Light entertainment: Suppliers talk small kit

The physical disparity between a six-burner range and, say, a can opener is pretty obvious. But it is not only the attributes of size and weight that distinguish the light equipment market from its heavy duty counterpart.

Both also exhibit very individual market traits, which goes some way to explaining why a lot of suppliers and resellers focus more on one or the other, than both. For a start, those accustomed to life in the light equipment fast lane will argue until they are blue in the face that the market moves at a much quicker pace and, often, on a more seasonal basis.

Stephen Goodliff, managing director of Contacto and chair of the CESA Light Equipment and Tableware Group, says there is no escaping the fact that light equipment is a dynamic product area that is changing on an almost constant basis.

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“There is a lot of activity in terms of innovation, not only in products and equipment but also in the way that companies market their lines,” he observes. “Product trends include equipment that gives menu and service flexibility; products that deliver the opportunity to be different; equipment that saves labour, time and cost; and products designed to help caterers respond to fast-changing customer demands in eating and drinking.”

Goodliff says the Light Equipment and Tableware Group Forum that CESA held earlier this year highlighted just why the market is so vibrant. Everything from induction hobs, frying oil probes and crockery to display equipment, cutting boards and insulated food transport boxes were showcased by manufacturers eager to sell their wares through the channel.

And with distributors of the calibre of 3663, Bunzl Lockhart, Gratte Brothers, Especial, Global FSE, Brakes, Alliance and Nisbets in attendance, it is proof if ever it was needed that light equipment remains a staple part of many suppliers’ diets.
Mark Hogan, marketing manager at FEM, believes light equipment sellers are flourishing because products that fit into this category are vital to every catering operation, especially smaller, independent ones.

“The market for light equipment is fairly healthy at the moment as this type of equipment offers a relatively cost-effective way of getting started for small cafes, bistros and other ventures,” he says. “It is also used for specialist dishes, and many items such as mixers and blenders are workhorses of the commercial kitchen. Tableware can be a low-cost way to enhance a venue.”

This is not to say that the market isn’t under pressure from certain quarters. “The light equipment market is relatively healthy but manufacturers such as us are under huge price pressure from cheap foreign imports of inferior quality,” insists Neil Richards, managing director of Metcalfe.

“What we are trying to sell is the whole life cost of a piece of light equipment. If you buy a quality piece of equipment it will outlast a cheaper alternative many times over, so although initially more expensive the whole life cost is much less.”

Guy Cooper, boss of light equipment manufacturer Mitchell & Cooper, believes the market is moving along at a steady — but not necessarily spectacular — pace: “The light equipment market could be viewed negatively as stable or more positively as showing small growth. We are seeing companies making the investment into better quality product with a longer life-span plus additional features, such as hygiene benefits, but the decision-making process is now longer.”

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FEM’s Hogan agrees that while the bottom line for many users is the price, there is equal justification for distributors to highlight the importance of functionality and life-time cost. “Choosing the cheapest is not always the best decision,” he argues. “We only stock reputable brands that carry all the relevant kite marks. Always make sure that spare parts are readily available and that there is an after-sales service.”

FEM’s light equipment portfolio encompasses a wide range of products from blenders, food processors and handheld mixers to Panini grills, chaffers and tabletop heated buffet stations. It expects the energy efficiency of a product to play a major factor in any decisions to add further brands to its portfolio in future, such is the impact of rising energy prices on commercial kitchens of all sizes.

FEM only sells through distributors and Hogan says the company has just enhanced its website, with a special area for dealers to place orders, view prices, check stock availability and assess offers. An additional 2% discount on net prices is on the table for distributors that purchase through the site.

Like some of its contemporaries, Lincat is also of the opinion that the market is divided into two: at the lower end price is everything and demand is satisfied by cheap, often imported products; at the other, performance, quality and reliability count.

“Our customers understand that paying that little bit more at the outset for well-produced equipment will pay dividends in the long run,” insists marketing director Nick McDonald.

