With pub food becoming increasingly sophisticated, licensees are realising that they need to improve their catering equipment. Phil Mellows reports
Over the coming year, 36 per cent of licensees plan to spend at least £1,000 on their kitchens. The figure, revealed in last month's the Publican's Market Report 2001, is an encouraging sign that the trade is responding to the growth in eating out and continuing to improve the quality of what it offers to increasingly demanding customers. But will the cash be well spent?
There is a confusing array of catering equipment out there, and all kinds of fancy gadgetry.
Unless you choose wisely you might not only waste money but hamper the efficient working of the kitchen, pulling down levels of service in a marketplace where the speed of getting the right food on to the right tables is vitally important.
At the same time, pub food is becoming more sophisticated and licensees are tailoring their dishes to specific marketplaces.
Menus may vary between lunchtime and evening with snacks between and specialist food such as ethnic dishes are on the increase.
Somehow, your kitchen has to be designed to cope with all this.
"There is really only one way to start looking at a pub kitchen," said Steve Loughton, a director at catering equipment manufacturer Enodis. "You have to decide what food you're going to serve, when and how quickly. "Once these decisions have been made the kitchen template can be determined. Whether it be traditional cookers, grills and fryers or newer accelerated cooking technology, the right equipment can be specified to get the job done."
Enodis has contracts with major pub groups and extensive involvement with small, medium and large pub and restaurant chains as well as many independents, which has given the company many years of experience planning pub kitchens all over the country.
Fully equipped demonstration kitchens at its Merrychef production facility in Ash Vale are open to customers to help them plan and develop menu ideas.
While licensees serving traditional pub food will, for instance, turn to its Garland ranges and Frymaster frying equipment, others are taking advantage of the latest technology, such as Merrychef combination microwaves.
The mixture of microwave and convection air cooks a wide range of foods to meet the demands of the particular time of day.
"Combination ovens are extremely versatile," explained Steve. "You can cook Danish pastries from 9.30am to 11am, serve melted baguettes from 11am until noon and cook the fish and chips and pies for lunch all in the same oven.
"But if you serve 10 ounce steaks and chips by the hundredweight every day a range and fryer are right for you.
"You have to determine what equipment best produces the menu and meets your chosen service objectives," he concluded.
"All that's left then is to make sure that it is designed for commercial use and is of the best quality you can afford."
Even when you are clear, broadly, what kind of equipment you need, there is still plenty to choose from.
For instance, when you go to Olympic, another leading supplier, for a combi oven it will offer a free advice service that involves a visit from an experienced engineer to determine exactly what you need.
As well as checking where it will be sited and matching the type of combi cooking to your menu they will assess the local water supply in case a water softener is needed to prevent limescale damage.
Quite a palaver, but this is an expensive piece of equipment with the potential to carry out nearly all your cooking, so it is worth getting it right.
The same goes for dishwashers. Olympic will start with a free on-site survey to make sure you make the right buying decision and that electricity and plumbing are in the right place and recommend any accessories you might need. Installation itself is done with the help of computer aided design to maximise available space.
When it comes to microwaves, Macdonalds Catering Equipment provides a similar service, installing the correct machine for each specific job, offering on-site training for staff and also advising on finance.
Meanwhile, Total Refrigeration will do just what its name says and advise and supply you with all the refrigeration equipment you need, helping you choose the best for the job from a number of well-known manufacturers.
As well as fridges for the kitchen, this might include bottle chillers, cellar cooling, food counter displays, air conditioning and ice-makers. Then it will add after-sales support including service packages.
As well as having a kitchen designed and equipped to suit the menu, there are other considerations, however.
The most obvious relates to food safety. With environmental health officers toughening up - not to mention the 87,000 cases of food poisoning last year - it may be an idea to make sure the kit you buy is easy to keep clean and incorporates hygiene features.
One new idea is the fat drain incorporated into Rational's ClimaPlus Combi ovens. This enables the fat from meat to be easily removed, keeping the oven and the kitchen cleaner.
When you are refurbishing a kitchen or creating a whole new one, you might also think about insect control, usually something that is only worried about when cooking starts and summer brings the flies.
Bower Products, which makes insect control machines, advises pubs to incorporate them at the design stage and treat them as a vital part of equipment.
Environmental issues have also come into play in recent years. The Government's Climate Change Levy means that caterers are becoming more energy conscious and manufacturers are incorporating energy-saving features into their equipment.
Winterhalter Gastronorm's dish, glass and utensil washers, for instance, include special water tank and vapour vent designs and flush-fitting heating elements all aimed at cutting the electricity bill.
The wash tank in particular, with a surface area that is 60 per cent of its predecessors, helps keep the water hot between washes and is almost half the size, meaning it heats up quicker and uses less water without affecting cleaning performance.
Winterhalter claims that adds up to an energy cost saving of eight per cent and gives the following advice to licensees buying washers:
- check that it reuses the wash water, using a filter
- make sure there are no dirt traps
- buy a well-insulated machine
- compare manufacturers' energy and water consumption data
- get a self-cleaning machine
- pay for after-sales service.
Macdonalds sums up the lessons: "Caterers buying new equipment and wanting to contribute to a better environment should pay particular attention to design - buying cheap normally means less efficient machines."
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