Showing Off Gelato

Creamy, dense, and intensely flavored, gelato is hard to resist, and a growing number of consumers don’t even try. However, this traditional Italian treat is generally an impulse buy. So, as you seek the right setting for this frozen gem, you need to start by showing off. Suppliers offer plenty of display cases to do just that.

What You See Is What You Get

Or, in the case of gelato, what your customers see is what they get. Display case manufacturers all say visibility and eye appeal drive sales, and several elements contribute to that. First and foremost is glass.

Lower-priced gelato displays are available that have single-pane glass with heated frames, if price is an issue. However, many manufacturers recommend double-pane, heated glass on the front and ends of the display, to prevent condensation, which reduces visibility of the product.

Additionally, a unit that angles the gelato pans toward the customer increases visibility. Displays low enough for children to see also are a good idea.

Good lighting improves visibility. Nearly all models today have LED lights, which offer more illumination with less heat than other light sources. One manufacturer recommends 4100K or 3500K color-rendering index of lighting (cool white) to show off gelato. Another manufacturer says 6000K (mimicking daylight) can make the gelato look better but suggests that your best option is a supplier who can offer different types of LED lights, to fine-tune the display to its location and ambient light levels.



The range of prices among gelato displays is considerable, with materials and manufacturing methods dictating cost. The least expensive models have single evaporator coils, single-pane glass in a heated frame, and sheet metal construction. These are light weight and often on wheels. At the high end, you have stainless construction with two evaporator coils and embedded pipes for quick defrost, and double-paned, heated glass. Higher-end units also offer the ability to attach or integrate with other displays.

Many gelato displays in the U.S. come from Europe. These offer styling to match the elegance of Europe’s upscale gelaterias. Many say they’re the best. However, lead time and price may be issues. If you purchase equipment from U.S. manufacturers, prices are generally lower, lead time is usually shorter, service after sales can be timelier, and parts are available locally. That said, if you pick a popular import that’s used by others in your area, parts and service can be more accessible. One manufacturer recommends asking dealers to identify someone locally who uses their equipment, who can talk about benefits and disadvantages.

All display equipment in the U.S. must be certified to NSF 7 standards for sanitation and UL for safety. Equipment must also pass Department of Energy 2017 standards. If you are buying an import, ask if the equipment has these approvals.

The condensers in freezers for both ice cream and gelato come in three-phase and single-phase versions. The one you choose will depend on whether you have (or want to convert to) a three-phase power source. Three-phase condensers are more efficient and more durable. They’re also more expensive. Most buildings, including most small businesses, have single-phase power sources, which means anyone can operate a single-phase equipment, but single-phase systems can be overwhelmed by power surges. You need to confirm which power source you have and make certain you either get a system that matches your source or look into converting.

Start spec’ing your gelato display case by visiting the suppliers’ websites listed in the sidebar below.

Tips For Specifying

Most manufacturers agree that the following are key elements to weigh when considering which gelato display to buy:

  • Single-pane glass saves money, but heated, double-paned glass offers a better view of the product and better temperature control.
  • Good quality cooling elements keep temperature even and air moving up and over the gelato.
  • LED lights offer good visibility and attractive display at a lower temperature than other lights.
  • Employees should be able to easily remove components so they can wash the entire inside of the display.
  • Look for a supplier with a good track record in the U.S. The longer a brand has been in the U.S., the more extensive the network of qualified service agents who can repair the unit.

Make It Yours

There are many variables that can help you suit your display to your location. Here are some to consider:

  • Pans: How many do you need and what capacity?
  • Evaporator coils: Do you need two or will one work fine?
  • Style: Exterior design and interior and exterior finishes range from “Old World” charming to “Space Age” sharp.
  • Attached or adjacent cases: Will you display pastry, deli items or confections? If so, do you want cases that match your gelato display?
  • Casters: These are only ideal for those who want the convenience of being able to move the case during maintenance, or who plan to vary the case’s location. (But be aware these cases require a drain.)

Life In The Fast Lane

How fast is fast? When you have a line of very hungry customers, “now” sometimes isn’t fast enough.

At least three potential challenges can stand in the way of fresh food fast: a location that can’t accommodate ventilation over the cooking equipment; a staff not trained to cook (and a lack of budget to hire a staff that can), and not having time to cook items while customers wait.

As real estate gets pricier and harder to find, kitchens need to get smaller even as menus need to expand. Operators, too, are looking for ways to expand business by setting up shop in nontraditional yet high-traffic venues not necessarily equipped for foodservices such as airport concourses, hotel lobbies, mall kiosks, street stands, front bars and more. But many of those locations don’t have space for much cooking equipment, and often can’t accommodate Type I ventilation hoods required for most traditional equipment. Which means using self-contained or ventless equipment.

