Labor-saving equipment might be the answer to your foodservice labor crunch.


May 2023   minute read

By: Amanda Baltazar

As convenience stores increasingly operate as restaurants, foodservice operators must provide high-quality food and a varied menu to satisfy the different tastes of the customers who come through their doors daily. That challenge is magnified by the tight labor market.

“There’s a push for fresh, a push for quality, and what we really see is variety,” said Ben Leingang, CEC, associate director of national accounts with Alto-Shaam, based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. “Some of our customers are building incredibly robust food programs that are as varied as those at any restaurant or grocery store."

Customers are demanding variety, Leingang said, but with a shrinking labor market and continuing challenges with employee turnover, it can be difficult for operators to offer quality foodservice. To help, retailers are increasingly relying on easy-to-operate equipment that allows for flexible staff hours and ensures consistent results each time, reducing human error.

Optimal Ovens

Ovens are arguably the No. 1 piece of equipment for a convenience store foodservice program. Without them, there’s no freshly cooked food. Today’s ovens, from combi ovens to multicook and high-speed ovens, require almost no training. Once the equipment has been programmed, all employees need to do is push a button, which often is a simple-to-read icon.

High-speed ovens are key to operating a successful foodservice program for Kwik Trip, which has 848 stores, primarily in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

They are simple to operate and cook food fast, said Paul Servais, retail foodservice director for the La Crosse, Wisconsin-based company. They allow for a lot of food to be cooked and held before peak hours, he said, as well as for food to be made during the busy lunch and dinner periods. This enables the company to be more flexible when it comes to scheduling foodservice staff. 

Combi ovens are one of the top pieces of equipment recommended by Rob Moak, vice president of strategic accounts, TriMark Gill, a foodservice supply company in Phoenix, Arizona. They are “so versatile,” he said. “You can cook something in a combi, put it in a chiller, then retherm it.” These are completely programmable, so employees hit an icon to cook or reheat food, then walk away to complete another task.

The Vector and Converge ovens can be operated with almost no training.

Multi-cook ovens are among Alto-Shaam’s equipment that is most popular with convenience store operators. The Vector and Converge ovens can be operated with almost no training. The latter is a combi oven with multiple chambers, each of which can be a different temperature.

Convenience stores typically opt for one or both of these ovens, Leingang said. Both have a small footprint (24 inches for Converge and 21 inches for Vector), and they can be stacked with each other.  

But a lot of convenience operators, he said, start off with cook-and-hold equipment to get their food program off the ground. Then they might build onto that by adding a multicook oven and then using the cook-and-hold as a holding cabinet for cooked or rethermed foods.

These ovens are simple to use, said Leingang, and “the ability to press a button and walk away trumps all.” Another plus is that since these ovens rely on employees pressing icons to cook foods, there are no language difficulties for people who don’t read English very well. “It makes it plug and play,” he added.

Easy-to-use equipment brings great advantages when it comes to maximizing labor. Employees can have a dual role, cooking food but also working as a cashier, Leingang said. “Employees can multitask, and [this equipment] really frees them up. The biggest thing we can offer is flexibility.”

Workhorse Fryers

Kwik Trip relies on fryers to prepare key menu items like chicken tenders and waffle fries. But fryers can mean a lot of work for foodservice staff when it comes to cleaning, oil filtering and oil changing. 

That’s why Servais likes to use auto-filtering fryers in Kwik Trip stores. Every four or five food drops—or whatever the setting—the fryer automatically filters the oil. “Without this, you are relying on the co-worker to flip levers and switches to filter, and they may not do it after the recommended drop,” he said. In this case, “The oil quality diminishes, which leads to poor-quality fried foods.” 

The stores also have a Restaurant Technologies Inc. (RTI) oil system. RTI is a company that delivers fresh oil and picks up waste oil. Kwik Trip stores have two tanks in the backroom so that employees do not have to handle oil. “This saves time and reduces injury risk,” Servais points out.

Rutter’s, based in York, Pennsylvania, uses an RTI system “designed to polish the oil and pull out impurities to ensure longer oil life,” said Chad White, foodservice category manager. “With these added benefits, it also helps reduce the cleaning time on fryers versus our previous unit, which was hand-cranked pumps.”

For frying, Rutter’s has recently begun using a double basket fryer, which “helps improve efficiency in our fryer program by taking the same footprint of our Perfect Fry units but with two loading stations,” White explained. This allows one employee to produce double the food. 

“We are essentially getting two fryers out of the same footprint,” White said. “While capacity is reduced, it works perfectly for our made-for-you program as we are cooking products to order.”

Put simply, food that’s cook-chilled is fully cooked then rapidly chilled in a blast-chiller and refrigerated until it needs to be reheated.

Cook-Chill Systems

They might not be very well understood, but cook-chill systems can be a boon to convenience store operators, said Moak. Put simply, food that’s cook-chilled is fully cooked then rapidly chilled in a blast-chiller and refrigerated until it needs to be reheated.

By using cook-chill systems, convenience store operators can schedule staff to work during off-peak hours or make shifts longer, two tactics that can help them hold onto the employees they have.

Cook-chill allows foodservice managers to allocate labor and to create a food stash while also producing great quality food, Moak points out. “You have a very consistent product with these,” he said, “just as good as if I’d just pulled it right out of the oven.” 

These systems, he said, are ideal for home meals that customers buy cold then take home to heat. These could be all-in-one meals like pasta and meatballs, or dinners with two or three components. For the latter, Moak said, “I would cook each individual item separately, marry them in a container, then put it together and chill that, seal it and then offer that in the case.”

Saving labor is a key consideration for all equipment, said White, and on top of that, “Every piece of equipment is selected to be easy to use and clean. It must work quickly and make the operator’s job more efficient.”  

Packaging: Saving Labor, Enhancing Presentation

Food packaging has many important roles to play in a convenience store’s foodservice program. It needs to present food at its most enticing; it needs to keep food hot (or cold); it needs to maintain the integrity of the food; and it needs to be practical—able to be stacked in display cabinets and stable enough for customers to eat from while driving.

“Packaging needs to help sell and remove the obstacles to selling—the food needs to be visible and the presentation must be good,” said Kurt Richars, director of market development and sustainability, Anchor Pack- aging, St. Louis, Missouri. “And it has to help operation- ally, which includes packaging that can hold food at that fresh-made quality for longer.”

“While cost is always important, our top priority is, ‘Is it the right product for our food?’” said Chad White, food service category manager, Rutter’s, based in York, Penn- sylvania. “We produce high-quality products, and the wrong packaging can downgrade that quality.”

Typically, Rutter’s stores use clear plastic, paperboard and paper products for packaging, but the company is considering other materials. Ideally, it opts for packaging that can be cross-utilized for different applications to reduce SKUs and provide efficiencies.

White also looks at ease of use, such as paper cups de- signed to resist sticking together in the sleeve or folded packaging that’s easily opened. “These are small efficiencies, but small efficiencies help create a smooth-running restaurant,” he said.

Amanda Baltazar

Amanda Baltazar

Amanda Baltazar has been writing about foodservice and retail for trade magazines for more than 20 years. Read more of her work at www.chaterink.com.

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