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C Stores See Competitive Edge in Higher Quality Hot and Cold Food Offerings

C-Store managers are investing in more advanced, energy efficient countertop heating and refrigeration equipment to broaden premium hot food, condiment and topping offerings for on-the-go patrons

Today, a battle is raging for the hearts and minds – not to mention consumer dollars – of shoppers looking for quality, prepared foods on-the-go.  Now, with grocery stores and even coffee shops increasingly encroaching on the “convenience” food space by offering greatly expanded hot and cold food options, the competition is getting even more intense.

However, simply increasing the menu of items is not enough.  To successfully compete, convenience stores need to pay closer attention to the countertop equipment such as heated merchandisers that hold everything from pizza and chicken wings, to refrigeration units that hold a wide variety of fresh condiments, toppings, and even real, flavored coffee creamers.

In other words, heated merchandisers with poor temperature controls that overcook or dry out foods quickly or messy “ice baths” meant to keep coffee creamer cold are simply no longer acceptable.

Instead, convenience stores are investing in higher quality equipment with precise digital temperature controls that hold foods longer and minimize food waste.  More advanced equipment can even drive down operational costs by reducing the amount of electricity required.

By doing so, convenience store operators are hoping to gain a competitive edge by offering fresher, more mouth-watering and satisfying options to customers that might otherwise decide to go elsewhere.

Heated Merchandisers

Heated merchandisers are the workhorse of convenience countertop top equipment, and must be versatile enough to hold and display the full range of hot foods ready to eat, preferably near the register to spur impulse buys.  The most advanced even allow different food items to be held at varying temperatures on each shelf to maximize salability in minimal counter space.

Extend Hold Time with Precise Temperature

According to Kevin McGrath of Creative Serving, a NJ-based manufacturer of retail countertop food service equipment, convenience stores are squandering their profits when they burn, overcook, and throw out hot food due to poor heated merchandiser design.

“Imagine you have a 200 store chain and are making sandwiches, but need a full, hot display case to sell well,” says McGrath.  “If you get typical 60 to 90 minute hold times, you are throwing out an awful lot of hot food due to spoilage.”

The problem is that traditional open air, heated merchandisers tend to place food items directly on an aluminum hot plate, where it is prone to burn or overcook.  Better models can extend hold time up to four hours and keep food fresh by preventing direct contact with a hot plate.

In the case of Creative Serving’s Infinity Series of heated merchandizers, this involves radiant heating in an enclosed unit with a riser system.  Sandwiching an aluminum plate between the shelf surface and the heating element enables left-to-right, front-to-back heat transfer underneath, which spreads and then rises.  Removable, aerated serving trays allow better airflow for extended product life in the warmer.

By sandwiching aluminum between stainless steel, this design takes advantage of aluminum’s excellent heat transfer properties while also retaining the longevity and ease of cleaning of stainless steel.

Another strategy, incorporated in the Infinity Series as an option, extends holding time and saves energy further by the use of mirrored rear panels.  These reflect heat back into the serving area, yet allow behind-the-counter staff to prepare, place, and store food items for customers to “grab and go” as needed.

To enable precise temperature control on the widest range of foods, more advanced heated merchandisers come with a digital controller for each shelf.  In this way, items such as pizza slices and chicken sandwiches that have different ideal serving temperatures can be optimally held in the same unit.

Mini Heated Merchandisers

Traditionally, heated merchandisers small enough to be placed near the register to encourage last second impulse buys have been underpowered, often using just static heat from a single heating element and a light bulb.

More advanced options such as Creative Serving’s Mini 12” or 16” wide, three-shelf, convection heated merchandisers can reach temperatures up to 200°F, enough to hold food safely at HACCP serving temperatures.  The unit’s aerated shelves also allow for better heated airflow that extends food product life.

When it comes to showcasing cookies, small heated merchandisers can also deliver a competitive edge.  While some fast food chains now offer cookies in display cases at the register, they are typically served at room temperature.  A display case with a digital controller can be set to the ideal temperature so cookies can be served just like mom makes them, hot out of the oven.

Refrigerated Countertop Units

To accompany hot food and coffee purchases, refrigerated countertop units dispense a wide assortment of toppings, condiments, and even creamers that allow patrons to customize to their individual tastes.  The refrigerated units must not only keep the items at a safe temperature, but also enable patrons to quickly add their preferred topping or flavoring and get out the door with minimal hassle or mess.

Cool Your Condiments

Toppings and condiments can quickly spoil, make a mess, and even cross contaminate if not properly refrigerated, contained, and dispensed.

Whether for hot dogs or hot or cold sandwiches, there are now refrigerated units that

can better contain and dispense a full range of toppings such as salsa, guacamole, mayonnaise, sour cream, relish, and even cheese, onions and tomatoes.

For instance, refrigerated units with digital controllers can significantly improve the temperature consistency throughout the entire cold zone.  This not only improves quality and food safety, but also minimizes product waste.

Traditional refrigerated units with removable lids can be bothersome to use, requiring the food item to be put down on the counter in order to remove the lid of the condiment.  Fortunately, some newer refrigerated unit designs now offer a convenient hinged lid that can be easily flipped up and down for easy access to cold garnishes, toppings, and condiments.

When countertop space is an issue, refrigerated units can even be as narrow as 15” wide, while holding up to six different condiments in a pan.  Wider units that eliminate front to back scooping of condiments can help to eliminate any potential cross contamination issues.

Customization of the units can involve different pan configurations, as well as making circular cut outs for pumps to dispense toppings such as ketchup and mustard.

The Coffee Creamer Edge

Given that coffee service is one of the primary draws for convenience stores, some C-store operators are looking for any edge to improve to further compete with the big coffee chains.  This includes offering a variety of fresh creamer flavors instead of serving packets of fresh creamer kept in messy “ice baths.”

The difficulty with ice-filled wells is it is nearly impossible to maintain a set temperature as the ice melts.  Individual packets of creamer also make a mess and are a hassle to open, pour, and throw away for the customer.  More costly refrigerated mechanical dispensers filled with large bags of creamer usually limit customer options to two flavors due to the amount of counter space required.

Today, compact, refrigerated countertop units can hold up to eight quart-sized coffee creamers.

To prevent freezing and allow easy pouring, more advanced units like the Coffee Creamer Caddy from Creative Serving utilize riser systems that prevent freezing no matter the type of liquid or shape of the container bottom (flat or concave).

More sophisticated systems also incorporate an on/off switch to ease use and facilitate periodic defrosting for maintenance.  In contrast, many models require an operator to go behind the cabinet and unplug it in order to defrost.

McGrath adds that the most convenient refrigerated units for customers also typically include a caddy on top that dispenses other necessary items, such as sugar, straws, and hot cup wrappers, needed for a great cup of coffee.

A Boost to the Bottom Line

With so much at stake, convenience store managers and operators have many options to consider, to be sure.

However, by offering more upscale hot food service, along with refrigerated toppings and coffee creamers, C-store owners can also look forward to something else: additional sales once customers come in the door, multiplied by ongoing repeat business.

For more info: call 908-688-0800; Fax: 908-688-0718; visit; or write to Creative Serving at 5 Stahuber Ave, Union, NJ 07083.

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