Choose the Right Smoker for Your Foodservice Operation

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Volume 48, Issue 1

Written By: Denise Deveau

Chefs are passionate about their barbecues and smokers — just ask Ted Reader. The Toronto-based celebrity chef, self-professed “Godfather of the Grill” and prolific cookbook author, is excited about his new toy. It’s a 1972 fire truck decked out for barbecuing on the go. “We pulled out the water tank and pump and added eight feet of [Brantford, Ont.’s] Crown Verity industrial- grade gas grills that can work on charcoal as well as rotisserie units,” he says of the catering truck that’s also equipped with a hardwood-barrel smoker with a four-shelf rotisserie. “It’s not gas-powered. You just light and tend the fire, and smoke it low and slow.”

Whether revved up about smokers or not, choosing the right one for a foodservice operation takes time and research. Reader suggests operators start by choosing a design that corresponds with the restaurant’s expected output, whether it’s a smaller-format gas grill or a large rotisserie smoker. “If you go for larger units, many are fully automated and run on natural gas or propane if they’re portable,” he says, alluding to the value of having machines that don’t need to have temperature manually regulated.

At Stack Restaurant in Toronto, owner Bill Panos’ 500-lb. capacity smoker from Alamo, Tenn.-based Southern Pride has served him well for three years. What he likes best about the equipment is that he can use split logs instead of pellets. “Part of our restaurant philosophy is [about] doing everything the old-fashioned way. Using manufactured, compressed wood [isn’t] right for us.”

What is ideal is that the hood is fitted to the size of the unit. “That was a real advantage, because we didn’t have to have a custom hood made for us. You can buy everything in combination: the hood, the exhaust and the motor for about $3,000 over the base $26,000 for the smoker, plus installation costs.”

Another feature he likes in his 1,200-lb. unit is the fan that creates a convection effect for even heating (see “Time for a Check-up?” p. 54). “That, combined with the rotisserie, is a huge advantage,” Panos says. He explains: “One of the challenges with smoking is often uneven heat. With a smaller box you have to constantly move things around for even heat distribution. By adding electronic controls, that problem goes away. If you want to do some serious smoking without using a lot of man hours, that’s the oven you want. You set it and forget it,” he says.

One drawback to big smokers is you can’t cold-smoke items such as fish or cheese. “They’re designed for big overnight cooks of ribs or chicken. It’s very difficult to do any low-temperature smoking,” Panos admits. “You use smaller units for that.”

Installation is another challenge. “If you are building a restaurant from the ground up, you have to put it in first. A retrofit can be difficult,” Panos says. But, it’s best to check first, as some new designs fit through standard door frames.

Problems don’t necessarily end once the machine is installed. Working with smokers and barbecues can be difficult. The team at RCR Hospitality Group in Halifax learned that the hard way. “Southern-style barbecue is not the easiest cuisine to duplicate for commercial use,” confesses Shannon Bruhm, VP, Operations, at the company, which owns restaurants such as Onyx, Cut, Waterfront Warehouse (and previously Q Smokehouse). “You’re always trying to provide food at its peak quality. But the window for that is fairly short, and everything is pretty much predicated on being done at one time.”

Perhaps that’s why the 500-lb., $20,000 smoker from Ponca City, Okla.-based Cookshack, didn’t work out at the now- defunct Q Smokehouse. It found a new home at RCR’s Cunard Centre catering operation, where it is now used for large dinner events. “We know how many are coming and the menu. It works much better,” Bruhm admits, referring to the equipment with state-of-the-art features, including digital temperature-control settings, which allows hickory pellets to burn at specific rates.
The Cunard Centre is also stocked with various commercial barbecues and propane fryers, which are loaded onto vans for on-site cooking. Most recently, MagiCater barbecues, from MagiKitch’n based in Bow, N.H., joined the fleet. “They come in 30- and 60-inch, as well as six-foot sizes and [with] lots of options, such as shelving for condiments, stainless-steel hoods or wind guards,” Bruhm says.

Meanwhile, Dave Harper, president, D&S Southern Comfort BBQ in Carlsbad Springs, Ont., learned to balance erratic demand for his smokers by using two Southern Pride XLR-1000 systems. One is installed in his 270-seat restaurant kitchen, the second is on a trailer, which can be used when demand peaks. At $40,000 each, the units weren’t cheap, but they do the job. “They’re workhorses. I’ve only had to replace the bearings, belt and plastic faceplate on the electronic controls,” says Harper, who’s had the machines for six years. “Overall, however, they’re darn near bulletproof.”For smaller jobs, Harper uses non-rotisserie electric smokers ($10,000 apiece). “They do a nice job on chicken wings, because they have less of a smoke flavour,” he says, explaining, “with brisket and pork shoulder you typically want a deeper smoke flavour.”

Overall, there’s a lot to learn about smokers. “Authentic barbecue sounds easy, but it’s not — at least not when you’re [cooking] on a large scale. It’s all in how you get product from the smoker to the customer’s table without screwing it up. You don’t want to sell leftovers and … you don’t want to run out,” Harper says. It’s an important issue. “Your reputation relies on having hot, fresh product.”

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