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April 2007
Drawing the Line
By: Mike Sherer

If you’re exhausted by the “my meal, my way” consumer who’s always on the go, a new serving line could be an operational and financial boon. Whether you’re spec’ing for healthcare or schools, B&I or hotels, even buffet restaurants or quick-serve outlets, some form of the serving line is likely to help improve your traffic flow, add menu flexibility, boost impulse sales and improve your bottom line.

Whether modular or custom-made, the genius behind serving line equipment is vast flexibility in materials, options and pricing. Plus, with supplier support throughout the process of choosing the best designs, configuration and equipment, you’ll find that choosing a new or upgraded line can be executed with more ease than you might suspect.

So if you’ve been dreaming of upgrading up your scramble service, adding a new buffet line, expanding your salad and soup bar, or simply extending your grab-and-go options, now’s the time to explore your serving line options.

Here, There Or Everywhere

The first question to ask is whether you want a permanent or mobile line. If you don’t intend to change out or reconfigure the line in the near future, then it may be worth the expense of running utilities to the area and custom fabbing a line that will sit permanently in place.

Modular pieces of equipment, however, can make specifying a serving line easier, and give you the flexibility of changing the configuration or even the “look” of the line at a later date. These modular pieces come in so many sizes and shapes that you’ll likely be able to build a line in your existing space with off-the-shelf components. The components then can be set in place on legs or put on casters if you need to mix and match pieces for different functions in different areas.

Finally, if you plan a semi-permanent line, you can spec standard modules and use custom fab to fill odd spaces and angles or create a special look.

Go With The Flow

A couple of factors will help you determine what equipment to spec and how many pieces you need: your menu and your volume.

Menu determines whether you need hot holding (heated wells, heated undercounter storage), cold holding (cold wells, frost tops, undercounter refrigeration, merchandisers or freezers), or a combination. Some menu items dictate specific modules, like soup wells for soup, hot cereal, stews or chili.

Style of service will help you select self-serve, grab-and-go units or modules with more traditional hot and cold food wells, and what type of undercounter storage to spec (dry, refrigerated or heated). 

Knowing the number of customers you plan to serve in a specific timeframe will help you select the amount of equipment you need and configure it in the most efficient layout. Feeding 500 school kids in a 40-minute period, for example, will likely require a different layout and equipment than buffet service for 500 in a hotel banquet room.

Where you situate your line also will have an effect on your choices. Put a line on an outdoor patio for dining room overflow or special functions, for example, and you may want to use ice-cooled cold units rather than mechanically cooled if the line is too far away from adequate electric service.

In general, the key is eliminating bottlenecks. Self-service is typically faster for the customer than being served, so you may want to separate the two. Salad bars are the exception to the self-service rule, which is why they’re often situated out of high-traffic areas.

Meanwhile, few customers will complain about cold food not being cold enough, but many will complain about hot food not being hot enough, which is one argument for putting hot foods last on a line. But many operations put hot food first on a line and self-serve accompaniments farther down. Customers select an entrée—say, a burger—then choose what they want with it—chips, salad, etc.—spurring more impulse sales.

Another potential bottleneck is where customers pay for their food. Make sure there are enough cashier stations to handle a rush.

Scatter systems eliminate many flow problems, but you may not have the space. You don’t have to settle for a straight serving line, though. Alternatives—horseshoe, W-shaped, L-shaped, T-shaped, parallel lines or some other configuration—may help solve a flow problem. Consultants and manufacturers can help you determine the right flow and the right equipment for your space.

Modular, Dude

You can get exactly what you want when you have it specially fabricated to your specs. But you’ll also pay a price for that customization. Modular serving lines give you the flexibility to install anything from a couple of relatively inexpensive carts on wheels to a modular line that duplicates the look and feel of your concept.

Obviously, the more customized the line, the more expensive, but most manufacturers now offer such a wide range of products and finishes that true customization won’t come in until you start specifying colors, graphics and logos.

