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Price and performance: two attributes that tend to shape buying decisions in a catering equipment market where customers are blessed with plenty of choice.

The combination oven business is no exception, with budgets and operator output typically influencing the selections and specifications that are made.

But with at least a dozen recognised, prominent combi oven producers in the UK, not to mention just as many lesser-established brands, manufacturers have to be hot on the support they provide if they are to deliver the most value possible and reward customer loyalty.

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Recent years have seen manufacturers throw serious cash at improving their training facilities and hosting roadshows, exemplifying the view that to get end-user customers buying the product they need to experience it in operation first.

Perhaps the best known executor of this is Rational, proprietor of the popular Cook Live events that work their way around the country. It also runs dealer-specific events called ‘Happy Cooking’.

“We invite dealers and consultants to these, so that we can show them all the processes and technologies,” explains Rational’s MD Lee Norton. “As well as experiencing the demonstration, they get to network and eat what we cook for them. When invited we also go to their sales meetings and offer to host meetings where partners can come, have their own meeting and be catered for by Rational. In return we get a slot to talk about the SelfCookingCenter whitefficiency.”

Rival Angelo Po boasts a full training kitchen at its UK office in Yorkshire, but it will also demo at the showrooms of core distribution partners or even its factory in Italy if the situation calls.

“Sales teams and customer demos are very important to our strategy,” insists development chef Nick Bates. “Sales teams need to be kept up to date and refreshed on what we offer so they can pass this knowledge onto their customers to help them make the right choice. It is important for the customer to see firsthand what our combis are capable of and how it will benefit their business.”

That sentiment is echoed by Diamond, which only sells through dealers. Maurizio De Santis, who runs Diamond’s office in the UK, says that, if necessary, partners are always welcome to hop over to Brussels where the Belgium-based firm has a state-of-the-art training kitchen.

“Training is very important in motivating the distributor sales teams in particular, as it is difficult to sell a product you may not fully understand,” says De Santis. “To this end, we created a working kitchen where two to three day training courses are regularly arranged and which dealers may attend.”

Falcon brand Eloma is also a firm believer that sales partners and their customers will only get the best out of a combi oven if the seller truly understands all of its functionality. Without providing guidance on safe use, cleaning, automatic functions or bakery features, dealers are unlikely to convey the full benefits in the most effective way.

“There are a number of sites around the country that we can take interested parties to test the combis and see them being used,” explains Falcon’s marketing comms manager Steve Stenhouse. “We also provide the opportunity for potential customers to spend time in our development kitchen with our chef to have hands-on, practical time with the equipment, where users can see for themselves how good the oven is for a whole range of different menus.”

Stenhouse says this pre-sales training is backed up by a comprehensive post-purchase package in the form of a dedicated technical helpdesk and access to its development chef.

Indeed, development chefs remain intrinsic to the sales operations of virtually all major combi oven suppliers, providing that all-important technical bridge between dealers and their customers. Over at Standex, in-house development chef,

Darren Massey, is available to provide one-to-one master classes on equipment training, menu development and kitchen best practice at any site they like, reveals managing director Steve Loughton.

“We also offer a pre-sales advisory service and after-sales support, including an engineering zone on our website with ‘How To’ videos, detailing routine maintenance and housekeeping regimes,” says Loughton.

Czech combi oven manufacturer Retigo has relaunched its UK business over the past year under the stewardship of Adam Robertson. His immediate task involved putting the right warranty and spare parts provisions in place, paving the way for a broader dealer recruitment drive in the coming months.

One notable investment is a demonstration facility in Westminster Kingsway Catering College, which will support dealers and put end-users through their paces.

“Our two-stage end-user training takes account of the fact that the end-user may have training on many pieces of equipment on one handover day and that individuals learn at different speeds,” explains Robertson. “An initial run-through is carried out on handover and a second more in-depth training session is arranged with the end-user at that time. This gives them the chance to get used to the product and fully understand the second stage of the training.”

