Top Speed: a Look at High-Speed Ovens

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Quick cooking doesn’t have to mean low quality. When it comes to today’s high-speed ovens, operators stand to benefit from the stiff competition in a market where companies vie to fine-tune the nuances of a slow-cooked meal in record time. Companies such as TurboChef, Ovention, Merrychef, Amana and Celco continue to innovate their products for every foodservice application — whether it’s transforming a frozen turkey to a golden Thanksgiving roast in minutes or simply reheating a croissant so as not to toughen its Parisian flakiness.

James Pool, president of Texas-based TurboChef, says every operator’s kitchen can be optimized by a high-speed oven. “Everyone wants operational simplicity and speed of service — they want to leave a smaller footprint, get more guests and make more money without having to build a larger kitchen. A rapid-cook platform guarantees that happens and still delivers quality.”

But the invention of the high-speed oven happened almost by fluke. In 1991, the original concept was to develop a high-speed, food-based vending machine. “After realizing we didn’t want to be in the vending business, we extracted the oven out of the vending machine and said ‘wow, this oven has legs’,” says Pool. “From that point on, we focused on commercial food.” Now the company provides high-speed ovens for Starbucks, Duncan Donuts, Subway, Panera, Red Lobster, Jason’s Deli, Alice Fazooli’s and many others.

“If you look at Starbucks,” says Pool, “it started to serve cold food a few years ago, but soon realized it needed to add heat as an essential ingredient to its products.” He notes that for operations with 15,000 to 20,000 locations, building a new kitchen in each one is simply not an option. Instead, businesses needed a technology that can sit on a counter and be easily operated.

“With rapid-cook ovens, you also reap the benefit of ‘wage compression’,” says Pool, “Because the employee who gets paid $14 an hour can now perform a task that a higher-paid chef would have done — and at a fast speed.”

But choosing the right high-speed oven requires operators to assess their operation’s needs first. Tracy Steinwand, vice-president of Operations at Subway, explains, “We needed ovens that combined cooking methods, for example, a type of heat that would perfectly toast bread. But then we needed a different type of heat to warm up our hot-meat sandwiches, such as our Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki.” Because of space limitations, Subway also required machines certified for ventless operations — as no oven hood could be installed.

As one of the first operations to roll out the high-speed oven on a global scale — with new ovens in more than 100 countries within the span of a year — Steinwand says their value cannot be underestimated. “Speed of service is critical in our industry,” says Steinwand. “When we started looking for a toasting oven, we wanted to find one that could integrate into our already large fleet of restaurants — and deliver products fast to meet the speed demands of our guests.”

“Speed demands” is exactly what the industry is facing with its millennial customers. While the high-speed oven does cater to servicing this demographic, they do, however, come with a cost — literally. “That much heat delivered with that much speed means we use more electricity in each restaurant,” says Steinwand. “But, like any piece of equipment, preventative maintenance is required and is especially important with the high-speed ovens.”

While Steinwand says her maintenance and replacement fees are confidential, Pool notes that rapid-cook ovens need to be replaced approximately every seven years.

Rapid-cook ovens utilize two forms of heat — convection air and microwave, or microwave and steam — to cut cooking time by as much as 50 per cent. In contrast, accelerated-cooking technologies, such as impingement, sweep hot air over the top and bottom of the food item, surpassing the cooking speed of a traditional convection oven by 30 to 50 per cent.

Chris Moreland, executive chef at Iowa-based Amana, says choosing the right oven for your operation is critical. “For a QSR type of operator, the Amana ACE oven (which retails for $7,600) is a perfect choice. It’s a fantastic tool for working with pre-made sandwiches or pastries, as it won’t dry out or toughen the pastry. Within 20 to 40 seconds, you get the customer the order.”

By contrast, the AXP ($16,400) uses a combination of convection, impingement air and microwave technologies. But the price tag doesn’t mean it’s ideal for every type of food product. “It’s not great for delicate things like pastry. It’s a bit more aggressive. You could cook chicken wings in a minute or pizza or nachos in 30 seconds. You could bake a filet of salmon in one minute, 30 seconds,” says Moreland.

Sobey’s HMR (Home-Meal-Replacement) program has had great success with Amana’s ARX oven ($13,000). It’s got a smaller footprint, but can do everything an AXP does — with a smaller internal capacity. “This is ideal for businesses with a limited counter space that don’t require hood ventilation,” says Moreland. The Saskatoon Club (a private-members club) has also started serving a complete menu of gourmet tapas at its elite lounge. “This is a great technology you can add onto a pre-existing business model,” says Moreland. “The food quality is exceptional, authentic tasting and fast.”

From hotels with breakfast programs (or even room service with an overnight menu) to QSRs to fine dining, high-speed ovens offer a quick solution to many businesses on the threshold of expansion. Easy to use, speedy, minimal in size and versatile, high-speed ovens allow for the trend of customization to thrive.

“At Subway, we specialize in customizing each and every sandwich,” says Steinwand. “To heat or ‘cook’ each sandwich to perfection — thousands a day — we needed a technology to bring our flavours to the next level. You can’t have a beautiful steak sandwich with melted cheese on it without a chef investing a significant amount of time in the kitchen. But we make that experience an authentic, delicious possibility in just seconds.” Ultimately, high-speed ovens not only benefit the operator, but the customer. With the onset of the millennial consumer, speedy delivery of a customized product has created an impetus within the industry to keep up.

Now that high-speed ovens have arrived, it’s hard to argue the traditional oven will still be in existence 50 years from now. “If a high-speed oven can customize the order perfectly and truly make it what the customer wants — why would we look back? These ovens allow us to deliver on that, without adding long delays to the guest service time,” says Steinwand.

Written by Jennifer Febbraro

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