There is a long-held view within the industry that chefs like to see a naked flame when preparing dishes for hungry diners and this, with the notable exception of cost, is the main reason why catering equipment sellers have found induction cooking to be something of a slow burner over the years.
But this scenario appears to be changing quite dramatically, with operators moving to make induction a more prominent part of their kitchens as they come to understand the array of benefits it promises. Vendors, in turn, are ramping up their product portfolios to meet the rise in demand.
From single hobs and portable plug-in units to multi-hob large zone induction facilities and even bespoke countertop systems, all with varying degrees of power output, the amount of choice now on offer in the market is as extensive as it has ever been, and that is great news for equipment sellers eager to capitalise on its growing reputation.
Alan Evans, executive training chef at Electrolux Professional, believes the endorsement of induction technology among the culinary circuit’s more eminent personalities has also helped boost its popularity.
“We are now seeing more and more of the top-end guys getting involved with induction. A lot of the top-end kitchens, whether it be Ramsay, Blumenthal or whoever, will have induction zones in their kitchens for either specific work or general work,” comments Evans.
Although induction systems have suffered a bad press in the past for their prohibitive cost and, at times, unreliability, manufacturers have worked hard to address and overcome such concerns in recent years. And as service engineers, too, have grown comfortable with the technology, response times have improved.
Steve Hobbs, director of Signature FSE and chair of the induction forum group within CESA, insists kitchen houses have a massive role to play in breaking down any misconceptions that surround the technology.
Signature acts as the UK agent for French induction specialist Adventys, channelling its business through a network of 35 to 40 active partners.
“It is really just an education process because it is a proven technology that has been around now for 20 or 25 years,” says Hobbs. “We are never going to say it won’t ever break down, but your ongoing service, reliability costs and all those things that were possibly a barrier before are coming down. I remember when a 3kW induction hob was nearly £4,500. You can find as powerful a product in the market today that is £300 and it is 100 times more reliable than the initial product was.”
The accuracy of cooking associated with induction hobs — it is ideal for low temperature jobs right down to melting chocolate — continues to find favour with many operators, while its ease of cleaning poses few challenges from a hygiene point of view.
However, it is the energy-saving benefits of the technology that are truly responsible for the momentum it is gaining, and this is why procurement heads for councils and hospitals are as excited about the ways in which it can help meet their sustainability targets as high-street restaurant chains.
“Everyone is obviously looking to save energy, reduce their carbon footprint, and obviously reduce their cost. Having a piece of equipment that only draws power when the pan is actually in contact with the cooking surface is much more efficient than a traditional gas or electric-type range that is just burning energy for the sake of it when it is on,” argues Hobbs.
Further to that, induction cooking delivers a series of other advantages that can be easily quantified, such as reducing the volume of air extraction required in the kitchen area. Ventilation doesn’t need to be as powerful because it is only airborne grease and steam that have to be removed from the environment. [[page-break]]
Nick McDonald, marketing and export director at catering equipment supplier Lincat, recommends dealers think carefully about the brands they work with so that they can offer their customers the best solution.
He urges them to pay attention to smaller details such as ensuring there is sufficient air flow to prevent delicate electronic components from overheating and certifying that the filter is built to stop grease being drawn into the body of the hob.
“There is a wide selection of models to choose from, ranging from units which are little more than domestic hobs upwards. It’s important to understand, however, that many of these have been imported from the Far East and badged,” notes McDonald. “Our advice, of course, would be to buy from a reputable manufacturer. A key point to look out for is the thickness of the glass surface. Cheaper models may have glass which is just 4mm thick. This is less able to withstand the rigours of professional use than 6mm glass which is found in the better-quality models — including ours.”
Chris Drury, product manager at catering and refrigeration equipment supplier Valera, seconds the view that dealers should take steps to make sure they source and supply durable products. He says the huge uptake of domestic induction facilities in the Far East means that appliances designed for household usage can find their way into the commercial channel.
“There are a few of them coming on the market which are not designed for the commercial caterer and therefore people should be aware that when buying a machine you should look at its warranty and pedigree, not just at the ticket price,” he counsels.
Valera supplies its products through the trade, rather than directly to the end-user, and Drury insists induction cooking is one of the areas of its portfolio that will be heavily promoted this year. This could include promotions and offers that will allow dealers to purchase special cookware in addition to the hobs, he says.
“The price of the machine in real terms has decreased over the last five years, so we are supplying a much more cost-effective package now,” he adds. “Advances in the electronics have helped to make it a much more saleable package against the person who sees the gas hob at £100.”
Indeed, a conversation about induction hobs will rarely get very far before the issue of price comes to the fore. The major challenge for most dealers is how they overcome resistance from customers who regard the cost as too high.
Evans at Electrolux admits that while it can be tempting for dealers to turn their back on induction when they are required to shave cost from the spec sheet, they should first attempt to emphasise the longer term savings that can be realised. That means promoting the technology’s value over a multi-year period, rather than just a couple of years. “There is a story behind induction and a dealer has to get that story out,” he says.
Hobbs at Signature FSE agrees that it will inevitably come down to a game of persuasion. Dealers must be prepared to convince customers to find additional CAPEX in order to make an investment that will serve them more effectively in the long run.
He urges distributors to spend time illustrating the savings that can be made from day-to-day operational kitchen costs: “You can reduce your energy bills by 30% or 40% — maybe even 50%. Yes, there may be a bigger capital investment to buy the product because an induction product is more technical than a traditional gas or electric range, but the benefit from a cost-saving view is going to be that much greater over the life expectancy of that product.”
Although induction might be a tougher sell than other product segments, Lincat’s McDonald suggests this could actually play into the hands of conventional equipment dealers.
“There is a lot of talk about internet sites killing off traditional dealers — well this is an area where traditional dealers have the upper hand, if you like, because they have the opportunity of explaining the benefits to customers in a way that a website probably can’t,” insists McDonald.