BLENDERS BULK UP
By: Mike Sherer
Today's high-volume drink blenders can take on more product with greater blending efficiency than ever before. Read on for tips on how to choose one, then peruse our gallery of the top blenders available today.
Once upon a time, you were likely to find a blender in one of two placesin the kitchen or behind the bar. In many operations, you'll still find them there, but in the kitchen, food processors and choppers have taken over most of the work blenders used to handle. And frozen drink machines supply most of the bar drinks that used to be made with blenders, though bartenders still use them for specialty drinks.
Where blenders are really mixing it up these days is in the fruit smoothie and coffee drink arena. You might be planning to add frozen blended drinks at the bar, or you might still be using blenders that are firmly planted back of house. In any case, you need to know what's available now in high-volume blenders.
Let's Talk Power
Product, volume and throughput all have a major influence on a machine's power. Food blenders, for example, are designed for small batches from a quart to a gallon. They usually have 3/8-hp or ½-hp motors, and they run at slower speeds so you don't over-blend sauces and dressings.
Bar blenders typically have a little more muscle to blend drinks with ice. Motors in these models are typically rated from about ½ hp to 1 hp.
Frozen beverage blenders need even more power because they often must blend ingredients like ice, fruit and ice cream, and often are called on to produce high volume, meaning they're working a lot. Also, whereas bar drinks such as margaritas or daiquiris can have a thick, slightly chunky granite-like texture, smoothies and coffee drinks have a creamy texture. So smoothie or frozen coffee drink blenders typically rely on 2- or 3-hp motors.
Comparing power output of these high-end beverage blenders isn't always easy. Some makers stress rpms, with spec sheets boasting very high "bare motor" speeds, that is, rpms of the motor itself. But bare motor speed doesn't tell the whole story.
Other manufacturers will reference motor wattage as an indication of power. But again, that doesn't give you the whole picture, since machines with two different wattages may produce the same horsepower. And machines with the same horsepower may not consistently produce the same amount of product in the same timeframe.
Another reference you'll find on spec sheets related to power is amps, and this may be a better indicator of power. Higher-amp motors tend to give you more torque with less strain on the motor. They won't overheat as quickly when they're run frequently. If you make less than 50 smoothies a day, for example, a 10-amp machine may be adequate. Most high-volume blenders are in the 13- to 15-amp range. If you plan on producing more than 100 drinks a day containing ice cream, ice or frozen fruit, a 20- or even 30-amp blender might be a better choice.
Ultimately, torque is what you want in a machine, especially if you plan to blend ingredients like ice and ice cream that offer a lot of resistance. As you well know, the small ½-hp blender you have at home does a fine job of making milk shakes. But you're not asking it to blend 48 oz. at a time in less than 30 secs., batch after batch, all day long.
What it comes down to is what we mentioned earlier: If you're blending thick ingredients in a very short timeframe, you need a blender with what's called a more aggressive blend. And that requires more power.
Put It In Drive
Virtually all blenders are direct-drive machines. When you seat the container on top of the motor base, you're essentially coupling it directly to the drive shaft. A couple of important things to note:
First, whatever resistance the blades encounter will be directly transferred to the motor, which is why you want the motor to have enough torque and horsepower to overcome that resistance.
As a safety back-up, though, most units now have a heat sensor in the motor housing that automatically shuts off the motor when it's working too hard. Usually, they'll start up with no problem after about 20 minutes to cool down.
Third, no matter what the bare motor speed, the electronics in these motors also give you variable speed control. We'll tell you more about that later when we get into some of the features offered.
Finally, coupling the drive directly to the blade assembly means that's where most of the wear and tear will be. Look for metal-to-metal couplings that are less likely to wear. Some makers offer a lifetime warranty on couplings. A few models on the market have a feature that brakes the motor if the container is removed so the drive shaft doesn't turn against a coupling that's only partially seated.
Couplings, of course, are only one part of the blade assembly. Assemblies are sealed units that may contain one or two sets of bearings. On some makes and models, the assemblies can be removed from containers that may have become worn and reinstalled on new containers. Many, however, are permanently affixed to the container, so if the container wears out or cracks, you must replace the whole container, blade assembly and all.
Blade design has a lot to do with how thoroughly and how quickly ingredients are blended in a machine. Some blade assemblies feature four blades, others two. More often you'll see four-blade assemblies on food or bar blenders and two-blade assemblies on bigger beverage blenders, but not always. The two-bladed assemblies in larger blenders often have thicker and sharper blades to quickly cut ingredients in the smallest pieces possible and mix them together.
Be assured that whatever configuration a manufacturer uses, all design their blades to mix product as thoroughly as possible. Blades are shaped in such a way to pull product down into the blades and push it out and up the sides of the container. The idea is to reduce cavitationwhere air pockets build up around the bladesas much as possible.
Keep A Cap On Noise
Most blender makers have worked conscientiously on noise reduction as their machines have gotten larger and more powerful. But there are certain design features you should look for even in small countertop bar blenders.
First, look for a sturdy base and solid motor housing. These days, many motor housings are made of plastic, which in most cases holds up nearly as well as stainless housings. They will show scratches more easily, however, so make sure employees use care when cleaning.
Countertop models should have large rubber feet to reduce vibration and prevent the base from dancing on the countertop. Look for designs with a lot of rubber on top, too, where the container meets the base, again to reduce vibration and noise. Some models have a rubber gasket between the blending platform and the base. A few models claim that the design and shape of the platform itself (which the container sits on) can dampen noise. And some have sound baffles build into the base itself to dampen sound from the motor.
Larger beverage blender models usually come with optional polycarbonate sound enclosures that can reduce noise by up to 50%. They make a lot of sense when you have two or more blenders shaking things up at the same time.