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The big challenge for most brands when faced with a new customer is keeping them engaged. “Most operators will only stay attentive for about 15 minutes due to training being done at first opening when everything is new and busy,” says Stuart Long, sales and marketing director at MKN. “However, we go back and train in manageable sessions for the life of the appliance so the end-user doesn’t forget any of the cooking functions, many of which they might have forgotten they have and might be managing without.”

MKN insists it continues to use trade exhibitions, end-user demos and advertising to promote its brand on behalf of dealers, while it is also a big believer in compiling case studies to demonstrate how its ovens are delivering results in a real environment.

Other manufacturers are exploring new ways of communicating too. Angelo Po has started putting together its own magazine, named ‘FX’ after its combi line, which highlights the people that are using its kit and how it is helping them to run their business, while Lainox has seen tangible benefits from deploying a targeted trade marketing strategy aimed at growing product awareness and brand profile among all tiers of the market, including consultants.

While training and support are important in their own right, brands such as Angelo Po are endeavouring to drive value by keeping a tight rein on their sales channels. Development chef, Nick Bates, says: “We sell through distributors and dealers and they also get them specified by consultants. We only have a few distributors and dealers, so they don’t get into a price war or face internet prices. They can offer the best option for the customers at a very competitive price.”

Rational’s focus on combi ovens and nothing else, coupled with the aspirational nature of its core product, have helped the company amass a market share in the region of 60%.

There can be no doubt that the sales resources it has at its disposal have played their part in this. Norton says: “We have 18 development chefs on the road providing support and they allow us to get close to the market, talking direct to customers. All our business is driven through the dealer channel, even if we have generated the sale ourselves. Consultants are vital business partners, too. We work very closely with them in order to get our products specified at an early stage in the project. We don’t emphasise one channel over the other.”

The big focus for Lainox at the moment is educating the market about its Heart Green combi ovens, which are far superior in terms of energy-saving credentials compared with past offerings.

“We truly believe we have the perfect combination oven range for the UK market given the current attitudes towards the green issue and reducing water and energy consumption in the kitchen, not to mention a competitively-priced portfolio with perfect cooking results,” insists Glen Crossland, marketing manager at Dawson.

Dawson has even put together a special promotion to give dealers even greater incentive to invest in the range. Crossland explains: “Our Heart Green package deal is a very competitive offering to our dealers, which we have had great success with, previously with the Heart and now the Heart Green. The package was introduced to make it easier for dealers to bundle the core extras and accessories along with the combi oven into one special price.”

In such a crowded market place, manufacturers must work hard to flaunt their USPs, and even the smallest features can make a difference. MKN, for instance, insists its patented cartridge cleaning system has proved a hit with customers and set it apart from the competition.

“When a lot of manufacturers clean their combi ovens they use liquids, tablets or powders,” says Long. “In a commercial machine they are very caustic so they have to be used carefully. We have developed a cartridge for which operators don’t need gloves or goggles and don’t need to come into contact with the chemicals. It’s easy to use. You simply take the lid off the plastic bottle, place it in the oven and then run the WaveClean cycle. One cartridge does one clean.”

Standex’s sales promotions, meanwhile, have focused heavily on the versatility and flexibility that its BKI CombiKing oven range promises.

“With the help of our pre-sales technical advisory team and the input of our distributors, end-users can specify a combi oven which best meets their requirements,” says MD Steve Loughton. “Whether their preference is for gas or electric, touch screen or digital control, steam boiler or instant steam generation, automatic or manual wash system, the customer only pays for features which meet their requirements. Too many chefs and foodservice operators are working with combi ovens incorporating costly features which they may never use.”

In the combi oven market, it is as much a case of winning the battle for mindshare as it is wallet share.