Add to a lack of real estate the rising cost of labor. As the minimum wage rises across the country, from around $9/hr. to $15/hr. in many places, the cost to hire more skilled cooks at even higher hourly wages starts to get prohibitive. Today, it makes sense to use equipment and technology that turns out consistent product, but that’s simple enough to operate that minimum-wage employees can cook well with it, consistently and fast.

One category of equipment that answers all of these challenges is an accelerated or fast-cook oven that combines more than one source of cooking heat: convection, radiant heat, impingement and in some cases, microwaves. And while these ovens have been around for some time now, the latest iterations—many of which have come out in the past year, if not the past month—are faster than traditional ovens and finish foods of all kinds better than ever.

How Fast?

You’ll see a lot of figures thrown out there relating to speed. Manufacturers of fast-cook ovens might claim their products cook three times as fast, five times as fast, even fifteen and twenty times as fast. But as fast as what?

Speed is relative. In most cases fast-cook-oven makers compare their products to a standard convection oven. So, if a menu item takes 20 minutes to cook in a convection oven, and a manufacturer says its speed oven is five times as fast, cook time for the same item in the speed oven should be four minutes or less. Here’s a more real-world comparison. A 12-in. fresh-dough pizza that typically takes six to nine minutes in a 550°F deck oven (or even convection oven) will take from 90 seconds to two and a half minutes in a speed oven.

Remember, this is just an example. Depending on the product, most menu items cook in 90 seconds or less. At those accelerated cook times, however, speed is still relative. For operational reasons, you may decide that two and a half minutes is too long for your customers to wait for a hot sandwich or some other menu item. Which means you’ll narrow your choices to ovens that can cook your menu faster—in, say, two minutes or less. (Editor’s Note: the new Vector oven bridges the category between regular convection ovens and fast-cook ovens, faster than the former, not as fast as the latter.)


Where Can I Drive It?

A fast-cook oven typically takes up less than two feet of counter space. And even better, it’s more like driving a Tesla—not only do you get phenomenal acceleration and speed but you get it without adding greenhouse gases to the environment. Almost all fast-cook ovens at this point are ventless, meaning they have built-in catalytic converters to handle any smoke and grease effluent resulting from cooking. Since they don’t have to operate under a Type I ventilation hood, you can put them anywhere.

Anywhere not only means whatever counter space you can find in your existing kitchens, but also in those nontraditional locations where you’d love to do business but for the inability to install a ventilation hood—multistory buildings where you can’t vent through the roof; open areas in malls, lobbies or food courts where venting isn’t possible; c-stores where there’s no room for a hood and the expense would be prohibitive.

Like a Tesla, a fast-cook oven will save you energy costs, too; because they cook food so rapidly, they use less energy in the process. And since they don’t require a hood, they also save on HVAC costs.

How’d They Do That?

Rather than using a single method of transferring heat to food, fast-cook ovens use a combination of technologies. But while a combi oven, for example, uses convection and steam to help speed cooking, fast-cook ovens typically use air impingement, forced convection or microwaves to reduce cook time and radiant heat or, again, some type of forced convection to brown foods.

Because fast-cook ovens don’t use moisture, manufacturers have found their own unique ways to cook food rapidly without drying it out or over-browning it. Since each individual cooking method has potential drawbacks, they’ve also found ways to combine technologies to overcome the cons.

Microwaves, for example, cook rapidly, but users have complained they cook unevenly. Since microwaves cook product from the outside in (as does any heat-transfer method), a product that is thicker in some spots than others could be undercooked on one end and overcooked on the other. Makers that use microwaves in their fast-cook ovens address the problem in a couple of ways.

First, they’ve better designed antennae in ovens that direct microwaves into the oven cavity to spread the energy more evenly. Next, older models often have a single magnetron (which produces the microwaves) in the top of the oven, which could result in uneven cooking and limit the types of pans you could use. Now, most models have a magnetron on each side of the oven that directs microwaves horizontally through the cavity for more even cooking and the ability to use metal pans.

First, they’ve better designed antennae in ovens that direct microwaves into the oven cavity to spread the energy more evenly. Next, older models often have a single magnetron (which produces the microwaves) in the top of the oven, which could result in uneven cooking and limit the types of pans you could use. Now, most models have a magnetron on each side of the oven that directs microwaves horizontally through the cavity for more even cooking and the ability to use metal pans.

