If an award was ever created for the unsung hero of the commercial kitchen then the humble microwave would surely be a serious contender for it.
Small, effective and reliable, it’s hard to imagine how busy restaurants and food outlets would keep kitchen output flowing without this mainstream piece of kit.
Microwaves might not possess the price tags associated with larger ticket items, such as combi ovens and cooking suites, but changes in the manufacturing landscape over recent years and the general ubiquity of the category has meant distributors have needed to keep their eye on the ball.
As anybody who regularly supplies commercial microwaves will know, wattage is everything. The speed of reheat and cook times, not to mention the overall durability of the machine, is markedly different between a 1000 watt entry-level appliance and a 3200 watt heavy duty workhorse.
Those familiar with the business say the most popular outputs remain 1000, 1200, 1500 and 1900, as these can all be run from a standard 13 amp socket and are generally compact in dimension yet powerful enough inside to accept a good-sized dinner plate.
“The microwave sector is developing with new models and power ranges,” observes John Marks, sales manager at Bradshaw. “The primary focus in the UK is still for a maximum power requirement of 13 amps, There are faster and larger units available requiring a greater power supply. Different cavity sizes and unit footprints are evolving to offer smaller units with faster cook times for certain applications.”
Bristol-based Bradshaw is the exclusive UK distributor for Menumaster microwaves, with 13 separate models currently in the range. This includes its highly popular compact series. “The Compact range is manufactured to the higher level ‘B’ EMC emissions testing, the RCS and RFS models offer large 34 litre cavities, and the high powered 2.4kw MOC5241 jigsaw design means that you can fit two units back to back with a depth of 724mm,” says Marks.
Simon Frost, regional sales director at Manitowoc, which manages the Merrychef brand, agrees that design enhancements made by manufacturers have been the catalyst for much of what has happened in the sector.
“In recent years the commercial microwave oven sector has seen big developments, with the introduction of microwaves with multiple cooking methods, compact designs, improved accelerated cooking times and reduced energy usage to maintain a sustainable industry,” he says.
“This has led to microwaves becoming commonplace in a greater number of foodservice establishments, with even fine dining restaurants finding modern microwave technology to be key to a successful operation.”
The familiarity of the core technology and advent of pre-programmed units means it’s difficult for operators to make mistakes when using the current generation of machines on the market.
Those factors, combined with modern magnetron designs, have made the latest models a “must-have” for busy kitchens, says Heather Beattie, product and brand manager at Uropa Distribution, the distributor of Samsung commercial microwaves.
“The only issue with the modern compact commercial microwave design is that many caterers use oversized dinner plates, which don’t fit in them,” she points out. “That’s where larger compacts, like the Samsung medium and heavy-duty models, really come into their own.”
Kurran Gadhvi, marketing manager at Valera, agrees, noting that while many kitchens want a microwave that fits the smallest footprint possible, others are using larger plates and containers that require a cavity which can accommodate those.
Either way, he says that success in the microwave market starts with establishing how the prospective end-buyer intends to use the kit. “You have got understand the customer’s usage — how many times will they use it? — and the application in terms of the type of food being regenerated,” he counsels.
Valera is one of the foremost commercial microwave specialists in the UK market having made its name as a major Sanyo player.
Lately it has added Daewoo to its portfolio after the South Korean conglomerate began producing its own machines following years of manufacturing for other brands.
The first models to hit the market range from 1000 watts up to 1850 watts, providing options for caterers with different priorities and budgets.
“They come with side or top mounted panels, programmable touchpad presets or manual electronic dial timer or combination models. They are also sealed in a ceramic base for easy clean, hygienic operation,” adds Gadhvi.
The microwave market continues to provide a place for companies to innovate. Regale Microwave Ovens, a Gosport-based specialist in the sector, for instance, has developed a ‘Cavity Protection System’ — best described as a removable liner which can be placed into the microwave cavity to protect the roof, sides, back and base, and facilitate cleaning.
“The system is now often asked for with the microwave and many of the major chains and high-street restaurants insist this is fitted prior to delivery — a service which we offer to the dealers,” says Pat Bray, managing director of Regale, which distributes microwaves from the likes of Panasonic, Sharp and Merrychef Eikon.
