By Stacy Ward
Editor in Chief
All it takes is one crisis to hobble a brand. The embattled chain Chipotle is still reeling after it was forced to temporarily close dozens of its restaurants in response to reports of foodborne illness in 2015. Two years later, when food safety issues resurfaced and sales began to slump, the chain asked founder Steve Ells to step down as its CEO. “When something like that happens, it takes a long time to recover,” says Thermo-Kool’s President and CEO Rand McLaughlin, who still recalls the damage done to Jack in the Box’s reputation after its well-publicized troubles with tainted beef patties in 1993.
Thermo-Kool’s latest ad for its blast chiller and shock freezer lines, “We Keep Reputations from Spoiling,” speaks to foodservice operators’ heightened concerns surrounding how to keep their brands and their customers healthy. Integrating a food safety management program into daily operations continues to be one of the big four, as in challenges facing restaurateurs. The others, according to FSR magazine, are tracing ingredients from the farm to the back of the house, leveraging big data to drive purchasing decisions and menu options, and managing the complexities of limited-time-offers and promotional programs.
Approaching nearly 30 years at Thermo-Kool, McLaughlin has been privy to multiple conversations with those on the front line who say that complying with FDA and HACCP guidelines without the proper equipment, or adequate budgets, can be tricky. Strictly from a food safety perspective, he says, getting more foodservice operators to see the value in investing in equipment that aides in staving off contamination—like blast chillers and shock freezers—would go a long way in curtailing the improper cooling of hot foods, a practice commonly linked to foodborne illness. Missteps in safely bringing down temps in U.S. restaurants and delis contributed to 504 outbreaks between 1998 and 2008, according to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control’s Environmental Health Services.
“I can’t tell you how many times our customer service reps have taken calls from customers that are frustrated because they can’t keep their food out of the danger zone,” says McLaughlin. “They’re taking out batches of soups and sauces from kettle drums and placing them in cold storage units to quickly lower their temperature. All that’s doing is causing the condensing unit and evaporator coil to work harder than intended and decreasing the life of the refrigeration equipment by at least a third.”
Thermo-Kool’s reputation as the ‘pioneer of preassembly’ has earned its walk-ins high praise from dealers, consultants and operators. For five consecutive years, they’ve selected it “Best in Class” in FE&S’ annual Best in Class study—but rarely will you hear McLaughlin refer to one of his premier pieces of equipment as simply a walk-in. Instead, he prefers the term cold storage unit. “For several decades, I referred to them as walk-ins but now that I’ve been engrained in the science of cold processing, I like to put the emphasis on the words cold storage,” the CEO says. “Many people fail to realize—on the residential side and the commercial—that a refrigerator and a freezer are for storing food that is already at a chilled temperature. When hot food is placed in a cold storage unit, it usually cannot safely and efficiently chill the product.”
When food is left to chill at room temperature and then stored in a walk-in or removed from an oven and placed directly into a walk-in, it crawls through the danger zone (140 F to 41 F) at a slower pace. Bacteria flourish in this range and can double in number in as little as 20 minutes.
Thermo-Kool’s roll-in blast chillers and shock freezers come as stand-alone units or can be built into a walk-in cooler or freezer. Both can accommodate almost any mobile rack size, allowing foodservice operators the flexibility to batch cook product in their combi and transfer it directly into the blast chiller/shock freezer. “You can blast chill and store it for days in a Thermo-Kool cooler; you can shock freeze it and store it for months in a Thermo-Kool freezer,” says McLaughlin, adding that what separates his lines from others is that Thermo-Kool’s reach-ins and roll-ins are equipped with the technology to blast chill or shock freeze. “All of our reach-in models can both blast-chill and shock freeze. Our roll-ins will do the same with the correct condensing unit and do not require an additional unit like other brands for a holding cycle once the chill or freeze cycle is completed,” he says.
For efficiency and ease of use, Thermo-Kool’s models also are designed with the refrigeration system and controller located above the cabinet in a no spill/splash zone. The condenser coil in a refrigeration system is responsible for removing heat from the unit. “If it’s on the bottom, below the cabinet,” says McLaughlin, “it has to work harder to bring down the temperature. Moving the condenser unit to the top and ventilating it all around, allows for easier heat removal. It helps save the life of the compressor and reduces energy consumption, plus it allows for easy cleaning and periodic maintenance of the refrigeration. If it’s not easily accessible, those two items may be ignored by kitchen staff.”
Moving Past the Educational Phase
Like its equal on the hot side, the combi, blast chillers have been mainstays in European kitchens for decades because of their efficiency and functionality on the cold side. Large batches of food can be cooked in advance, chilled and then served during peak hours; fruits and vegetables can be purchased at the height of the season and chilled for later use.
“What’s also important to a lot of chefs and popular restaurant brands is that blast chillers/shock freezers help preserve the quality, aroma and taste of food when it’s rethermed and served,” says McLaughlin, who hopes that more smaller operators in the U.S. will follow the lead of high-end restaurants, large chains and institutions. Blast-chilling technology didn’t start working its way into commercial kitchens until the early 2000s but most large-scale operations now see it as a necessity, particularly when it comes to meeting HACCP guidelines and the ever-present need to find short cuts to compensate for dips in labor.
“Others, like independents and smaller school districts, would like to have the equipment but it can be expensive,” says McLaughlin. “The average cost of small to midsize reach-ins range from $6,000 to $11,000 and the larger roll-in units with remote condensing units are in the $20,000-plus range.”
The fact that many still view blast chillers/shock freezers as a luxury has led to modest movement in the market compared to the gains combi ovens have made over the years. Domestic combi sales in 2015 were more than $138 billion compared to roughly $30 million in sales for blast chillers and shock freezers, according to NAFEM’s 2016 Size and Shape of the Industry Study.
“I think we’re still in the educational stage, which is why we’re not seeing a lot of growth in the blast chiller/shock freezer market,” says McLaughlin. Although, he does see blast chillers reaching the same status as combis in the eyes of foodservice operators—since the two ultimately work best in concert.
“Within the next two to five years, I believe there will be more of a willingness to include blast chillers and shock freezers into commercial kitchens and school systems,” predicts McLaughlin. “Buy-in has to start with the operator and the distributor. That’s why we invest heavily in educating operators about the benefits of blast chillers/shock freezers. A greater emphasis on safety and labor-cost savings is going to help drive this product line.” ■