Another drawback to microwave cooking is that microwaves won’t brown food or give food surfaces that nice crispy texture we all love. So, speed-oven manufacturers have added either forced convection, radiant heat, or both to speed cooking and provide the caramelization you’re looking for on finished menu items.

Radiant heat, or IR, by itself is a good way to transfer heat and cook food, but it can quickly overbrown foods. IR also needs an assist to keep up with fast-cook ovens. But forced convection and air impingement, because they move hot air, essentially compete with steady-on IR, making it ineffective unless used by itself after other cooking modes just to brown food.

One manufacturer says its new design recesses the IR elements inside forged steel hoods, protecting them from the disruption of air impingement. The benefit is that the two cooking modes work together; air impingement rapidly raises the internal temperature of the food, and the IR elements provide an assist by raising oven temperature to brown the product at the same time.

Alto-Shaam structured air technologyAir impingement also can be a tricky cooking method because the jets of hot air can quickly burn spots on food, which is why the technique was first featured on a conveyor oven; a conveyor moves products through those hot spots so it cooks evenly. But one manufacturer recently introduced an oven that only uses air impingement, making it as fast as a conveyor oven in a footprint less than half the size. It uses an oscillating rack to simulate a conveyor belt, constantly moving the product to cook it evenly.

Another maker designs its air impingement in such a way that it creates sheets of heated air that jet above and below the food, rapidly transferring heat and cooking food faster.

Self-Driving Ovens

Fast-cook ovens have been self-driving long before the concept was a gleam in Elon Musk’s eye, but controls in the past couple of years have grown increasingly sophisticated. Obviously, making these ovens as fast as possible is the point, so manufacturers take as much of the guesswork out of operating them as possible. They want your employees to load them, push one or two buttons, and unload perfectly cooked finished product. Fast and easy.

All makes are programmable, with most able to accommodate hundreds of programs. Most come with a number of presets and plenty of room to input additional menu items. Typically, all cooking techniques used by the oven can be independently controlled, and depending on the oven, you can program a cook cycle in three, four or up to six stages where it uses one or a combination of cooking methods to cook, brown, crisp, and/or finish the food item for the best result possible.

Manufacturers now pride themselves on the number of culinary staff and test kitchens they have on hand, which enable you to try equipment and test out recipes with your menu items. You also can work with manufacturers to preprogram models to your menu specs, so an oven is ready to use in-store right out of the crate.

Color touchscreens on most models make operation easy and intuitive for even first-time users. A USB port for downloading menu-item cooking instructions is an ante these days, and many models offer Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections in addition to a thumb-drive port so you can download recipes from a central location. Even better, models can upload maintenance alerts and self-diagnostics, telling you when it’s time to change air filters, service an oven, or how to troubleshoot problems.

One new model has two oven cavities for twice the throughput, and its touchscreen is split; employees can swipe the screen to reveal controls and status of either cavity. Another brand new oven adjusts from two to four cavities.

Accessorizing With Style

Options and accessories vary widely from model to model. Some only have a paddle or peel available for removing products from the oven. Others come with a range of accessories such as pizza stones, perforated baskets for items such as French fries, solid cook plates and baskets, cool-down pans, and additional racks. One model has a Panini press for sandwiches and others have a Panini grill plate to add grill marks to steaks, poultry or seafood.

Which options or accessories you need obviously depends on your menu. And the only way to really determine which combination of cooking methods and/or accessories will work best with your menu items is to test drive a number of models. Manufacturers are happy to show what their ovens can do with your menu, and that’s the best way to evaluate how different ovens will do the job.

None of these ovens are inexpensive—they range from about $6,000 to more than $12,000 depending on model and the bells and whistles—but all of them can save you money in energy costs, labor, and capital costs, too. Makes you think maybe you can afford that Tesla after all.

As originally printed in FER Magazine

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Convection Oven Care

We live in a world of multi-functional equipment, designed to make our lives more efficient, but sometimes the simple approach is still the best. And so it is with standard convection ovens. Although there are other ovens that cook as well as do so much more, many kitchen operations only need a reliable convection oven that produces consistent results.

Convection ovens are simple to operate and maintain. Although there are slight differences in the design and construction from one model to the next, their function remains essentially the same: to bake, broil and roast product. As with any piece of equipment, the better you care for and maintain it, the longer it lasts.

