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The ‘tree of apathy’ is a term that Justin Cadbury and Gary Evans have used a lot of late.

As far as the chairman and managing director of Active Food Systems are concerned, it aptly sums up the opportunities and obstacles that surround their company’s commercial grill technology in the UK market.

‘Revolutionary’ is a word that gets banded around far too easily in the foodservice equipment market, but Active believes its Synergy Grill really is a worthy recipient of that mantle.

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The product burns considerably less energy than conventional grills, features a unique atomising combustion system that retains flavour and harnesses technology that eliminates the need for a fat tray.

According to Active, the gas grill is rated at 15Kw/H compared to competitor grills, which it claims use anything from “22.2Kw/H at best to 35Kw/H at worst”, therefore consuming up to 40% less energy and delivering average gas bill savings of £30 per week.

But as the company has already learned, breaking old habits can be difficult and it has to find ways of getting caterers to think differently. “Resistance to change is quite a factor,” admits Cadbury. “There is a feeling of staying with the tried and trusted, which is fine, but with rising energy costs, rising labour costs for cleaning, and greater scrutiny on people who don’t treat the environment seriously, we feel those changing factors should push people into looking at the system.”

The Synergy Grill has certainly grabbed the attention of the trade since it first hit the market, even fending off strong competition from the likes of Adande, Hobart and Rational to land the equipment innovation award at Hotelympia last year.

That accolade was for the inaugural 450mm version of the product, but from this month onwards Active will also make a 900mm model available to the market. And the launch of Synergy Grill mark-two is particularly noteworthy for the fact that Active has chosen to overhaul its approach to manufacturing and distribution.

While the first Synergy Grill was built in Turkey, production of the 900 model — and indeed the 450 from here on in — will take place in the UK. The intention is that the product will also be sold through a network of carefully-vetted dealers rather than through a single master distributor, as the 450 has been.

The Synergy Grill’s success hinges as much on its availability and reliance as any other factor, which partly explains the company’s decision to shift production to UK shores. Cadbury remains a huge advocate of British innovation — as you would perhaps expect from a member of the family behind the country’s most famous confectionery brand — and he believes it is as important for ethical reasons as much as commercial ones.

“The ethical reason is really quite obvious,” insists Cadbury. “I think that for any country at the moment, the responsible purchasing companies should be looking to support their own country, but all too often this has come at compromising quality or value.

Now, with the awards that we have won, and with what the chefs have already said about Synergy, we’re right at the top of the tree and the quality of British manufacturers we have found is exceptional.

“The other thing the customer should know is that the source of supply is therefore more efficient for them. I would say they have far higher security buying a British product sourced, invented, designed and put together in the UK than importing products or components from outside.”

When the Synergy Grill was initially invented, Active made the decision to go down the single burner 450mm route in order to concentrate on developing the technology.

It was adamant that it had to get the burn right and properly examine the gas consumption and atomising of fats before it could expand the product, but having reached that point it believes a larger unit will appeal to a broader section of the commercial catering market.

“We’ve developed the 900mm to satisfy the modern chef who needs to be serving upwards of 50 heads in his restaurant,” explains Evans. “What this size allows us to do now is develop the fact that we can change the cooking grids into a solid top and start to develop the technology for use in other applications. I think we would be mad not to take it further because heat and speed are what the chef wants — and owner/operators want to give chefs that but at the best possible price. If we can address that then we have got something that we feel people won’t be able to say no to.”

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Active concedes that it probably hasn’t done as good a job as it should have of communicating the strengths of the product to the market — “we kept our lights slightly under the bushel,” admits Cadbury — but it is adamant that the new go-to-market strategy it has devised to drive sales of the 900 series will change that.

The company intends to build a network of knowledgeable, focused dealers that can give the product the attention they believe it deserves, representing a massive shift from its previous model, which saw the original 450 grill sold exclusively through Glen Dimplex company Burco. That partnership has now been brought to an end.

“The relationship with Burco is that we are good friends with them, but we realised that the Synergy needs a technical explanation and demonstration for the customer to really take on board its wide range of advantages,” says Cadbury of the situation. “It is not just the energy saving or just the better food taste or the cleanliness or speed, it is a mixture of all those as well as other things, and therefore the key is the person selling it has to really know his customer very well. And if his customer is not the end-user that makes it harder.

