TFSE’s Patel.

“There are also other considerations that will affect the quality of the food on display. A choice of ventilated or static refrigeration technologies can be used in multi-tier display counters. One blows cold air mechanically over the product, which tends to dry products out more rapidly, and result in a shorter shelf life for certain foods on display. The other allows cold air to fall naturally on to the products and while this will preserve food better and allow a longer shelf life, a constant refrigeration temperature cannot be guaranteed across all shelves.”

At Victor Manufacturing, sales of merchandisers remain a key part of the product portfolio and an area that receives substantial investment from the company in terms of R&D. This year has already seen the launch of the Optimax range, which includes display cabinets that are capable of keeping chilled air within the unit when the rear doors are opened.
Peter Brewin, marketing and communications manager at Victor, says such innovation provides a rich form of differentiation in the market.

“With the increased take up of front-of-house display units, manufacturers have to be able to offer added value incentives to distributors to set them apart from the competition,” he says. “Such enticements include genuine energy savings; product that can be ‘adapted’ to fit in with existing colours and branding; capacity to satisfy demand; and ease of access for restocking and cleaning. Plus, units must be robust and able to maintain constant core food temperatures.”

For Williams Refrigeration, sustainability continues to drive advances in product development, according to sales and marketing director, Malcolm Harling.

“We have developed a new air curtain technology for our Gem sandwich chiller that recycles the cold air conventional designs lose to the environment,” explains Harling. “We believe it to be the market’s most sustainable open chiller. We’ve also recently re-launched out multidecks with a huge range of optional colours so that customers can chose the finish that delivers the best ‘wow’ factor, whether it’s to fit in with their decor or stand out from the crowd.”

An analysis of front-of-house units cannot be complete without addressing the issue of design. After all, such products are on display to customers, making them as much a feature of the furniture as any traditional interior item.

“The trend is for customisation that allows customers to blend the refrigeration products in with their interior decor finish,” confirms Foster’s Nick Bamber. “Retailers are far more aware and concerned with the aesthetics of their premises than was typical a few years ago.”

The brightness and quality of LED lighting has become one of the most important factors in merchandiser choice, while more customers are spending time assessing the type of glass they want with their purchases.

In serverover counters, for example, flat glass is making a comeback as retailers seek to maximise their display areas, while ensuring that customers from outside the store can see the contents of the cabinet without being obscured by light reflections.

Glenn Roberts, managing director of Gram, says that presentation remains a key facet of the front-of-house refrigeration market, with factors such as curved glass doors, bespoke fittings and dimensional requirements in terms of footprint to flow of service all being taken into consideration.

“Certain projects are being draughted in such exquisite detail that image is everything,” he says. “In some cases, even the stainless steel casing is laminated in a different colour, which is a simple process. This creates a visual difference and differentiates the equipment from traditional back-of-house workhorses.”

When all said and done, front-of-house refrigeration units are rendered ineffectual unless they do their core job well, but from the point of view of the modern day customer, appearance counts for just as much.

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Display refrigeration: What to bear in mind

1. Don’t overlook accessories

Operators often overlook that the correct style of refrigerated merchandiser needs to be matched with the correct accessories. This could include peg hooks for multidecks or hanging rails for displaying premium meats, while tiered display decks within serveovers can help to improve a food item’s visibility.

“Often if the distributor helps his customer to think about the merchandising of their own store, it can help to win one-off sales and projects where the customer buys into professionally thinking about their store,” says Lewis Bourne, managing director of Genfrost. “Even just bespoke colour painting can be a real advantage.”

2. Match the product to the requirement

‘Grab and go’ units are growing in popularity among operators, but it’s important to remind them that they require proper management to work most effectively. “While they are ideal for products that have a high turnover it should be remembered that, in open refrigeration, fresh foods will deteriorate a lot faster,” says Devish Patel, managing director of TFSE. “Care should be taken in the selection of the foods that are displayed in open refrigeration of this type.”

3. Make the most of the footprint

Display space has long dominated the agenda as far as front-of-house refrigeration is concerned and there is nothing to suggest that this is going to change. “Everyone wants the maximum display space from the minimum footprint — it’s a difficult trick, but we are incorporating design features that enable that,” says Malcolm Harling, sales director at Williams. Its chillers now feature an air wall, which cold air passes through so that product can be loaded right up to the rear of the cabinet without any gap or risk of compromising food safety. “This feature also makes life easier for staff restocking the unit, and avoids the risk of customers inadvertently moving stock and blocking the airflow.”

4. Flexibility in design is key

Ensuring accurate temperature for food storage can be a challenge as the use of merchandising refrigeration varies from operator to operator. This can dictate how much the product needs to work in a hands-on environment, which is somewhat different from the main kitchen. “Bespoke design and functions from architects and designers are becoming increasingly normal, which helps them assist the operator in achieving individual design,” says Gram’s managing director Glenn Roberts. “It’s the flexibility of the manufacturer that is critical, which is something we are continuing to accommodate in our plans this year.”

Tags : catering equipmentdealersdisplaysFront-of-houseManufacturersrefrigerantsRefrigeration
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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