Keeping It Simple

Care for convection ovens begins with a clear understanding of how to operate it. Manufacturers provide operator’s manuals in hard copy form or digital form available on their websites. Take the time to read and understand this valuable document. Donny Smith, Service Manager for Commercial Parts & Service, Columbus, Ohio, says many unwarranted service calls could be avoided just by knowing the contents of this manual. For example, operators call to complain that the oven will not heat when in reality, they’ve left the cook/cool-down switch in the cool-down position.

Manufacturers make convection ovens as maintenance-free as possible. They design and build them with such features as sealed cavities to make sure water, grease and vapors don’t make contact with internal components and controls; interior and exterior composites and materials that make it hard for product or other substances to stick; and parts that are accessible and removable so that employees can clean them separately and reinstall with ease.

To make the process more efficient, one company recently developed an oven with removable glass-windowed doors that you lift off the hinges and can run through a dishmachine. Another company uses a flat-panel design for outer oven doors so that food particles cannot get lodged or stuck in the seams where the glass meets the stainless. At least one company has coved corners on the interior oven cavity to avoid particles getting stuck. Manufacturers have done their part to simplify the process, it’s up to you and your staff to regularly maintain the unit.

Regular Cleaning

There are a few steps you can take to keep the oven in peak condition.

Always consider safety first. Start by turning off the power switch and unplugging the electrical cord or turning off the breaker on electric units. On gas units, turn off the gas supply valve and disconnect the oven from power.

  • Let the oven cool down to a safe temperature; it should be cool to the touch.
  • Remove all pans, racks and crumb or drip trays and clean them separately.
  • Wipe down the exterior of the oven with a non-abrasive mild detergent and water solution; be mindful of all exterior parts, sides, top, front, doors, etc.
  • Never use a pressure sprayer or pressure washer to clean the oven; this could damage components and delicate controls.
  • If accessible and only after disconnecting power, carefully remove debris (for example, aluminum foil or food pieces, such as bone) from fan blades or housing. Check to see if the fan moves freely without obstruction or heavy resistance.
  • Wipe down and remove any grease or debris from the oven’s interior. To remove sticking contaminants, use a nylon-head brush. Don’t use a wire brush or harsh solvents.
  • Clean the air intake vent (usually located on the rear of the oven). This may have a cover on it that you can remove.

Ongoing Maintenance

Clean your convection oven daily and it should run hassle-free for a long time. Even so, it’s smart to hire a qualified service company to annually inspect your oven and perform planned maintenance if needed. Don’t attempt to repair or adjust technical components of the oven; leave it to a qualified technician—for safety and the warranty’s sake. A simple call to the factory technical support line can assist you in identifying what’s acceptable and safe for you to attempt in the way of maintenance and repair.


According to techs we spoke to, most service calls on convection ovens are a result of abuse, either from misuse, an incorrect installation or a lack of proper cleaning and care. More than 60% of warranty service calls are a direct result of improper installation and set-up, says John Schwindt, V.P. Operations/G.M. of Hawkins Commercial Appliance Service, Englewood, Colo. Make sure to hire a qualified technician to do the install. On the small percentage of service calls resulting in faulty components, many manufacturers are aiding service technicians with built-in diagnostic technology.

Simple and reliable, convection ovens play a key role in many kitchens. Caring for the oven and keeping it properly maintained will provide you with years of trouble-free operation and profitability

As originally printed in FER Magazine

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Anatomy Of An Island Suite

For the best tips on designing an island suite, we turned to J. Russell Stilwell, FCSI, Principal of Next Step Design, Annapolis, Md., who has designed hundreds of these compact powerhouses over the past 30 years. Island suites, which must always be built perpendicular, not parallel, to the service window or pass, have the ability to combine multiple linear feet of cookline into a compact, and most importantly, collaborative unit for the culinary staff. “There’s a point where a long cookline becomes counter-productive when the distance prohibits communication between staff,” says Stilwell. Nothing beats the efficiency of a well-designed island suite, which enables chefs to update one another as their preparations work their way down the line and out to service.

See the following for more tips.


