By Tim O'Connor
As a tableware and serving supplies manufacturer that deals mainly in small, non-powered products, American Metalcraft can respond to trends—such as operators’ interest in foreign designs—much faster than cooking and electrical equipment makers, who must go through extensive engineering and testing on every new release. “For us to notice a trend and notice something cool and different, we bring it to market pretty quickly,” says Rich Packer, COO and president. A few years ago, the company employed its fast development pace to introduce its own stainless-steel version of a Balti dish, a tabletop bowl traditionally used for serving Indian cuisine.
Many of this year’s American Metalcraft products are designed to address customers’ needs. Space reductions in the kitchen are leading more operators to purchase induction cookers because they work faster and can be moved to wherever they are needed. But in making that investment, chefs are finding their existing cookware isn’t optimized for induction heat. To help operators get the most out of their new equipment, American Metalcraft released a line of mini cookware with magnetic bases that are designed to transfer heat more efficiently on induction surfaces. The category is likely to thrive because, according to a 2017 Technavio study, the commercial induction cooktop market is expected to see a 7.1 percent compound annual growth rate from 2017 to 2021. American Metalcraft is already seeing that trend reach its customers. “As induction has gotten more and more popular, we’ve had people ask us to convert our minis to induction,” Packer says.
Another shift that excites Packer is the introduction of colors and new materials to American Metalcrafts’ buffetware. In the past, the company stuck with stainless steel for its buffet items because styles can change so often that a colored chafer can quickly become outdated. For buffet items meant to last many years, operators run the risk of buying something that may go out of style before they get the full use out of the equipment. However, American Metalcraft believes it has hit on a look that will prove timeless: a copper cover chafer accented with wrought iron trim. “Then we took this additional leap with our new buffet servingware collection and introduced three vintage finishes in bronze, gold and stainless,” Packer says. More colors are planned for early 2019.
Keeping ahead of those kinds of innovations requires a lot of energy and understanding of the foodservice equipment industry. American Metalcraft recently hired a new marketing group to survey the market and it has built an internal team filled with young talent. But Packer says the designs that make the biggest impression still come from working with operators directly. “Most of our best ideas come from being out there and seeing things in restaurants,” he adds.
For much of its history, the Chicago-area company was a producer of pizza pans and plate covers, but by the late ‘90s, it found itself stagnating. “In 2000, or right around there, we decided that if we were just going to be a pizza and plate cover company for the rest of our lives, we weren’t going to be around much longer and we needed to change,” Packer says.
At the time, many suppliers carried essentially the same, or at least similar, tabletop products. There wasn’t much variation in the silverware or serving dishes between one manufacturer or another. With most restaurants sharing a similar look, operators realized they could differentiate themselves by creating a fresh look for their dining tables. They needed new styles and materials that traditional suppliers didn’t offer, so many turned to department and furnishing stores to find those items.
American Metalcraft saw the shift and instead of doubling down on what it had done before, it committed itself to introducing 150 new products each year, such as its new Crave collection of bowls, plates, and platters made from a highly durable melamine.
“We want to find funky, unique, different products to make it more exciting at the operator level,” Packer says. The company has a team dedicated to finding fun and exciting designs. “Sometimes it can be as simple as turning a lampshade upside down and turning it into a basket,” Packer notes. These days, much of that new product inspiration comes from overseas. “There are fun little things we’ve been able to bring back over, like Balti dishes [from India],” he continues.
Diversifying its product lineup had another benefit beyond attracting new customers—greater control over pricing. When competing distributors are all selling similar products, there’s not a lot of wiggle room to raise profit margins. “There’s a limited amount of opportunity to make money when everyone knows what it should cost,” Packer explains. But because American Metalcraft strives for designs that no one has seen from a major manufacturer, such as soup-can-inspired condiment holders, it can better set its own pricing.
Today, the trend toward eating in is forcing American Metalcraft to become even more creative with its future products. “In our business, if we’re not capturing them at the restaurants, we’re not engaging them,” Packer says. “We have become even more motivated to introduce new and unique items so we can help our operators drive customers back to the table. This is a challenge that could become an opportunity.” ■