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When is a Rational not a Rational? When it’s a Lincat…

One catering equipment firm that can be classed as a mainstream supplier of combination ovens is Lincat, but the shape of its offering in this sector is very much defined by another manufacturer altogether. Lincat combi ovens are manufactured by Rational and badged Lincat, which is disclosed on the display panel as ‘System Rational’. The range is identical to the machines that have helped Rational secure market leadership, only with a different logo on.

“Rational works in this way in all major markets around the world,” says Nick McDonald, marketing director at Lincat. “They choose a partner who can offer combis to the market place as part of a broader package, which is to say with other items of cooking equipment. This is because a significant number of customers prefer to buy the most advanced combi technology available, together with other equipment for their kitchen, from a single, trusted, supplier.”

McDonald says that the arrangement with Rational means Lincat has access to a product range that dealers know will deliver the results customers want.

“Though you can buy very cheap combis, you probably won’t recognise the name and you’ll have no idea where it is manufactured,” he adds. “By contrast, Rational is the world’s leading producer of combis and has poured millions of pounds per annum into R&D. From our range, a 6-grid top-spec model can be bought for around £5,500. Consider also the savings which can be achieved through lower energy, water and labour costs. We estimate that a user can recoup the initial outlay on an Opus SelfCooking Center Whitefficiency in as little as 12 months.”

Turning up the heat: Battle of the combi brands

Catering Insight brings you up to speed with the main product developments at some of top combi oven brands over the past 12 months:

Angelo Po

New software has been introduced which enables customers to watch short films on the combi control panel or on a laptop to illustrate how all features of the product work, including the smoker and pasteurisation kit, along with relevant recipes. Customisation software is also available so that users can make their own training film or input recipes and pictures to the combi.

Diamond Europe

Diamond’s combis are supplied to it by a well-known European manufacturer. The past year has seen the introduction of the restyled Combi Line and Combi Line Plus ranges with additional features such as automatic cleaning and specific regeneration programming ensuring more functionality for users.

Eloma

The main emphasis for Eloma over the past 12 months has been improving the energy efficiency of its gas combi oven range. An intelligent gas control and heat delivery system, combined with auto reverse fan, has helped bolster performance without increasing consumption.

Lainox

The brand’s much-anticipated Heart Green range made its bow in September and contains a whole raft of eco-saving features to keep a lid on water, energy and cleaning chemical costs. As part of the new portfolio, it has also added an 8-grid oven, which gives the client more options and a safe working height when stacked.

Lincat

A new line of combi steamers have given Lincat’s combi oven offering a fresh look. There are six new Opus SelfCooking Center whitefficiency and six Opus CombiMaster Plus models to choose from, ranging from 6 x 1/1GN to 20 x 2/1 GN with a choice of gas or electric models. One day of free on-site training is provided with every Opus SelfCooking Center whitefficiency sale.

MKN

The cornerstone of MKN’s HansDampf combi oven portfolio includes the range-topping Gold model through to Silver in both Compact (a full 6 x 1/1GN unit) and Junior models. The company continues to emphasise the benefits of its larger cooking chambers, as well as the heat recovery system and triple-glazed doors that reduce energy wastage.

Rational

The launch of the SelfCookingCenter whitefficiency has led to a surge in sales for the UK combi oven market leader. Build quality, ease of use, self-cleaning capabilities and the fact that a separate water conditioning system is not needed are all cited by the company as reasons for its success.

Retigo

Last year Retigo launched its production-sized gas ovens. Previously available in 6-grid and 10-grid versions, the range has now been supplemented with 20-grid and 12×2/1 designs. The company regards institutional areas such as the MOD, hospitals and prisons to form the primary customer base for the new range. Prices for the 12×2/1 version start at £14,300.

Standex

A new generation of BKI CombiKing ovens has bolstered Standex’s portfolio over the past year. The company has invested heavily in R&D to deliver state-of-the-art cooking solutions, consulting key retail clients, distributors and customers to develop a wealth of features applicable to multiple market sectors.

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Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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