  1. Pass-thru (and see-through) salamander lets everyone keep an eye on dishes finishing and eases flow and communication across the suite.
  2. Pot fill faucet saves steps and time.
  3. Utility cabinet provides centralized access to gas, water and electrical connections.
  4. Range oven with a heat-sink base (high-mass oven) retains heat when chefs are adding and removing items at a fast pace throughout the service.
  5. Enclosed curb base keeps out debris and eases cleaning.
  6. If the design permits, include a pot/utensil rack at the hood perimeter.
  7. Surround the island-style central filter bank hood system with conditioned, gently-introduced makeup air and plenty of task lighting.
  8. Tubular vs. solid overshelf allows heat to escape yet still holds and preheats sauté pans.
  9. Belly rail for 1/9-size pans keeps ingredients at hand and expedites the cooking/saucing process.
  10. Supporting mise en place, such as an adjacent refrigerated counter, supports fast production.
  11. Unified solid stainless top provides an easy-to-clean landing/work space for hot pans and plates.
  12. Build-in specialty equipment—planchas, pasta cookers, bains marie, wok ranges, induction tops—that the staff needs to execute the menu.
  13. Island-style central filter bank hood system.
  14. Supporting wall-shelf with printer shelf and built-in ticket rail centralizes order management.
  15. Unified flue riser collects and directs effluent from all equipment.
  16. Include utility outlets for small plug-in equipment such as mixers, choppers and stick blenders.

As originally printed in FER Magazine

Discover how Specifi’s Design software is designed to provide architects and commercial kitchen designers all of the tools necessary to build all sorts of commercial kitchens.

Watch this 2 minute video to see how we can help you save time and assure the accuracy of your commercial kitchen projects

Tips For Finding The Right Water-Filtration System

Water is the lifeblood of the commercial kitchen, where gallons and gallons flow through expensive equipment and land in the cups of your customers. Although water looks deceptively clear, it contains substances that can affect the taste of everything from soups to sodas and cause thousands of dollars in equipment damage if not managed.

Protect your equipment investments and keep customers coming back by ensuring good water quality through well-chosen filtration systems. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution: Your filter specification depends on the local water quality—to the street level, in some cases—the types of kitchen equipment using water, how you would like your customers to experience the taste, smell and look of your water as well as the recipes it’s used in. Professionals can help you specify a filtration system that balances all of these requirements, but you still need to know the basics to effectively manage your water quality.

What’s In Your Water?

Before you can decide what kind of filters your operation will need, you should know what’s in your water. Find out about your regional water quality either by accessing your municipality’s annual report or having your water tested, which delivers the most accurate results.

Common offenders include:

Sediment. Dirt, including mud, twigs, small stones and other organic matter, is common in water, and it can affect taste and cause beverages to appear cloudy.

Total dissolved solids (TDS). Water holds dissolved minerals and metals, such as magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron and other organic materials, in suspension called TDS. Water “hardness” is a measure of TDS content. Water also can contain alkaline substances, such as bicarbonate. Water’s alkalinity determines how easily the minerals and other TDS will form scale. To a degree, TDS will impart taste and odor to water, but the bigger danger is their effect on kitchen equipment. As water heats, the minerals precipitate and cling to the equipment; we know this more commonly as scale or “lime” buildup.


When scale coats heating-element surfaces in coffee brewers, steamers, combi ovens or dishmachines, your equipment isn’t brewing, cooking or cleaning properly.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs can make water taste and smell “off.” Those “off” elements can transfer to all of the beverages you make with your water.

Chemicals. Municipalities deliberately add chlorine and chloramines to water to kill microorganisms and make it safe to drink. But they cause beverages to taste and smell funny, too. They’re also corrosive and can damage any equipment using water: ice machines, steamers, combi ovens, coffee and tea brewers, espresso machines, etc.

Pathogens. Although chlorine and other chemicals typically destroy pathogens that can make your customers sick, it’s possible that some cysts, bacteria and viruses can enter your water supply.

If water is sourced from groundwater, such as wells, it can contain large amounts of TDS; high levels of TDS categorize water as “hard.” When water is sourced from surface water, such as lakes and rivers, the water is “softer” but subject to runoff contaminates, such as pesticides, dirt, heavy metals and microorganisms.

Filtration companies will use the water-quality report to estimate what kinds of challenges water may cause your kitchen. Typically, the key areas you’ll want to address are: TDS, sediments and chemicals in the water and their effect on taste and odor, health and safety and equipment.

Tailored To Your Needs

Next, consider the kinds of equipment that will be using water in your kitchen because different applications require various levels of water quality. For example, if an ice machine uses water that contains a lot of minerals, it will produce fast-melting ice. Espresso machines, combi ovens and steamers need special filters to prevent mineral-infused water from creating scale buildup on their heating elements. General scale-inhibiting filters can make soda taste funny, so fountain dispensers require their own specific filters. As a result, there’s a vast assortment of water filters available.

Filter Types

The first line of defense for sediment is the mechanical filter, of which there are two main types. Depth filters capture impurities ranging between 5-20 microns throughout the depth of the filter medium. Surface filters capture smaller impurities on the surface of a filter membrane, typically to about 0.1 micron.

