The middle part of the year is shaping up to be make or break for commercial ice machine suppliers, such is the cyclical nature of this specialist product market.
Manufacturers can normally bank on the summer period to deliver an annual peak in sales, but this year they’re heading towards that phase feeling a little more apprehensive than usual due to the extended cold snap that the UK has shivered its way through this year.
“Unfortunately, the current bad weather that we all seem to be suffering from is also negatively effecting the ice machine market,” laments Julian Lambert, sales director at Maidaid-Halcyon. “The weather is always a huge factor in ice machine sales.”
Chris Davis, commercial director at Hubbard Ice Systems, which has been distributing Scotsman products in the UK for more than 46 years, agrees that the prolonged cold spell has taken its toll. “Organisations that had been looking for a kick-start to the season have not been persuaded to undertake capital planning for spring and summer events,” he says.
Ice machine suppliers may not like it when the temperature dips, but fortunately there is still plenty to be optimistic about thanks to the importance of ice to the modern catering establishment and the fact that it has grown from an exclusively front-of-house item to become a significant component in the kitchen as well.
“Ice is being used more than ever before as outlets realise the potential that it delivers in terms of product presentation and profit margins,” notes Bob Wood, sales director at Somerset-based DC Products. “We’ve seen particular growth in the cafe and coffee shop market, where smoothies and iced teas and coffees are becoming the norm on menus,” he adds.
Ice plays an integral role in mixology, too, and as a result operators are more closely considering the quality of ice they use in their beverages than ever before. Naturally it’s music to the ears of those supplying equipment. “The increase in consumption of cocktails — particularly at bars, pubs and other licensed outlets — in addition to the growing number of bar group sites has led to a steady increase in the demand for ice machines during the past year,” says Glenn Roberts, MD of Gram UK.
Indeed, such is the potential for growth in the ice machine market that Italian catering equipment behemoth Ali Group felt it necessary to shell out a reported £360m to acquire Scotsman at the end of last year.
Mike Simmons, national sales manager at Hoshizaki, points out that ice isn’t only used in beverages, but in food display, food processing and for medical purposes, both in a research and physiotherapy capacity.
“We manufacture a range of ice makers to supply ice for the leisure, hospitality, food processing and medical markets, however our core business is the leisure and hospitality market,” he explains. “There is an increasing demand for ice and Hoshizaki will continue to come up with innovative products that produce the right ice. A recent addition to the range is an IM-65Q that produces ‘ball’ ice.”
Indeed, to those that live and breathe this market, ice is something of an art form. Whether it’s granular, flaked, crushed, pebble or ball-shaped, each type does a specific job and can greatly enhance the final result.
“More frequently, users are seeing the benefits of tailoring the type of ice maker they buy to the job they need the ice to do,” says Maidaid’s Lambert. “For example, cocktails are often made with crushed ice — however, increasingly the specialised bars understand that a pebble machine gives a far greater result and can actually improve the drink.”
He says that cube makers are the most popular type of machine for general use, but insists the amount of ice needed on site and its actual eventual function will ultimately determine what sort of machine should be specified for the job.
Scotsman claims to have more than 400 models within its armoury, giving it one of the most comprehensive portfolios in the market. UK partner Hubbard believes that one of the biggest — and “most dangerous” — misconceptions is that ice machines don’t need servicing.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, says newly-appointed commercial director designate, Simon Aspin. “For hygiene certainty, for maximum reliability and for long-term lower running costs, all ice machines, not just Scotsman, should be serviced according to the manufacturer’s instructions at all times,” he says. “A conscientious and well-trained beverages or food manager will understand the benefits of and invest in a good maintenance package, thus ensuring maximum efficiency and longevity of the machine, which in turn ensures optimum hygiene best practice.”
That warning is not without good reason. The foodservice industry was forced to take a good, hard look at itself two years ago after the Health Protection Agency published a damning report on the hygiene standards of ice, ice machines and utensils in almost 90 food premises that it tested.
It found that 30% of ice samples showed evidence of poor hygienic practice during the production, storage or use of ice, with 50% of swabs taken from inside equipment revealing an “unsatisfactory” result.
Dr John Piggott, manager of the HPA’s food, water and environmental laboratory in Leeds, and one of the authors of the report, said at the time: “The results of the study varied greatly between the premises surveyed, with most of the unsatisfactory samples taken from ice machines and the utensils used to serve ice.
“The results could be an indication that businesses aren’t using the same good practices when preparing ice that they are using when preparing other food and drink. As ice is essentially water, some may have the misconception that strict cleaning procedures do not need to be applied to ice-making equipment, but our study shows that this is not the case.”
On the surface of it, ice machines might not appear to be the most technical item to operate, but like any other commercial product category there is a degree of ongoing end-user education that needs to be carried out.
Wood at DC Products says it is often assumed that ice makers need to be sited in cold environments to produce ice when that isn’t the case at all.
“In fact, too cold environments — below 10°C — can prevent the machines from producing ice or cause bin thermostats to be fooled into thinking the bin is full of ice and stop producing. Another misconception is that they don’t require water filters. Water filters remove minerals and scale to help deliver pure, crystalline ice while removing unwanted odours and taste left behind through the water treatment process,” he explains.
