Nemco Food Equipment

By Stacy Ward
Editor in Chief

Innovation is one of those words that has lost its luster. A Wired magazine contributor once called it the most important and overused word in America after making the case that its popularity has launched it into the upper echelon of motivational speak. The problem is the meaning has become muddied. When an industry declares, “We need more innovation,” for example, is there a consensus among those charged with answering the call about what that really means?

For Michelle Wibel, CFSP, the president of Nemco Food Equipment, coming up with new ideas, services or products is about problem solving, which is often not so simple. “Some of the simplest solutions are the hardest to come up with,” says Wibel, “but a very simple product can be super-innovative if it solves the customer’s problem in the most efficient and cost-effective way.”

To find its way to the answers, Nemco works closely with various chains’ R&D departments, and Wibel and associates also routinely host what they call innovation sessions, where they gather to pick apart their customers’ processes. “We’ll sit around the table. I’ll take out a tomato and start by asking, ‘What do operators do with a tomato?’” says Wibel. “They slice it. They wedge it. They chop it. Scoop out the middle to put chicken salad in it.’”

Then, the conversation turns to how Nemco, known for its food-prep solutions, can either simplify a process or fill a void with a new product targeting a specific customer’s needs. The latter was the impetus behind the Roma Tomato Slicer. It was originally designed for a large sandwich chain in search of a slicer that could accommodate the Roma’s oblong shape.

“For us, menu churn at the restaurant level is a big deal,” says Wibel. “It creates a lot of new opportunities downstream.”

Foods currently trending include sustainable menu items, as in root-to-stem and other forms of socially-conscious eating; anything between two slices of bread; and plant-based options like avocados. Once only thought of as a dip or a spread on toast, avocados are experiencing a rebirth and have seen double-digit growth in multiple foodservice sectors, says a United Fresh Produce Association study, which found that the use of the fruit in quick-service restaurants has jumped 24 percent in the last four years. And now, chefs are being pushed to find more creative ways to make it the star on the plate, thanks to a rise in plant-based everything—meatless burgers, grain bowls, avocado smoothies and desserts.

“Avocados are extremely popular right now,” says Wibel. “Several operators have come to us asking for a commercially-durable solution to work with them. Some just want to slice them. Others are looking for help in easily getting them out of their skin and removing the pit. We have to stay abreast of food trends and think through different options our customers can share with their customers.

“In response to the low-carb trend, we just introduced a vegetable noodler,” adds Wibel, whose company is known for providing countertop equipment linked to labor savings, portion control and, more recently, sustainability.

In 2016, Nemco’s dipper well controller, the Smart Eco Rinse featuring RinseWell® technology, was selected as a Kitchen Innovations (KI) Award recipient at the NRA Show. To date, the plug-and-play device has saved operators millions of gallons of water. While a conventional system uses a continuous flow of water to keep utensils clean, the Smart Eco Rinse shuts off the flow after filling the dipper well and then recirculates the water while sanitizing it with a natural aqueous ozone. An optic sensor monitors the clarity of the water and when it becomes too cloudy, the device flushes the dipper well chamber and refills it with a new supply of clean water.

In his first year of using the Smart Eco Rinse, 7 Brew Coffee Shop owner Ron Crume says his business saved more than 150,000 gallons of water, per unit. The device was installed on four dipper wells.

“We have an appreciation for products that are kind to the environment or can undo negative effects that can have a major impact on our planet,” says Wibel, expressing a sentiment that is right in line with what Forbes believes is a growing social conscious about what we eat. According to the magazine, “mindfulness,” defined as being conscious and aware, is expected to emerge as the most influential food trend in 2018. Consumers want to know, say pollsters, where their food is coming from and they want to support companies that have socially-conscious values and products that support health, wellness and sustainability. 

Going to Market
Keeping pace with change or, better yet, staying ahead of it has required Nemco to make a few internal changes of its own in the areas of engineering and product development. “To fulfill increasing speed-to-market demands, we’ve had to get better at predicting and designing products that offer a high degree of flexible functionality,” says Wibel.

Take the cherry tomato. A customer wanted a way to perfectly slice them in half, which prompted Nemco to ponder what else, with a similar shape and size, could that operator and others mass produce. Grapes? Olives?  “Flexibility has been huge for us,” continues Wibel. “If we’re going to spend the upfront tooling dollars and invest in engineering, it’s most beneficial to the customer and Nemco if we can give them one piece of equipment with multiple functions instead of multiple pieces of equipment.”

What broader trends have affected the way the manufacturer goes to market? There are a few—Amazon, of course, chain domination, and speed—but the two that Wibel says have had the greatest impact on Nemco are reverberating throughout the industry.

“The trend that has been most influential in how we go to market,” she says, “has been the increased need for technology in all areas of our business due to a myriad of reasons, labor availability; the needs of consumers/end users/dealers/reps; the desire for higher quality outputs (producing parts, customer service, marketing programs); sustainability; the servicing of the millennial generation of customers; the increased need to access data and information quickly and easily. We’re using technology in engineering, manufacturing, HR, finance, marketing… This has changed how we do business and how we think about our business significantly. 

“As a secondary trend,” adds Wibel, “global competition has changed how we go to market and how we do business. I think this challenge can result in a better product for the end user as it forces the industry to get better and challenge assumptions every day.” ■

“A very simple product can be super-innovative if it solves the customer’s problem in the most efficient and cost-effective way.” — Michelle Wibel