Do customers really care about ‘green’?

Manufacturers continue to emphasise the energy efficiency credentials of their products, with many now putting it firmly at the top of their marketing agenda. But just how much does this resonate with end-users under pressure to get their new kitchens completed as quickly and inexpensively as possible? Catering Insight asked a selection of UK distributors to reveal what they are seeing on the ground.

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Catering Insight spoke to executives from the following distributors:

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– Philip Howard, Managing Director, CDG
– Chris Miles, National Accounts Manager, Sprint Group
– Steve Holley, Sales Director, HCE Foodservice Equipment
– Jim Stevens, Managing Director, Tailormade
– Kevin Geehan, Director, Red Squared

What level of understanding is their among your customer base about the availability and significance of energy efficient catering equipment?

Philip Howard: This varies — larger operators tend to be aware of the availability but perhaps not the full specification of the equipment, while smaller operators are less so. As a business, we work with our clients, large or small, to consider all options depending on their requirements. This is not exclusively limited to the equipment, but also from a building systems viewpoint. For example, consideration could be given to the recovery of heat from the ventilation and refrigeration plant to heat hot water. This is similar to built-in systems incorporated into some dishwashing equipment to heat the incoming cold water, using the waste water to reduce the energy required.

Jim Stevens: There are still some myths out there. People think that to make induction work you’ve got to have really expensive pan, for example. There is also a lack of understanding around the impact of saving money across multiple sites. Certainly with the national groups they need to be doing the big sums.

Steve Holley: Most manufacturers do now heavily feature energy efficiency in the majority of their corporate advertising, so availability and knowledge of such information is, for the most part, widely understood, as is the significance by the majority of our customer base. In our experience, however, the degree of relevance and ‘payback’ is not always understood and when discussed in detail can lead to mixed opinion.

Chris Miles: There are a lot of misconceptions out there. The chain operators are more switched on and they’ll have a dedicated buyer. Some even have a dedicated energy buyer, so they’ll be looking into everything from lower wattage light bulbs down to lower energy functioning catering equipment.

At the other end of the scale, I was in a hotel yesterday and the initial brief was all about having an energy efficient kitchen. The owner has never run a kitchen before and said he didn’t realise induction was electric. I don’t know how he thought it would operate itself, but it shows that you can go from one extreme to the other in terms of understanding. A lot of the councils these days say they are looking into energy consumption and ways to reduce it. They may have bought green equipment just to tick boxes without really understanding what it means.

The majority of manufacturers now promote their products on the basis of their energy efficient credentials. What sort of impact is this having on your customers’ attitudes and expectations?

Kevin Geehan: Customers’ attitudes and expectations are really only born out of what you tell them, so I think the real issue here is how does the customer police what the manufacturers have told them? If you look at how manufacturers are promoting their energy efficient products, what are they basing it against? Sometimes it is the market or their competition, in other cases it’s their old products, so if you were to put three or four manufacturers in a certain product category against each other they would all come up with something different.

Philip Howard: Through advertising and the trade press, manufacturers are definitely increasing awareness of energy efficient products to our clients. This has impacted on their attitudes and the questions we get asked when starting the design process. However, we do encounter a degree of scepticism as to whether one manufacturer is better than another, as all seem to claim the same mantle. Many clients ask if there is an ‘independent industry standard’ which sets out the best, average and worst!

Chris Miles: It is definitely giving the end-user more understanding, but what the customer at the sharp end wants to know is if they are claiming a 30% energy saving, what does it actually mean in monetary value? At the end of the day, that is the driver which justifies whether the investment is worth it or not. A lot of manufacturers will just give percentages and that can be a little bit ambiguous because you can play with figures. Providing harder facts and figures is an area that manufacturers need to do more work on. End-users tend to automatically relate to those that are more specific, but there are manufacturers out there which just use percentages all the time and that’s to the detriment of the equipment. The more information that is out there the better, but it needs to be the right information.

Steve Holley: The attitude and expectation of our customers is generally consistent throughout and varies slightly according to sector. In all honesty, it’s a catch-22 situation. Obviously all would sensibly take advantage of equipment that boasts energy saving features, but this has to be offset against budget expenditure. Many business strategies, for example, have a focused approach to energy efficiency but persons who are responsible for this particular element are not necessarily those who hold the purse strings, and financial budgets as we know are constantly being challenged.

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Price vs. energy efficiency. Does one always come at the expense of the other when it comes to catering equipment?

Jim Stevens: I would say that out of 10 products, nine probably come at a premium. They are probably priced high, but that’s because the energy savings will be paid back in X amount of time. As a distributor we should be telling them more about that, so they know that if they use that item 10 hours a day then at the end of three months they are going to get their money back. The focus is still on the price, but I would say it is a better mixture these days. It used to always be price and a brand, but now it is more about the price and the running costs. It’s not just the running costs of electric and gas at the moment, it’s also the fact that when you have a gas kitchen, the gas regulations are quite strict in terms of extraction and things like that. All those costs get added to the bill.

Steve Holley: It depends on the operator. If it’s a relatively small or medium owner-operator business, price still plays a major part in decision making. While energy efficiency would be considered, it will often be ‘the decider’ if prices for alternative equipment received were similar and one particular appliance had ‘greener credentials’ over the others. In the main, larger businesses have taken energy efficiency on board and can see long-term advantages such as the fuel savings — and paybacks — that can be made along with the added benefits to the environment.

Kevin Geehan: I think it does, but I think people need to be evaluating the return on investment achieved by using that piece of equipment. It is certainly an issue if you are to look at induction versus gas, without a doubt. There is a vast difference with induction and, in most cases, there is also an increase for services because of the electricity requirement for induction, especially if you are taking gas out.

Philip Howard: Not always, but as a general rule I would say that energy efficiency does come at an increased premium, although this may be tied in with another client goal, such as using an induction hob on the front counter for theatre-style cooking due to a lack of ventilation.

Have you completed any projects recently where energy efficiency stands out as being a major component of the design?

Chris Miles: In terms of the projects I have been working on recently it has generally been a topic of discussion, but not the driving force. A client will say, “I have got £30,000 for the kitchen and I want the best that I can for that budget, but I need everything across the board rather than just one piece of equipment.” It is a hot topic and it will become more of a hot topic because energy prices are rising. There will be a tipping point when more people think about energy efficiency.

Kevin Geehan: We are working on a dishwashing project at the moment which is all about the green efficiency. To be fair, the price isn’t a question at the moment, it is about what the customer can actually do, how it can do it and what it needs to do it. The customer is a hotel group, which has a very green policy anyway. Their engineering department is targeted to reduce their energy costs.

Philip Howard: Several of our larger projects, such as the design and specification for Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, Brighton College and Silverstone do include elements of energy efficiency, and several recent projects have featured heat recovery on dishwashers — dishwashers with reduced water consumption and induction hobs either for small front-of-house operations as well as larger in-kitchen hobs. The new refrigeration cabinets available using hydrocarbons and energy efficient operating systems with improved insulation are used on 80% of our projects.

Jim Stevens: Our brief for the project we did at Cleveland Hall was clear: an eco-friendly but highly productive catering facility. In the kitchen we chose induction cooking units built into specially-manufactured stainless steel rounded profile tables. A Frima Vario Cooking Centre with dual high-performance bowls complements the two Rational 10-grid combis. There are no naked flames anywhere to be seen in this kitchen and no extra extraction required because it isn’t producing the fumes. All the refrigeration was Foster, which is super energy efficient, so the kitchen does what it says on the tin.

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