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With hygiene factors, volume requirements and quality issues to consider, it’s perhaps no surprise that manufacturers are doing everything in their power to try and out-innovate one another while endeavouring to be as competitive as possible on price.
Scotsman believes its combination of aesthetic, ergonomic designs and unique features, such as a patented anti-scale system and in-built ‘Agion’ antimicrobial protection, have helped cement its position as a market leader.
It has also moved to address demand for energy efficient equipment, most notably with the launch of its 6 Series Supercuber line. The range produces more ice from less energy than any previous Scotsman machine, making it among the most eco-friendly option available to caterers.
“This versatile range has options for producing different sizes of ice cubes and comes in a variety of sizes and weights, suitable for all kinds of establishments, whether it be on the floor, a counter or underneath and out of sight,” says Hubbard’s Aspin. “The TC180 is the best hands-free self-dispense ice machine on the market — efficient and aesthetically-pleasing while also being totally hygienic.”
Reducing energy costs has been a motivating factor for Hoshizaki’s product development activities, too. It has brought a a series of models to market that retain all the hallmarks of its brand, but with greater savings in terms of power and water.
“In recent years, Hoshizaki has responded to the supermarket specification for hydrocarbon refrigeration for ice machines,” says national sales manager Simmons. “It now has a range of HC models that comply with all the necessary regulations that are in place.”
Gram is best-known for its refrigeration expertise but expanded its portfolio last year to include ice makers and ice dispensers. There are three models in the range — IM, KM and FM — each targeted at a specific area of the end-user market.
The FM machines produce ice that is suitable for food storage such as fish and can be converted to produce either cube, flake or nugget ice, making them ideal for the restaurant market, while the IM line is predominately geared towards bar and cocktail operators. The KM range, meanwhile, is levelled at pubs and cafes that require a high throughput of ice in a busy service environment, as it produces a full bin of ice on fewer cycles than the average machine.
“As standard, the IM and KM machines are micro-computer controlled, which enables the ice making process to perform at its optimum level without having to make any manual adjustments,” says Roberts.
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Distributors certainly aren’t short of choice when it comes to sourcing ice machines, although one threat that all premium brands face is increasing competition from Asia. Davis at Hubbard Ice Systems believes there is a growing realisation among distributors that attractively-priced ice machines from the Far East are not necessarily cheaper in the long run.
He says: “As bargain-basement manufacturers are put under increasing production cost pressure, they are actively seeking new sources of cheap labour from areas such as Vietnam and Korea. However, as labour prices inevitably rise, even in these low-cost production zones, quality immediately suffers. European-designed and manufactured products continue to outshine their cheaper counterparts, giving long and reliable service rather than encouraging a ‘throw-away’ approach to capital equipment.”
Established ice machine suppliers are having to work hard to position and promote their brands in the market place, but the rich diversity of customers that need their products means there should be more than enough business opportunities to go around. Whether it is enough to keep them happy probably depends on the weather.
Ice, ice baby…
Cynics of the catering world might look upon ice machines as the archetypal stainless steel box, but it’s what they can do and how they are used that counts.
When specifying an ice machine, two key questions need to be asked: what type of business does the client have and what is the ice being used for? When assessing the answers, the throughput of ice that they’ll need in their busiest service periods will also need to be considered. “They may be a fast food operator and prefer high production ice that cools and melts quickly or a restaurant that requires a denser ice that cools quickly but melts slowly, or they may be a hotel that requires granular ice for buffet presentation and cocktails,” says Bob Wood of DC Products.
It’s all about getting the calculations right, says Mike Simmons of Hoshizaki. “For display ice, one needs to establish the cubic capacity of the counter as this will determine the volume of ice required for set-up in the morning. Additional ice will be added during the day. The combination of the above will determine the specification of the ice machine and size of ice storage bin.” Ice for drinks, however, requires a different calculation, depending on when the ice is required and bearing in mind that many outlets are busiest at the weekend.
Putting an ice machine in the wrong place can lead to all sorts of operational and technical headaches for an operator, so it’s advisable to identify the best location long before installation takes place and aim to make it easily accessible for staff. Julian Lambert of Maidaid-Halcyon says it is vital to ensure the unit isn’t stored in an area below 10°C. “Often people do not understand that if they store the machine in their cellar, for example, adjustments need to be made on the machine itself for it to function properly. In addition, the machine should not be installed in small rooms as this may cause a malfunction.”
As well as accessibility and temperature there are also other factors to bear in mind when contemplating location. “If it’s a new build or you have the opportunity to change the work flow of the bar or kitchen consider carefully the best position for the ice machine, making sure there is adequate ventilation and the necessary power, water and waste supplies in place,” says DC Products’ Wood. “Don’t forget to specify a water filter, it will greatly improve the quality of the ice and help protect the machine against scale damage.”
It is important to establish whether energy efficiency is important to the operator from the outset. “End-users are well versed on the energy efficient options available for standard back-of-house equipment such as refrigeration and ovens — make sure they’re aware they can also source energy efficient machines for front-of-house too,” says Gram’s Glenn Roberts.