“To be fair to Burco they were selling straight into dealers, not really knowing what the end-user customer wanted. Equally, the dealers were not getting the training to really know the benefits, so they couldn’t explain it to their customers,” says Cadbury.

Evans also suggests that moving production from Turkey to the UK has reduced the need to employ a single distributor like Burco to take care of the brand.

“One of the benefits of bringing manufacturing to the UK has actually been that we don’t need a distributor — we are the manufacturer-distributor. We don’t need that super warehouse in the middle of the country or someone that we go to and say, ‘if you take volume then you can be our UK distributor’, which is the way we went with the 450 and with Glen Dimplex. We have decided that is not the path we wish to follow. It didn’t give us the control, it didn’t help us take it to the market.”

Active intends to appoint accredited dealers in the UK that it will supply and deal with directly. Dealers will fall into two camps — resellers and accredited dealers — with the latter typically working more closely with Active and marketing the 900 as the primary heavy duty grill in their portfolio.

The company expects accredited dealers to have their own sales force trained and actively selling the 900, employ their own installation and support engineer, and hold some stock. “We don’t think that is too much to ask for giving somebody a bigger discount, the ability to buy in bulk and rebates after certain targets have been hit,” says Evans. “We will also give them tremendously good training and support.”

Above all, though, Active is keen to appeal to dealers that want to make a new type of cooking technology available to their customers. “Grill technology is one of the very few areas in the catering equipment world where the technology hasn’t really changed, so this is a bit like going from a propeller into a jet,” insists Cadbury.

“We believe that it will become the standard grill because we don’t see the logic of cleaning fat trays and wasting gas,” he adds. “The second thing we bring the dealer is a very large opportunity for high repeat sales because we have also found that once people use the Synergy grill they never go back to the old chargrill. And the big advantage for the dealer is that there is nothing like it down the road. It is unique, so if they don’t buy the Synergy Grill they can’t go out and buy a ‘me-too’ product instead.”

Whether the UK catering equipment distribution market chooses to embrace the Synergy 900 with the same level of enthusiasm as its owners remains to be seen, but in the meantime nobody can accuse Cadbury and Evans of failing to give the tree of apathy a right good shake.

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Synergy Grill: How does it work?

Like its predecessor, the 450, the Synergy Grill 900 revolves around a patented gas burner system which burns at an incredibly hot temperature and therefore has the ability to ‘atomise’ any fats that fall below the cooking grids. This eliminates the need for a fat tray and the disposal of fatty waste, while preventing any cross-flavouring of meats or fish through smoke contamination.

As well as routing cool air around the grill to produce ‘cool touch’ surfaces, the unit incorporates heat capturing ceramic technology that focuses the heat directly towards the food, therefore requiring less energy and resulting in less CO2 residue than a conventional burner. The 900 features two independent burners with their own on/off switches to allow for modular cooking.

Talking business

Active Food Systems MD, Gary Evans, shares his views…

On the patents protecting the grill’s design
“We have a number of patents on Synergy technology, starting with the way it works and how it injects air into the combustion chamber before the ignition. We have also design-patented certain key components within the grill, such as the double crown burner and the ‘Easi-Lift’ cooking grid. We will continue to try and protect ourselves and our partners by patenting and design-registering as much as we can.”

On the product’s pricing structure
“It is true to say that with a premium product, made in Britain, there is going to be a premium price. But while there is a premium price, it is very small. Our grill retails at £4,197 and I think you will find that comparable grills retail at around £3,500 to £4,000, so we are not far off. And with the massive saving in energy it is paying for itself from day one.”

On the policy for managing internet sales
“We don’t mind having an internet presence as far as advertising and brand awareness goes because that has got to be done, but we are not box shifters and we never will be. But we feel very strongly that there will not be a price war on this product. We are not after high volumes, what we are trying to do is give everyone a little bit of profit and help give the restaurateur the opportunity to make money as well.”

On developing more product lines
“At this stage we want to be the natural choice for the best commercial grill, but once we get a bit of traction in the market we will be able to put some investment into bringing out all sorts of Synergy burners and scenarios. It is about gas and air, and getting that perfect mix. And we have found a way to do that.”

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Andrew Seymour

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