Although local utilities already treat water, it’s important that your water-filtration system offers backup protection in case any dangerous bacteria, viruses or cysts slip through the treatment plant. Ultrafiltration membrane systems can capture these microscopic organisms to 0.01 micron and offer a secondary defense to keep customers healthy and safe.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that all local water utilities treat water with disinfectants, such as chlorine, to kill microorganisms that can cause illnesses, chlorine can add an undesirable “swimming pool” taste to beverages and ice.

Carbon filters, which are a form of mechanical depth filter, remove VOCs, metal ions such as lead and arsenic and chemicals such as chlorine, purifying the smell and taste of water. If you have more than one unit location, you’ll want to consider how carbon filters and regional water quality will affect taste consistency across your chain. Carbon filters also filter out chemicals that corrode metals, a bonus for water-using equipment.

Weighing Scale Systems

There are many ways to prevent scale, but the methods often must be customized for each application. For instance, ion exchangers, also known as water softeners, can reduce scale formation, but they also can make water taste salty, affecting the quality of coffee, tea and carbonated beverages. Scale inhibitors, such as polyphosphates, also are available; they bind with minerals and cause them to suspend in water rather than adhere to equipment components. The most common polyphosphates work well in temperatures up to 150°F; at higher temps, they can make beverages cloudy, but they’re fine for the dishmachine. For beverage equipment heating water to higher temperatures, such as espresso machines, you need polyphosphates designed for those applications.

Other scale inhibitors work by reversing the polarity of minerals, including calcium and magnesium. This causes the minerals to form into crystals that break off from the inhibitor material and suspend in the water rather than clumping together as scale buildup on equipment components. These polarity-reversing inhibitors aren’t affected by temperature, so they work well in high-heat water applications, such as espresso machines and steamers and combis that have flush cycles.

Know Your Options

Additionally, a good water-filtration system needs to be cost effective and manageable for your business; it makes no sense to invest in a system that your employees can’t or won’t maintain. One variable is placement: Filters can be installed at point-of-use—directly on the water line leading to the equipment—or point-of-entry, meaning that all of the water coming into the kitchen will be custom-filtered consistently.

A popular option is to design a spot for a system that centralizes multiple point-of-use filtration lines and can be serviced easily. Otherwise, employees frequently forget to change filters hidden from plain sight. It’s imperative to understand how often filters need changing and schedule maintenance. In recent years, manufacturers have developed self-cleaning filters that reduce maintenance costs.

Beyond placement, you also should consider filters’ flow rates, how much water they allow through and their capacity to ensure water pressure reaches the intensity your equipment needs.

Lastly, keep in mind some third-party certification bodies verify that filters stand up to their manufacturers’ claims. For instance, NSF certification on a filter means that the system is structurally sound and the claims on a system’s label are true and not misleading.

Choosing the correct water-filtration system can be a daunting task. Plan for a water-filtration system early in your design, choose an established water-filtration company with a good reputation and use third-party-certified filters.

As originally printed in FER Magazine

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Fab-Tastic Journey

So you need to spec some equipment, or maybe some décor items. As if you don’t have enough choices among the thousands of suppliers of off-the-shelf pieces out there, there’s a whole other universe of custom fabrication.

You can get custom-spec stainless fabrication, or custom millwork for wood or other materials. There are dealers who do their own fab, though not many. Most subcontract it to outside fabbers. Fabbers themselves generally specialize in either steel or wood/other millwork, and a few here and there do both steel fabrication and millwork. Then there’s another group—OEM manufacturers who produce their catalog items plus do fab and maybe millwork too. The possibilities are virtually endless, and even old hands at specifying custom fab are discovering new alternatives popping up all the time.

So how do you even begin to sort your options?

To Customize, Or Not To Customize

First question is, “What are you trying to do?” Fortunately suppliers can help you through the analysis. Are you better off with standard catalog items, or will custom be worth it? The big question is, as it is with most business decisions, whether your capital budget is strong enough to go for continuing paybacks.

Are you outfitting a prototype? If you’re going to repeat installations, unit costs can come down, and you can work that into your decision-making. Or are you doing a one-off? If your footprint gives you flexibility, off-the-shelf might be your answer. If you have a really constricted space or other unique requirements, custom might make more sense.

As for that matter of budget: Custom fab often—though by no means always—costs more than off-the-shelf. Do you have the capital budget for a custom configuration that can save you space, utility or labor costs going forward? Every time wages or utility costs go up, payback goes up.

