April 2002 [update March 2003]
By Jennifer Hicks with Brian Ward
SPECIAL REPORT: The Cutting Edge On Gravity-Feed Slicers
Its no secret that deli-style service has been on the rise now for quite awhile in American foodservice. The commercial sandwich chains are on a tear, and supermarkets everywhere have jumped on the deli bandwagon. All that slicing has meant more and more slicers out there on-premise or at commissaries.
With more than 60 slicer options on the marketlow-end manual machines up to souped-up automaticsyou need to do some homework before you purchase gravity-feed slicers. We began our own review by gathering slicer specs and data from the 10 major U.S. suppliers, and then we pared the list to six that are most active in the segment.
The half-dozen pictured here with specsBerkel Inc., Fleetwood Food Service, General Slicing, Globe Food Equipment, Hobart Corp. and Univex Corp.are among the biggest in market share, according to each other and other industry sources. Another four companiesBlakeslee, Dito/Electrolux, Edgecraft Corp. and Intedge Industriesshow up regularly in their own target markets, and you might want to check into their lineups as well. All 10 companies are listed in the For More Info box on the last page of the story.
All the makers here build multiple models in various size categories, and some build multiple models close to the ones featured here. But for our purposes, weve focused on the high-volume, feature-rich slicers, showing photos of manual versions and noting the auto versions available. Why these tougher, high-volume jobs? Because if youre an operator reading this magazine, youre specifying for a large outfitdeli or grocery chain, multiunit restaurant group, or a multi-kitchen institution. So if youre using a slicer at all, youre probably putting it through its paces for more than, say, four hours a day, and that likely makes you a high-volume candidate.
Among the manual high-volume machines shown, youll be looking at street prices of $1,700 to $2,200. Tack on another $1,000 or so for an automatic model. Depending on your budget, two to three grand for a slicer, multiplied over multiple sites, can be a big hit on the corporate coffers. But scrimping on things like safety features wont save you much in the long run, and may even cost you more. Plus, if high turnover means youre constantly training new staff, youll want the safest slicers you can get your hands onor rather, the safest slicers your staffers will get their hands on.
Basics: Size And Shape
To begin the review, confirm your volume needs. If youre slicing any type of productveggies, meats, cheesefor more than, say, four hours a day, you probably need to shop the high-volume section. If youre in the two- to four-hour range, you should be able to do the job with a medium-duty machineunless youre doing a lot of cheese, which is notoriously tough on slicers. Salamis a pretty tough customer, too.
Next, consider manuals vs. automatics. Determining which is right for you depends mainly on how your operations work. If youre a grocery or c-store chain, on-demand slicing is pretty much your gig, and you need manual machines. In fact, the higher-end capabilities of an automatic machine will be counterproductive for you, unless you occasionally shave large quantities of ham for decorative deli cases or huge party platters. And even then, that auto slicer should be an adjunct to your manual units.
Now, its another story if youre a sandwich chain operator doing batch slicing on-premise or at a commissary during several shifts each day. In that case, you want automatic slicers. Ditto for a school, hospital or other institution that needs a whole lot of product at one time. Automatics will get you precise, repeatable slicing control without the need for constant supervision. And that means you optimize labor, since your staffers can leave an operating auto slicer and tend to other tasks.
Next up, the power issue. Any heavy-duty slicer you look at should possess a 1&Mac218;2-hp motor. For many years, a 1&Mac218;3-hp motor came standard on gravity-feed slicers even in the high-volume range, but these days youd be hard pressed to find a heavy-duty model with less than half a horse buzzing beneath the cowl. And again, if your medium-duty slicing scenario involves mucho cheese product, its no longer medium duty, and suppliers urge that you opt for the stronger half-horse versions.
As for the business end, whether you call it a knife or a blade, the slicers cutting tool and its size play a role in your specifying. Typical blade sizes range from 9 and 10 to 12 diameters and sometimes beyond. Two factors influence the size of the blade youll needthe size of the product youre cutting, and the volume youre cutting.
While a store slicing for fewer than four hours a day might be able to manage with a 9 or 10 blade, high-volume ops must go to at least a 12 blade. Four of the six models shown here offer 12 blades, while the other two offer 13 and 14 blades standard. (Note that the rounded-up 12 is used in specs where blades are actually a bit less than 12.)
And that brings us nicely round to construction. As you review spec sheets, youll find that most slicer bodies are made of anodized or burnished aluminum, with one exception. Globe slicers come with one-piece stainless steel bases. On all slicers, the carriagethe shelf where food rests as youre slicingis stainless steel. Stainless offers all its usual advantages herestrength, ease of cleaning and resistance to food acids.
