Operators Are Exploring New Options for Soft-serve Equipment


Volume 48, Number Three

Written By: Denis Deveau

The soft-serve market has weathered many seasons of change, but when one trend wanes, another is ready to take its place.

Last year frozen yogurt was driving business, but the market has slowed dramatically, says Paul LeClerc, sales manager for Serve Canada, a Toronto-based distributor, which represents Kiel, Wis.-based Stoelting, among others. “There have been a lot of fatalities on the frozen yogurt operator side, and [there’s] a lot of used equipment on the market now. [But] manufacturers are finding new opportunities for soft-serve.” He adds: “Equipment is getting slicker and more compact, [with] Wi-Fi and cellular communications capabilities.”

This year interest in gelato-making equipment is on the rise. “More and more [consumers] are looking for a quality experience. People love the artisanal aspect of gelato, and it’s healthier than ice cream, because it has less fat,” says Jesse Friedland, sales and operations manager for Cool King Refrigeration Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont.

Aleks Mijailovic, co-owner of Heart – House of Sweets in Toronto, is cashing in on the gelato trend. He has been working with the Bologna, Italy-based Carpigiani brand since opening on Victoria Day 2014. The café features 36 gelato flavours daily (except when the selection is reduced during the winter).

Production is handled by an LB RTX water-cooled batch freezer and a Pastomaster RTX pasteurizer, which have a combined cost of approximately $60,000. Water-cooled units tend to be heavier and more complicated to set up, since they need to be hooked up to plumbing. However, they cool more efficiently and run much quieter than air-cooled systems, which include a fan and require more space, Mijailovic explains.

A favourite feature on Mijailovic’s RTX machines is a serial port, which allows him to download data about performance. “That’s a really good recording feature, and it’s handy for meeting health and safety food requirements. I just plug it in and get information for reports,” he says.

Another new entrant to the soft-serve category is Soft Peaks in Vancouver’s Gastown district. The team has been serving organic, pure milk, soft-serve ice cream since opening to rave reviews in January. “We had up to 100 people waiting outside on the first day,” says Dan Kim, co-owner. “Demand was so high we weren’t getting the right texture, because it was too much ice cream at once.”

It took three days to realize the C706 machine from Rockton, Ill.-based Taylor wasn’t enough to meet demand; the shop owners quickly ordered a second unit. The small-format, single-handle countertop machines cost approximately $18,000 apiece. Each unit can produce 60 to 70 servings an hour at maximum speed. Since it was a big initial investment, Kim gave the supplier a $700 deposit and was given a machine on loan until his equipment arrived. He chose a water-cooled model, largely because of space restrictions and the fact that the fan on an air-cooled unit tends to generate heat. “Making the store hot wouldn’t be good,” he notes.

While Cool King’s Friedland admits Canada’s long winters make it a difficult market to sell soft-serve, operators outside the specialty category are exploring compact, low-cost machines. “We’re seeing a lot more non-traditional venues like coffee shops and pop-up stores interested in buying smaller machines to expand their menus,” he says. “A small countertop, single-serve machine for a low-volume operation can cost as little as $5,000. Some people buy these to run pilot programs to gauge response to offerings such as coke floats or other treats.”

Menu innovations may be on the rise, but soft-serve has always been a mainstay in QSR circles for staples such as shakes and sundaes. Hero Certified Burgers in Toronto has been riding the soft-serve wave for more than four years, says Carlo Lucia, director of Operations. The company invested in Taylor equipment after realizing soft-serve provided better consistency; plus it was more labour-intensive to scoop hard ice-cream for milkshakes and sundaes.

There is now a C707 single-flavour machine in each of the chain’s 59 outlets (at approximately $14,000 per unit, including the add-on spindle unit for milkshakes) as well as a unit in its training centre where new staff are given at least an hour of hands-on instruction. One lesson is on the importance of cleaning units regularly. “It can affect performance. Temperature control is also key in ensuring ice cream doesn’t freeze too much,” Lucia says.

Regular maintenance, including lubricating and replacing parts, also ensures quality and consistency. “Like any piece of equipment, gaskets and blades need to be replaced quarterly,” Lucia says. “You need to follow the maintenance schedule your provider recommends.”

Friedland advises machines be given a routine maintenance check every six months by an equipment professional. “A lot of people neglect that,” he notes.

What people don’t neglect is their budget. Whether it’s a single-machine operation with limited space, a restaurant chain, or a café looking to grow revenues, meeting budget is typically the first consideration and space is the second consideration that factors into equipment purchasing decisions, Friedland says. Given the upfront expense, many operators opt for leasing contracts with a buyout option. This way they can purchase a unit after a year or return it. There is also used production equipment available, but Friedland cautions buyers to check warranty coverage.

In a shifting market, extra options are key to building a sound, profitable business. As Friedland notes, “Offering more than one at a time is a great way to enhance your customer experience.”

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