Soft-serve ice cream has been a mainstay offering in countless establishments for decades — from quick-service and specialty shops to food trucks and family restaurants. But, these days, the overwhelming demand for frozen yogurt is convincing more foodservice operators to invest in equipment for soft-serve in a bid to keep profits flowing.
It’s not surprising since frozen treats that include yogurt deliver approximately 80-per-cent profit, save the toppings, which deliver a lower profit margin. (According to industry experts, frozen yogurt that costs seven to 10 cents an ounce should sell for 55 to 60 cents an ounce.)
While the inner workings of equipment for soft-serve offerings may not have changed much in 70 years, there have been advancements in flavour-injection systems, digital controls and energy-efficiency. Some of those changes matter to operators, others not so much.
When Mark Wiebe, CEO of Kiwi Kraze self-serve yogurt shops, opened his first outlet in London, Ont., in 2011, he chose tried-and-true equipment. Since expanding throughout the province, his inventory has grown to include machinery from Rockton, Ill.-based Taylor and East Moline, Ill.-based Electro Freeze.
Each of his 13 stores has five twin-serve machines that cost approximately $18,000 apiece, although Wiebe says that average price wasn’t the only purchasing consideration — durability and service were even bigger factors. “We’re in this for the long term, so we always make sure we use high-quality machines. I prefer machines built in North America, because a lot of lower priced imports use inferior components.”
The twin-serves have two handles for the individual flavours as well as a third handle in the centre that allows customers to “twist” the two together. Wiebe’s staff rotates approximately 120 flavours, including a range of no-sugar-added and high-protein Greek-style yogurts as well as vegan sorbets and gelato. “Some higher-end machines can hold up to eight different flavours and have a synthetic flavour tank that injects [syrup] while dispensing. We haven’t gone that route. All our products are natural and pre-mixed.” Hoppers, which can hold up to 20 litres of liquid, are filled from the machine’s access point in the kitchen. The liquid is only frozen when it is being dispensed, so it’s critical to get the freezing temperatures right. “Each product has slightly different freezing temperatures. Some models work better for frozen yogurt, because the temperatures and air-mix ratios are adjustable. For us, digital controls are an absolute requirement,” Wiebe says.
Since machines need to be sanitized and lubricated regularly, Wiebe chose equipment that is easy to take apart so employees can be taught to make the necessary adjustments within two training sessions. He has also opted for water-cooled over air-cooled systems, because they’re more economical and slightly more durable. “With air-cooled you need a separate HVAC system or the kitchen will get too hot,” he says.
When Joe Nicoletti, co-owner of Nom Nom’s Yogurt Bar & Café, with two locations in the Greater Toronto Area, set out to buy equipment for soft-serve, he kept future franchising plans in mind and purchased gravity-fed, dual-flavour F231 systems from Stoelting, based in Kiel, Wis. “We went to all sorts of locations to look at features and [find out] what’s behind the machines, including service,” Nicoletti says. “We found they were all in the same price range. So we went for a brand we could trust, because [the machines are] our bloodline during the summer. We can’t afford for them to go down.”
A major selling point for Nicoletti was the USB port. “I can put a memory stick into any machine, and it will give me the data I need, such as the volume of yogurt being dispensed and at what intervals and times. It will also tell me if temperature changes go beyond a certain level, so I know when they need maintenance.”
The Wi-Fi-enabled systems can also be programmed to send alerts to a computer or mobile phone — a feature Nicoletti says will come in handy when operations expand. “That’s something that will be valuable down the road when we get to more stores. Then we can log in from anywhere to see what is happening with the equipment.”
At the Markham, Ont.-based Yogen Früz, equipment choices hinge on the fundamentals. The company opened its first outlet in 1986, when it installed specialized custom-made equipment to blend yogurt with real frozen fruits.
While Carlos Campo, VP of Operations for the frozen-yogurt chain, has seen a few bells and whistles being added to equipment for soft-serve in recent years, his company generally uses basic machines due to the high volume of equipment it buys for its 1,400 locations (and growing) worldwide. “Some newer machines can be checked over the Internet and calibrated from an office. While [some of my European operators] tend to prefer these features, most [others] like a basic ‘truck’ that’s very reliable once it’s set up,” points out Campo.
More recently, the international chain added one to three self-serve machines in outlets where space allows. “Now you can serve yourself, or we mix it for you,” says Campo. “It’s all about choices for customers.” Yogen Früz management prefers Taylor or Stoelting systems when outfitting stores in North America. In its European outlets, the company works with Gel Matic or Carpigiani equipment from Italy. “Local supply and support is very important,” Campo says.