Pay close attention to the blade, the heart of your slicer. Youll find blades are made of stainless or carbon steel, and theyre either cast or stamped. Some suppliers also go an extra step and plate their blades with chrome, the main idea being to provide an extra defense against corrosion. (If you go with chrome, dont be alarmed when you discover that the sharpening process quickly wears the chrome off the cutting edge.)
In the great stainless-vs.-carbon steel debate, youll hear different advice based on different priorities. In any case, though, hardness or slicing ability is not the issue. According to the engineers at the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif., stainless and carbon steel both are equally hard and equally suited to cutting duty. A big replacement-blade supplier handling both types also agreed. Carbon steel might tend to be a little less expensive, but depending on your routine, might be more prone to corrosion as well.
Another point of debate is casting-vs.-stamping, although the debate looks largely theoretical to us. Some folks, for example, feel that casting makes a stronger blade, and that the very act of stamping requires a less robust steel product destined to losing its edge more quickly. On the flip side, you might hear that cast blades can tend to have air pockets in them, theoretically weak spots prone to breaking.
All of which might have been truer in the past but not so true today. We did some digging and discovered that cast blades today usually are spun-cast, a process that spins the casting, basically spinning air bubbles out of the metal.
And old-style stamping, literally stamping a blade shape out of metal, is rapidly fading from the planet. Most stamped blades today in fact are computer-cut, not literally stamped, meaning theres no practical advantage any more to softer metal compositions in the blade material. So the bottom line is that both production methods today yield blades strong enough for what youre doing.
Yes, Ripley, Things Happen
No matter what type of blade you choose, or how frequently you sharpen and hone, how you use the slicer will determine how long the blade itself will last.
With that in mind, whenever you get a new slicer on-site, staffers probably should go through a whole checklist of things they should never slice with it.
First off, never try to slice meat or other product thats frozen solid. This sounds like what your staffers would call a no duh, but youd be amazed at what goes on. A hunk of fully frozen turkey will send your blade to the junkyard like a lightpole going through a 74 Pinto. Reserve a bone saw for cutting such frozen meats. Heavy-duty machines might get away with handling some semi-frozen product, but over time ice crystals will dull your slicers blade.
And we know it sounds obvious, but you might have to remind staffers to remove food from any wrappings or containers before slicing. Its amazing what distractions can do. One supplier recounts the tale of a slicer driven to destruction when a deli worker tried to slice a canned hamwith the ham still in the can. Wanna bet on the warranty coverage there?
And while were on the topic of grotesquely bent blades, a few words on sharpening. Whichever slicer you choose, itll come with sharpeners. Most sharpeners will be built into the machine and involve a few moves to bring them into place for sharpening. Youll usually receive a sharpening stone as well as a honing stone, to both sharpen and hone away any burrs that develop during sharpening. Each models mechanism is a little different; only trying them out will help you decide your preferences.
Regardless of the fine points, the sharpening procedure, if youll pardon the unavoidable pun, is a double-edged sword. Done right, it extends the life of the blade and makes everyones job easier.
Unfortunately, according to our aftermarket blade guru, oversharpening is probably the leading cause of blade failure. Just a few seconds is enough, he advises. Longer sharpening equals shorter blade life.
And when it does come time to replace the blade, get the (sharpening/ honing) stones replaced too, he says. Nobody thinks of it, he says, and the result is grimy, worn stones doing a bad job on a new blade. A new set of stones will go for under $20, he says.
Maintaining That Edge
Another quirky reality: As the blade wears down, clearance from blade to carriage grows. Periodically your staffers will make adjustments. And then when its time to install a new blade, you have a problem with the fit. Dont forget to adjust the carriage back to its original setting, our blade source says. He cannot count the number of times customers thought theyd bought the wrong blade when all they needed was to adjust the carriage.
Getting the slicing done is one thing; getting it done safely is another. Inexperience is a big danger, and a frequent one with constant employee turnover. Sos cleaning. Suppliers say that 75% to 80% of all slicer injuries take place during cleaning. Buying a slicer equipped with key safety features will help in your efforts to save new recruits from themselves.
First, look for the blade ring guard, a permanent edge around the back of the blade that protects against injury during both operation and cleaning. All of the slicers here offer a blade ring guard, and in the case of Univex, the guard even protects the blade during sharpening.