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Over at RH Hall, commercial microwaves and accelerated cooking solutions have been a core part of the company’s offering for many years. It claims that its iWave machines have now served more than five million meals, with particular success in the hospital sector, while its CombiChef 6 appliance remains popular with multi-sited operations, where the control of the cooking times and methods are vital for consistency.
Sales director, Kris Brearley, insists commercial-grade microwaves often fail to get the credit they deserve. “Microwaves are very energy efficient, in fact when cooking vegetables they use three times less energy than that of a gas hob,” he claims. “When you add the fact that some vegetables retain up to 85% of their vitamin C content, compared to around 15% when boiled in a saucepan, they are a very attractive option in today’s energy- and nutritional-conscious world.”
One issue for those looking to sustain their business is that margins remain under pressure as suppliers attempt to be as competitive as possible. Regale’s Bray, who has been in the business for 30 years, even goes as far as saying that the commercial microwave oven market is more price-competitive than he has known at any time before.”
“Now that many customers look to the internet to research their options they can compare prices at a glance and this has driven prices down,” he explains. “However, this can result in a customer purchasing a microwave which is unsuitable for their needs and can be more expensive in the long run. If a prospective customer does go on the web they might find it interesting to find out if the web-based company does in fact actually hold any stock.”
This leads neatly onto the issue that irks microwave suppliers the most: the propensity for operators to purchase domestic machines under the misguided notion that they will be suitable for commercial use. Not only are professional machines designed to be quick and simple to use, but they are constructed to withstand the day-to-day rigours of a busy food operation in a way that domestic models aren’t.
Equally, says RH Hall’s Brearley, operators need to be watchful of domestic machines that are disguised as commercial versions. “Generally, the lower advertised, super priced-type models should be questioned as often they are cheaper because savings have been made on the production build and quality of components and parts used. These are also simply upgraded domestic counterparts!” he warns.
But perhaps the most pertinent dilemma facing the industry — particularly for those who pride themselves in operating at the quality end of the market — is how it goes about changing its own perception.
“The biggest challenge facing microwaves is shaking off the traditional image of microwaves being used only to produce sub-standard, tasteless and bland meals quickly,” admits Manitowoc’s Frost.
“With modern developments in technology and professional catering microwaves becoming common place in more commercial kitchens, including fine dining restaurants, it is clear to see that outdated feelings towards modern microwaves are beginning to change.”
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‘Cheaper isn’t always the best option’
– When it comes to selling commercial microwaves it is important to manage customers’ expectation from the very start of the specification process. “Some will be tempted to buy a low wattage microwave — suitable for reheating, back bar and sweet usage — for a lower price but then expect it to have full commercial kitchen functions,” says Regale’s Pat Bray. “This inevitably results in disappointment with their purchase and can, in fact, invalidate the warranty. Cheaper isn’t always the best option in the long run!”
– Build quality and reliability are vital features of a commercial microwave and should not be compromised. If the kit isn’t solid enough for repeated use then it’s likely to quickly break down. “The leading brands will always be a safe bet as they are established and have built a good reputation on quality and reliability over the years,” says RH Hall’s Kris Brearley.
– Alert buyers to specialist features that might not be immediately obvious, such as the use of triple heat technology to create uniform browning or touch screen control options. Manitowoc’s regional sales director, Simon Frost, points out that its Merrychef units can store up to 250 separate menus. “At the touch of a button the technology will produce the pre-determined result and temperature settings for the individual meal, resulting in a consistent result every time,” he says.
– Stress the importance of features such as variable power, which allows more dense food products to be reheated or cooked at a slower rate, allowing for the conduction of heat to work through to the middle to avoid an overcooked outside and raw centre. “The use of variable power works in the same way as a hob and gives the user the exact control it needs to create speed yet achieve a quality cooked/reheat result,” notes Brearley at RH Hall.
– While a commercial microwave should be specified for its ability to handle a high workload, don’t forget to remind customers about maintenance. “Ease of use is important, but so is ease of cleaning,” insists Heather Beattie, product and brand manager at Uropa Distribution. “Make sure air filters and roof linings are accessible — ideally they should be removable.” Filters should be cleaned on a weekly basis at the very least to ensure air flows around the unit correctly.
– Whatever a customer says, a microwave manufactured for the domestic market will never be suitable for a professional catering environment. “The power outputs on domestic microwaves can drop with over-use and food may not reach safe cooking temperatures, compromising food safely,” points out Mick Shaddock, chair of CESA.