There are a couple of ways you can go. One is to spec self-contained, pre-built modules. That is, modules or carts that already have equipment built-in. This way, you spec standard-size units and string them together. Choose from multiple-well hot food modules, for example, or cold modules in standard lengths from 36” up to 92” or more. Some modules can be ordered in sizes that increase by 1” increments to make them easier to fit into existing space.

Another option is to spec “empty boxes,” or the carts themselves, and add drop-in equipment as needed. That gives you the flexibility to put a drop-in freezer in a module one month for grab-and-go frozen desserts and drop in a cold case merchandiser the next month for refrigerated desserts like slices of pie and cake. This works especially well where space is tight and you don’t want to reconfigure your line, just the components in it.

Typical self-contained modules in most manufacturers’ lines include hot wells, soup wells, cold wells, frost tops, reach-in merchandisers, freezers, combination hot-cold units, beverage counters, all-purpose counters, corner units, carving stations, cashier’s stations, water stations with sinks, tray dispensers, plate dispensers and flatware dispensers. You can even get modules with cooking equipment, like griddles, built in.

Some suppliers make only the modules and contract out for equipment, using one or several suppliers, and give you the option of spec’ing equipment independently. Several other makers of modular serving lines also manufacture the equipment that’s built in or dropped in. In either case, make sure you’re as comfortable with the equipment and the kind of after-sale service available for it as you are with the modules themselves.

Choosing By Budget

A number of manufacturers offer two or three modular lines to choose from depending on your budget. In general, these include a basic line with few options in terms of materials, finishes and accessories; a mid-range line with a variety of options to choose from; and a high-end line that can be customized more easily. In most cases, the modules themselves are constructed in much the same way. When considering a basic line, it’s smart to compares the construction and material of the modules themselves with that maker’s premium lines.

Modules are typically constructed of either stainless or paint-grip steel, but you can also find units of single-piece molded Fiberglas or ABS plastic. Where steel is used, frames should be reinforced with angular or tubular steel supports welded to the body. Gauge isn’t necessarily the only indicator of strength, but look for frames of 14- or 16-gauge stainless, and bodies constructed of 16- or 18-gauge steel (paint-grip or stainless). Fiberglas modules should be reinforced with steel at stress points and have rounded corners to avoid being easily chipped.

Tops are typically stainless, but most manufacturers now offer a variety of materials to choose from, including natural stone such as granite or quartz, solid resins that mimic stone or marble, Corian, and more. One maker allows you to remove the tops on its modules without the use of tools so you can change out a counter if your concept or serving line configuration changes.

Fronts and sides are typically stainless, but again can be ordered in a number of finishes or covered with other materials. Finishes include paint or powder coat in a variety of colors. Coverings include a rainbow of laminates, wood paneling, laser-cut laminate or steel, special graphics and more.

Fiberglas and ABS plastic modules are more limited in the availability of colors and custom décor. Fiberglas modules are available in a range of molded-in colors and designer graphics. ABS modules usually come in just three colors, but have a wide range of decorator panels to choose from, including custom graphics, that can be added to fronts and sides to customize the look of the line to fit in with your operation.

Consider Utility Requirements

Most modular equipment makers use their own interlock device to hook modules together and make a serving line more seamless. Even the most level floor is bound to have irregularities, and interlocking the modules together keeps countertops and tray slides at the same height.

Utility hook-ups will also be a key consideration in your spec decision. Most modular equipment uses electric service, but units are available with propane or LNG. Of course, if you plan to use modules in a permanent serving line and bring utilities in, you can use gas, so long as you have a hood over any equipment that might require it.

Hot food wells, hot undercounter storage units and hot tops will use 120V, 208V or 240V service depending on the size of the equipment. Some manufacturers give you an option of two or all three services. Cold units typically use 120V service, but this may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Units that can be operated wet or dry will give you more flexibility.

In some cases, modules can be plugged into each other in series, so you only need access to one outlet to power up an entire line. In other cases, equipment makers make it possible to pre-wire modules at the factory. When the modules are assembled on site, the wiring all leads to a single panel box with circuit breakers that is then plugged in to the electric service in your facility, usually through a ceiling chase. Another manufacturer uses an open-link construction design in its modules that lets you gang all utilities—electric, wastewater, even gas—in a single chaseway inside the carts and run them to the back of the house or nearest convenient hook-ups.