Second, interlock protections are crucial. Youll find a carriage interlock feature, also called a center plate interlock. This feature prevents operation when the carriage is removed for cleaning and simultaneously protects the blade.
And third, theres a no-volt release available on some slicers, which prevents unintentional startup. After a power outage or accidental unplugging, slicers with no-volt protection must be restarted.
The Slicer Parade
So who offers what? First up alphabetically, Berkel offers its 909A manual slicer. The base is burnished anodized aluminum, and all food-contact bits are stainless, as is a permanent guard that covers the non-slicing portion of the blade even when the sharpener and center plate are removed.
Power comes from a 1&Mac218;2-hp motor driving a two-speed blade. The blade, a full 121&Mac218;2 diameter, is of hardened, hollow ground stainless steel. The 909A lets you dial in slice thickness up to 27&Mac218;32.
Fleetwood, like some of the other makers in this story, actually comes to the high-volume manual gravity-feed market with more than one model. For this story, though, it wanted to get out the word on its newly released C350N, a unit engineered to meet volume performance requirements while holding the fort on pricing. In general, the new model hits its target by switching out stainless for anodized aluminum in the base as well as the food-contact surfaces.
Otherwise, though, the C350N offers much of what its upmarket stablemates do. It still provides a 1&Mac218;2-hp motor and single-speed gear drive, and even throws in a bigger 14 carbon steel blade to sweeten the pot. Safety features include a no-volt cutoff and fixed rear blade guard, covering the back three quarters of the blade. The unit slices up to 1 thickness.
And for this updated story, Fleetwood tells us the new C300Nwith specs identical to the C350Ncomes with a 12 blade for those who dont need to go up to 14.
General Slicings SM-12A, too, makes liberal use of polished, anodized aluminum in its one-piece base, as well as the platform and knife cover. The motor cranks 1&Mac218;2 hp, delivering it to the 12 carbon steel alloy, stain resistant blade via a belt drive. Thickness control lets you go as high as 11&Mac218;8.
Globes 3600 slicer with 12 blade is the only model shown here that sports all-stainless construction, including the one-piece base, slicer table and blade cover. Globe touts the hygienic benefits of seamless construction, including easy cleanup, and stainless steels long-term resistance to bacteria-harboring pitting.
Globes 1&Mac218;2-hp motor transmits power through a gear drive to a standard blade made of hardened carbon steel with a stain-resistant finish. A permanent blade ring guard protects the nonslicing portion of the blade. When its time to clean, and you remove the blade cover, an interlock kicks in to prevent operation.
Hobarts 2812 comes to bat with its own 1&Mac218;2-hp motor, belt drive and 12 blade, but also a feature unique to its slicer line: Microban antimicrobial product protection, which is incorporated into all plastic components of each slicer.
In conjunction with the operators normal cleaning routine, Microban works to inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold, mildew, etc. The 2812s carriage handles, index knob, meat grip, power switches and other smaller components all contain Microban. Thus between cleanings the Microban works continuously to maintain a lower level of odor and stain-causing microorganisms.
Finally, youre probably aware that Univex offers a full line of slicers under its own moniker. What you may not know is that in October 2000 Univex became the sole distributor to the foodservice market of Bizerba slicers, which are manufactured in Germany.
For this story, Univex asked us to spotlight the Bizerba SE 12L, a 1&Mac218;2-hp manual machine with a 13 blade. Safety features include a blade guard that covers the entire blade so that during cleaning there is zero blade exposure. Unlike the other makers here, who give the nod to built-in sharpeners that in some cases expose part of the blade during cleaning, Bizerba uses a remote sharpener to leave the blade fully guarded during cleaning.
With the Bizerba design, each remote sharpener is designed and fitted for each machine. When its time to sharpen, you mount the sharpener to the slicer and use a dial system to first engage the sharpening stone and then to de-burr the blade. During this operation the blade is completely guarded. The Bizerba design also allows full access behind the covered blade for cleaning.
The SE 12L also offers a low profile with a lower carriage height than other machines, an ergonomic advantage for those who cant or dont want to lift heavy meats to a higher carriage position. Slicer construction is all anodized aluminum with a high-carbon chrome-plated steel blade.
Take Your Pick
So take your pick. Powers similar from model to model here, but there are differences. Need a bigger blade for bigger product? Or a bigger blade for heavier loading? This group runs from 12 to 14 blades. Consider the acidity of your menu, too. Do you need stainless, or will aluminum do the job? How about footprint? Check the spec boxes.