And here’s another angle to consider: If you’re comparing apples to apples—the price of a buyout prep table to the price of a custom prep table—you’ll get one set of numbers. However, if you’re customizing, you might consider custom fabbing one piece that in effect will replace multiple catalog pieces—in which case your math will look very different. And then there are other considerations you might not think of. Fab suppliers can examine those options and run the numbers with you to figure out where they can help and where they can’t.

“The first thing we do is try to understand what the brand is doing in its kitchen,” says Todd Slawson, Senior V.P. of Client Services for Columbus, Ohio-based N. Wasserstrom & Sons, which manufacturers stock items and does a lot of custom fab and millwork. “Will this be a prototype to be replicated? Once we understand, we look at the food products and general design. Then we educate the operator about the differences between a manufactured piece and what we would provide as a custom piece. How much and what shape space do they have? That all factors in.”

Frequently Customized

Slawson notes most commonly custom-fabbed kitchen pieces include production/make/assembly line type equipment such as prep tables, overshelves, drop-in pieces and so on. “Every operator brand, every concept has a little different spin on the operations and food product side. Because of that, prep, cooking and assembly all might lend themselves to unique configurations.”

Elsewhere in the facility, Slawson says dishroom needs might benefit from custom sizing or layout of load, scrap and unload surfaces. “In QSR, maybe the drive-thru area needs custom fitting. Prep sinks, prep tables, work areas—maybe you will have a standard 24-in. x 36-in. prep surface/work table, but could it benefit from two mid-shelves, or casters, or flanges?” Often custom features can make a big difference in functionality, especially given the trend to ever-smaller overall footprints.

Front-of-house can involve stainless fab, but more likely it’s millwork, or a combination of both. “Some areas, such as beverage counters, are more metal,” Slawson says. “Front-of-house seating is millwork. Condiment counters and queue lines generally are millwork finished with laminates, hardwoods, Corian, those kinds of materials.” Another common front-of-house custom piece is a salad bar.

Managing The Process—Early, Early

Managing the design process, no surprise, is a key focus. Like managing any design effort, getting all the players involved early is crucial. Accurate communication, from general operational goals and ROI to precise measurements of dimensions, will make the difference between smooth installations and nightmarish, unprofitable rework and delays.

“We are proponents of getting involved as early as possible in the design/spec process, especially for prototypes, so decisions can be made with everyone involved,” says Craig Anderson, Project Director/Senior Designer at Irvine, Calif., dealer TriMark Raygal, which does a lot of design-build and subcontracts fabricators. “We work closely with the operator, architect and construction team early on to be sure we are not pushed into a corner” either on the design process or the timeline.

Getting everyone in the loop from the start is especially important in the case of custom fab because some ideas look great on paper but won’t work in the physical world. “With computers today, it’s easy to draw anything,” Anderson says. “But it comes down to how practical that shape or size or configuration is for the person who actually has to build it. And that translates to cost. What is the look that the designer wants versus what is functional and operational?” Some things are not possible, and some things are possible, but at prohibitive cost and no practical payback.

At St. Louis-based Duke Mfg., which produces catalog items as well as custom fab, Senior Project Manager Dean Anderson agrees. “The whole process from the design stage to installation stage all hinges on communication and at which stage a project gets passed to the next team member for that project,” he says. “To start a project correctly, you need to be able to take the vision of a consultant or site director and be able to transfer that idea to a quote and drawing that shows them exactly what we believe that vision is.” As some projects have multiple phases and multiple managers, communication becomes just that much more important.

“We listen carefully to find out what the operator really needs,” says Jonathan Hood, V.P. Strategic Solutions, Franke Foodservice Solutions, Smyrna, Tenn., which manufacturers as well as does custom fab. “We help them create standards [in layout and custom fab] so as they go forward, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

The idea is repeatability and efficiency. “When you think custom fabrication, you need to think standardization,” Hood continues. “You should go modular. As you create your concept, you must understand that although you want to build custom, you also will want to make changes in the future.” The more you can carry over from the original drawings—metal gage, bracing, other features and manufacturing details—the quicker and simpler any changes will be.

Many of Franke’s clients are putting big emphasis on small spaces, which puts a lot of pressure on conventional thinking. “A lot of catalog items go horizontal, and they require more steps around the kitchen,” he says. “A lot of facilities run electrical or refrigeration, water and gas and everything within the walls, and then it’s very hard to do changes later.

“We like to keep things modular. We design custom fab pieces for fewer steps and multiple uses. That often means we go more vertical, which optimizes smaller kitchens, smaller footprints,” he says.

Very often, the Franke team finds that the holistic, modular approach yields other harder-to-see benefits as well.