Drains also are important in both cold and hot units. In some cases, drains are accessible through a door in the module, so you can drain water from hot food wells or ice pans into a bucket to remove it. Another design puts a flexible hose on the drain valve to let water out. Still other makers give you the option of ganging drains from several units into one line so you can direct it to a floor drain. Some mobile units have drain pan valves located at the bottom of the module; you simply wheel the module over a floor drain and open the valve.

Need To Know More?

If you need even more options details, see below for deeper details on what’s available. Plus, you can turn the page for our Serving Line Gallery, a look at six of the major suppliers of serving lines and what they offer.

Have we forgotten anything? Given the wide range of options most serving line makers offer, we’ve probably only scratched the surface. The point is that most manufacturers will work with you to help spec a serving line that will meet your unique needs.

And if budget concerns are paramount, remember that you can put a line together with off-the-shelf components that not only will cost less than custom fabrication but give you the option of easily changing your configuration down the line.

Your Serving Line, Your Way

Choosing options is the fun part. Accessories are as varied as the modules themselves, and you’re bound to find the look you want. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Tray slides. Tray slides typically come in three styles—flat, inverted V and three-tube style. Basic material is stainless, but you can spec just about any material you want, such as Corian or stone, to match your countertops. If you choose a flat tray slide, be sure to have slide strips mounted to the slides so trays don’t scratch or mar the surface. Both stationary and fold-down versions are available.

Shelving. Plate shelves and merchandising shelves can be mounted above most modules, whether serving units or utility counters. Common are one- or two-tier shelving units in 10” or 12” depths. Standard materials are stainless, tempered glass or Plexiglas, but here again, you can customize by spec’ing your own materials.

Food guards. Single- or double-sided, in tempered glass or Plexiglas, food guards come in practically every shape and size. Posts are typically stainless or brass, but can be powder coated or covered with laminates and other materials to match your décor. Don’t like what the manufacturer has in stock? There are a ton of products on the market that can fit your needs.

Cutting boards/work shelves. Many makers offer fold-down cutting boards or stainless work shelves as an option. Again, look for shelves that will support weight and hinges that won’t wear out or break.

Canopies. Now offered as an option on several lines, canopies can add flair to a serving line and help distinguish one part of the line from another. High end lines give you the flexibility of customizing the look and materials of the canopy and even incorporate company graphics.

Lighting. Mounted under shelves, canopies or on posts, lighting is another option that manufacturers are expanding in terms of choices. You now can choose from incandescent, fluorescent and halogen fixtures, and some makers are even offering neon and LEDs as part of module lighting or signage.

Heat lamps. With food safety in mind, more operators are choosing to use overhead heat at hot food stations in addition to the heat provided by the module itself. Infrared bulb or strip warmers are the most common.

Doors, covers. Sliding doors and covers are available for open-sided and chest-type modules, some have locks so you can store product overnight without fear of theft.

Casters, legs. Adjustable legs are typically stainless and available in different lengths, usually 4” or 6”. Casters are typically heavy duty, 5” swivel-type, and most modules have at least two of four that lock. Look for polyurethane or polyolefin tread on casters; these materials won’t mark floors if you move modules around.

Kick plates. Several manufacturers offer stainless kick plates that can be mounted on the bottom of the modules to hide the casters or legs and give the line a more set-in-place look.

Keeping Energy In Line

The move to greater energy efficiency has not been lost on serving equipment makers. There’s recently been a move to add more efficient refrigeration to cold modules, and more efficient electronic thermostats to both hot and cold units.

Some new technology has even hit the scene. On the cold side are new units that use a liquid medium to chill cold wells. The system essentially surrounds and insulates the cold wells with a liquid, and the refrigerated lines run through the liquid, so the wells are chilled on all sides, not just the spots in contact with the refrigerant lines. These units keep cold food at more consistent temperatures with less energy, according to the maker.

On the hot food side is a similar concept. Called a convection hot-food warmer, the units heat hot food wells on all sides, not just from the bottom, again maintaining proper serving temperatures while using less energy.



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