By Tim O'Connor
European foodservice equipment makers tend to be years ahead of their American counterparts when it comes to innovation. Technologies such as combi ovens have been in Europe since the 1980s and are only now becoming widespread in U.S. kitchens. Similarly, European manufacturers were quick to adopt digital controls on their equipment, a change that is still in its infancy in the United States. Events such as HOST Milano have become not only a showcase of European foodservice equipment manufacturers but a glimpse into the technologies and innovations that are likely to make their way stateside in the near future.
When it was starting out in the mid-1990s, Equipex recognized that European manufacturers were setting the tone for the industry. So instead of trying to compete with them directly, the company sought out partnerships that would give it an edge in the American market, leading it to develop a hybrid model for introducing new products. Instead of engineering all of its equipment from scratch, the company imports products from two French manufacturers, Roller Grill International and more recently Adventys Induction, performing the final assembly and all UL and NSF certifications at its facility in Providence, R.I.
Access to advanced technology was one reason Equipex sought out European partners when it was founded 22 years ago, as the company felt those manufacturers were better prepared to cater to the looming changes that have since been realized in the U.S. market. At the time, American manufacturers were producing larger equipment pieces that were right-sized for more spacious commercial kitchens, which were common in American foodservice operations. Kitchen footprints have steadily shrunk over the years, as operators continually reallocate space to the front-of-house operations that actually drive revenue. Here, too, Equipex President Gary Licht says Europeans had an edge. Foodservice facilities tend to have much smaller footprints in Europe, forcing manufacturers to make smaller, multifunctional equipment that can fit the space—equipment that transitions well to the U.S. market.
With American kitchens following that trend, and the rising popularity of cafes and food kiosks, Equipex is well-positioned to offer the kind of compact equipment chefs need. “We thought that the U.S. market was going to gravitate in that direction and it has,” Licht says. “The diversity of U.S. foodservice operations today has encouraged the development of smaller footprint locations that are trying to add food items or enhance their menus in some way to increase operator revenue and profitability.”
Smaller footprints demand equipment that is portable and versatile enough to serve multiple functions. For example, Equipex offers a convection oven with high-speed quartz broiling features that can reach 1,100 degrees in 20 seconds, making it useful for both baking bread and broiling appetizers. “In this way, the operator has a convection oven and salamander in one appliance, maximizing flexibility in a limited space,” Licht says.
That same push for versatility led the manufacturer to create a line of 90 percent energy-efficient induction cookers. The cookers can heat pots and pans faster than a conventional range while producing less overall heat in the kitchen. Licht says most customers are still using induction cookers as warmers. As chefs become more comfortable with the equipment, he expects they will soon take the place of the range in many kitchens. “We believe induction equipment is still in its incipient age in the United States,” he says. “It’s primarily being used for ancillary functions, but it will definitely migrate into primary cooking as a result of its 90 to 95 percent efficiency.”
Menu Enhancement Approach
The introduction of more multifunctional, flexible equipment has made kitchens more efficient but it’s also created new challenges. Tighter spaces mean smoke and smells can more quickly fill up a room, worsening working conditions. Equipex saw an opportunity to solve another problem for foodservice operators and seven years ago created a proprietary and patented countertop ventless hood system designed for small appliances. The vents work on a standard 120V power and remove smoke, odors and grease-laden vapor from the air. Furthermore, they are designed as a universal solution, able to be used in conjunction with a wide variety of electric countertop equipment.
“I think ventless kitchen and prep areas are a major trend in E&S equipment and its design,” Licht says. “It basically makes cooking and warming more practical in all kinds of spaces.”
With food trucks, pop-up restaurants, and catering becoming more popular, there is a need for portability in foodservice equipment. Ventless hoods coupled with 120V products make those operations possible and open up new opportunities in locations such as historic and high-rise buildings, pantries and cafes. “It opens up the possibility to design or add foodservice to areas that were never contemplated to have food preparation,” Licht explains.
While products such as induction heaters and ventless hoods help operators maximize their kitchen usage, Licht points out they are developed with an even larger goal in mind. Equipex does not deal with commodity-type products. Instead, it strives to create equipment that will strengthen the dining experience. “We are exceptionally niche-focused in how we approach the marketplace,” he says. “Everything we do involves embracing menu enhancement.”
Operators are looking for new ways to stand out in their markets. New dishes can excite customers and boost traffic, but owners are often cautious about investing in the equipment needed to add a menu item that may not stick.
Equipex lowers that barrier to entry by talking with operators about different ways to prepare and serve food that does not require a major outlay. For example, a sandwich shop looking to offer freshly-baked products might consider a small convection oven that can be placed in front of the customers so that they get a whiff of the bread warming as they place their order. Licht says the sensory experience can help market new menu items and reduce the return on investment period for the equipment purchase.
“We try to provide the opportunity for the end user to move in the direction of a new food item without having to make a significant investment that takes a lot of time to pay back,” he explains. “We look at it as an expense that pays back within days or weeks, not months or years.”
New equipment can help operators drive sales, but it also can reduce downtime. One way Equipex is lowering the operating costs of its equipment is through the addition of easy-cleaning features, such as enamel cooking surfaces on panini grills, waffle bakers, and griddles. Kitchen staffs strive to keep everything free of grease and gunk, but thorough cleaning takes time and energy that many restaurants can’t spare. Over time, that can lead to more frequent equipment failures. Licht says as much as 75 percent of the company’s service inquiries are related to a lack of cleaning, so incorporating easy-cleaning features into the equipment can lessen the time demands on the kitchen staff and lead to fewer service calls in the long run. “Time is money and cleaning costs money directly,” he says. “Nobody really likes to do it at the operational level. Our role is to utilize our extensive customer support experience and develop or enhance our products to facilitate long-term, cost-efficient, and reliable equipment solutions.” ■