“We have a client that recently went through a redesign,” Hood says. “The new equipment package costs more. But we took out a drain and water line from the floor. We took $5,000 out of construction cost that you would not think of when thinking custom fab. We took construction dollars and moved them to equipment. The result was a more-nimble, more-quick facility. Sometimes catalog items just won’t do what you want.”

Figuring Lead Times

Another thing to keep an eye on is lead times. Lead times rise and fall seasonally, just as they do for standard manufactured items, all our sources indicated. Weather is a factor—first-quarter building and installation is pretty slow, especially in the northern tier. Fourth quarter is a rush to finish the year’s projected activity. In between is a ramp-up from spring through autumn, notably influenced by things like school renovations that have to be done during summer. If you know you’re going to need product delivered during busy periods, it’s best to arrange it in advance.

“For custom fab, once the drawing/review process is done, typical rule of thumb is six to eight weeks for lead times,” TriMark’s Anderson says. “That can be compressed, but it’s difficult. And of course it depends on the size and capability of the fabricator, the complexity of project, and the time of year.”

Other factors enter into lead times too. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that custom items can be made as quickly as a standard off-the-shelf item,” says Dave Martin, Application Designer & Engineer at Duke. “Custom needs to be laid out and engineered to specific needs, and that could, and does, add to lead times and sometimes costs.”

Mark Brenner, V.P. Sales at Eagle Group, Clayton, Del., which manufactures stock pieces and does its own fabrication and millwork, notes lead times even for a chain can vary from installation to installation. “Does the package differ from store to store? If stores are different, lead times can be longer because drawings are different. If the back-of-house is the same, that makes it easy, and you can do the fabrication for a store in a couple weeks.”

“Consistency definitely makes my job and everyone’s job easier,” adds Brian Powell, Engineering Manager at Eagle. And that translates to higher quality and quicker turnaround. Chain customers with repeatable drawings and relatively few points of contact often can expect quicker lead times. Other kinds of projects, especially if they have multiple contacts at multiple stages, introduce more complexity and can take longer.

Choosing Suppliers

So maybe after some thought you decide you need to look into custom fab. If you haven’t handled fab before, who do you talk with to get the ball rolling? No doubt you already have channel partners—a dealer, a consolidator, etc. Maybe you’re working with a consultant. Ask them whether they can help you design what you need and recommend a fabricator.

Talk to your peers in the industry. Ask them who they recommend, who they don’t, what were their experiences, etc. You need fab work that’s good quality and on time. Your peers will tell you what they know. They might steer you to a designer, a dealer or directly to a fabricator.

Think not only about the piece(s) to be fabricated, but how the whole workspace might be transformed. Ask your partners about logistics issues. “We will look at regional fabricators or mills to execute projects in some cases,” Anderson (at TriMark) says. “But at the end of the day, especially on the chain side, consistency is important. Someone who already knows your project can do it better, quicker, rather than training a new supplier just to reduce transportation costs.”

As for complexities, consider how many moving parts, so to speak, are in your project—how many pieces, and how many materials. Many fabricators tend to specialize in one material or another. Hoods and exhaust regulations are a sophisticated business, and dedicated hood manufacturers, with their testing capabilities and UL listed models, are a bigger part of the market. Fabricated hoods are a shrinking segment, with a small number of fabbers competing well.

Some sources do both metal and wood/other. (Other construction type materials such as ceramic tile, stone and composite often get subcontracted.) Is there an advantage in finding one that does both? Maybe. If you have complex pieces incorporating both steel and wood, for example, it might be handy to have a single shop producing both parts so you know they’ll fit before they ship.


Checklist For Custom Fab & Millwork

  • You’re customizing to get a payback—in time, labor, space and/or construction costs. Think outside the box. Can you customize one piece that will replace two or more off-the-shelf items? Your suppliers can help you.
  • Ask your peers at other companies what fab and millwork suppliers they would and would not recommend. They’ll tell you.
  • Communication is everything. Get operators, architects, designers, fab/millwork contractors and construction teams together at the beginning of planning so everyone hears everything.
  • The more complex a design is, the more challenging the fabrication is. Communicate and coordinate accordingly.
  • Make sure the design can actually be produced cost-effectively. Some configurations just can’t be built efficiently.
  • In an era of shrinking footprints, make use of vertical space.
  • If you’ll want custom pieces installed during busy summer months, get them fabricated/milled early.
  • If you have pieces that combine metal fab and millwork, consider a shop that does both and can assure fit before shipping.

As originally printed in FER Magazine

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