“In fact, we recently heard from a Blackburn chip shop owner, Tom Atkinson, that his Lincat Silverlink 600 DF33 fryer — which he acquired second-hand in 1988 — is still going strong. He reckons that it has made over £500,000 for his business in the intervening years. Not bad for an original investment of less than £200!”

McDonald estimates that there are well over 200 products in its portfolio which could be classed as ‘light duty’.
These fall mainly into its Lynx 400 and Silverlink 600 ranges, which include bain-maries, boiling tops, chip scuttles and Panini grills. It also offers a light duty induction hob, a range of water boilers and a collection of high output toasters.

Metcalfe’s portfolio, meanwhile, is comprised mainly of food preparation equipment, but it is moving into the cooking side of light equipment. The company is also in the process of setting up a partnership with Australian manufacturer Roband to distribute its products across Europe in addition to the UK.

Richards insists Metcalfe is attempting to lead with a ‘quality’ approach to product development, but he believes that some companies in the market appear to be investing a lot of time and effort into making products cheaper rather than better.
“More worryingly from the end-user perspective, I am also aware of some equipment on the market that carries the CE mark but clearly isn’t up to standard,” he says.

Product standards are one thing, but there are also pressures coming from changes in the operator landscape. Lincat’s McDonald says the ongoing stream of bad news emanating from the pub sector remains a cause for concern within the industry.

“Sadly, pub closures are the largest obstacle to the development and growth of the light equipment market,” he warns. “Smaller, independent pubs use smaller equipment and as they have disappeared demand for light equipment has declined.”

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So what’s the most important element of a successful light equipment product these days? In truth, it will depend on the item in question, but clearly price, functionality and design all play their respective parts.

“An attractive design will have a vital role in the success of tableware, but perhaps less so in a temperature probe, where functionality is the key,” points out Contacto’s Goodliff. “Price will always be a critical factor, but increasingly operators are understanding the value of total life-time cost in products
and equipment.”

He adds that when it comes to light equipment, price also needs to be compared to the cost of not buying the equipment. “The equipment may save time and labour costs, or increase turnover. It may deliver major benefits in terms of health and safety. Many tasks can be done faster, more safely and better by smart equipment.”

Mitchell & Cooper’s Guy Cooper agrees that price, design and functionality are the major factors in the decision-making process, but as a branded manufacturer he firmly believes that the second two aspects should be given priority.

“These factors come hand-in-hand, as a well-designed product should provide the functionality a caterer would require — for example being robust enough to withstand the rigours of a commercial environment,” he says.

Indeed, one point that remains constant despite the changing landscape around it is that any equipment which can be described as ‘light’ must still be able to take a heavy kicking in a commercial kitchen.

A matter of definition

In an era when the market is becoming more eclectic and traditional product categories are being challenged, defining the term ‘light equipment’ is no longer such a straightforward task.

“It’s actually quite difficult to define when you think about it,” admits Neil Richards, managing director of Metcalfe. “I don’t think it’s quite as simple as breaking it down into light and heavy equipment. There is other equipment, such as griddles and countertop fryers, that warrant a separate category under the heading of ‘back bar’, but some people might also refer to these as ‘light equipment’, I suppose.”

Stephen Goodliff, managing director of catering utensils brand Contacto, suggests the term ‘light duty catering equipment’ would typically be used to describe tabletop equipment designed to run off a single phase, 13 amp electrical supply.

“It includes such items as toasters, blenders, hotplates, commercial microwave ovens and small pizza ovens, which would not normally require professional installation,” he says. “These days light equipment can also refer to tableware, cookware and kitchen gadgets. Some of these areas are covered by the term ‘smallwares’.”

Guy Cooper, managing director of Mitchell & Cooper, says ‘light equipment’ refers to manually-operated catering products, which can range from highly-engineered portioners to powerful electric blenders.

“We tend to think of electrical light equipment items as ones which are ‘plug and play’ in that they can be used straight from the box, as opposed to larger, three phase electric pieces of kit which require installation and a significant amount of capital investment to purchase,” he says.

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