Another option manufacturers make available on most large models is the ability to mount them in the countertop so the motor is below the counter. Having the blending platform at counter level and putting the motor housing out of sight gives the blender a cleaner look in addition to muffling noise.
Bells And Whistles
Controls range from simplistic to sophisticated, depending on the model you choose. Food blenders typically have an on/off switch and a range of six to 12 or more preset speeds. Basic bar blenders often have only two speeds, and some have a timer that bartenders can set to shut off the blender after a certain run time. More sophisticated units may include pulse buttons to "refresh" a blended drink.
The real sophistication comes in the smoothie blenders. Some come with six preset blend programs you can choose from depending on ingredients. But many of these have electronic controls that are fully programmable. On these models, you can use the keypad to enter one of up to 34 pre-programmed blend cycles, so employees can choose a cycle based on the drink recipe. Some even let you download program cycles from your computer, so you can change cycles when you change drink menus or add drink specials.
Most feature both pulse and variable speed controls to refresh drinks or blend them manually. LCD or LED displays indicate which blend cycle you've selected and indicate the unit's status and diagnostics, letting you know if the unit is overheating, for example. Keys are in sealed touchpads, so spills won't affect the electronics.
In addition to diagnostics, most units also can track cycle counts and let you know how many cycles are running per day, for example, or how many of each program. That's helpful in maintaining multiple machines. Usually, the machine closest to the cash register gets the most use. With accurate cycle counts you can move machines around in an operation so they wear equally.
Safety features include auto shut-off at the end of every blend cycle; an auto shut-off if the unit's motor overheats or the blade jams; an auto brake when the container is lifted off the blending platform; and one model has a feature that automatically turns the unit on when the sound enclosure cover is closed.
And here's a relatively new option for the big beverage blenders: a portion-control ice dispenser. The unit automatically shaves and dispenses a precise amount of ice into a blender container before starting the blend cycle. Employees simply add fruit or other ingredients, place the container under the dispenser, key the appropriate cycle into the keypad, and the unit does the rest. Dispensers typically hold about 5 gals. of ice.
Manufacturers are happy to work with you on spec'ing the right blender for your operation. Tell them what products you want to blend and how many per day, and they'll show you which machines will do the job. Then decide which machine gives you the features you need.
Where The Magic Happens
Containers: You can't blend anything without them, and they've gotten a lot of attention lately, as suppliers try to work out the best combination of container shape and blade configuration.
In round containers, ingredients tend to rotate around the walls, so it takes longer for the blades to pull those ingredients down into the cutting and mixing action. By adding vertical ridges to the inside walls of a container, suppliers create a speed-bump-like effect that pushes product into the vortex, where it's sucked into the blades.
Most large beverage blenders now come with square containers, which makers have found is an ideal shape for creating the kind of action you want inside the container. For beverage blenders, the idea is to create a creamy texture, and do it quickly.
Some makers claim they've tweaked their shape to improve the flow down into the blades and then out and up the sides. And in almost all cases, manufacturers will tell you that their designs pair blade shape and container shape in a way that helps maximize the action.
Except for a few stainless containers available on some blenders, most bar and beverage blender containers now are made of polycarbonate. Virtually unbreakable, their only disadvantage is they can scratch and look cloudy with age. They're relatively inexpensive to replace.
How many containers do you need? For a drink program you can figure that a big machine will make 100 to 150 drinks a day, so you'll want to base the number of blenders on your traffic count. Plan on having four or five containers for each machine, more if your drink menu is extensive.
Blender maintenance is pretty simple. Since heavy-duty motors are sealed and designed to last, all that's required is careful cleaning of other parts.
The motor housing, for example, should be cleaned daily with a damp rag or mild cleaner. Every week, you should have employees clean the drive socket with a stronger cleaning solution, using a toothpick if necessary to clean any sticky residue from grooves in the socket.
Containers should be rinsed thoroughly after each use, particularly those used for drinks containing dairy ingredients. Clean containers daily by placing hot water and a little mild dish soap (about 1½ tsp. per quart of water) in the container and pressing the pulse button for 15 secs.
Rinse them thoroughly and air dry. Don't let water stand in the bottom for any length of time as it will degrade the seal around the blade assembly.
Sanitize containers regularly by adding bleach to hot water in the container and letting it stand for about 5 mins. before rinsing.
Manufacturers don't recommend washing containers in dish machines because detergents and/or hard water can cloud the polycarbonate.
A couple of manufacturers make small automatic sprayers to help employees rinse out containers. These units can be attached to a faucet and placed in a sink. One is short and squat, so when you invert a container, it sprays both the sides and directly up to the blade assembly. You activate it by pressing the rim of the inverted container down on the device.
Another unit is tall, so when you invert the container, it activates when you press the blade assembly onto the spray head. The spray then flushes residue down the sides. One's more powerful, but uses more water. Both save water compared to employees just turning on a faucet and letting it run until they're not busy.
Still another handy device one manufacturer offers is a brush made with the same material found in car wash brushes. The polyethylene bristles are stiff enough to scrub off residue, but won't scratch polycarbonate containers. And the bristles clean both tops and bottoms of blades.
Blending At Einstein
When Einstein Bros. Bagels launched a new beverage program last month at all of its 475+ locations, two blenders per store were part of the plan. At one of the Lincoln Park stores in Chicagowhere we took our cover photographymanager Joe Draniczarek says the sound enclosures used with their Blendtec blenders keep the noise level down, but not too much. "They're loud enough to let people know they're here, but not too loud while we're working," he says. The new Bros. Blenders program adds two new smoothie-style beverages, and the blenders will help Draniczarek's store turn out an expected 100 to 120 blended beverages per week this summer.