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June 2002
By Wayne Niemi
SPECIAL REPORT: Choosing The Right Chafer

It's a matter of space, style and budget. Know what you need in a chafing dish, and you’ll present hot food brilliantly without burning your wallet.

Let’s face it: Image is everything. And that’s why food presentation is an essential component to a successful dining experience. Your food presentation is your very last chance to influence your guests’ attitudes about your operation before they taste your food.

If you have a buffet, chances are you’ve worked with chafing dishes in the past. But are you aware of the options available to you? Do you know how chafers can improve your buffet presentation? Are you aware of the vast variety of sizes and shapes that are available these days? Odds are your competition knows.

Chafing dishes are quickly becoming a high-demand item for foodservice operations. As the foodservice industry branches out from traditional dining settings, the demand for chafers is on the rise. Catering facilities, hotels, B&I accounts, sporting arenas, schools and colleges are all helping to drive demand. In addition, buffet chains are continuing to expand into new markets.

Just how big is the chafing dish market? Tough to say. Suppliers interviewed for this story said that a rise in foreign imports makes figures hard to calculate. Also, some warehouse and price clubs are now selling chafers, so there’s no accurate way to estimate how many mom-and-pops may be running down to Sam’s to outfit their Sunday buffet.

Dishing Up The Basics
In all we’ve identified more than 40 suppliers in this market, which means you have some sorting out to do. Chafers aren’t the most complicated pieces in your kitchen arsenal, so we won’t be overloading you with Btu ratings, motor specifications or production capacities. However, as with most things in foodservice, kitchen equipment is never as simple as it seems, and there are a few important factors to consider when shopping for chafers.

So, we all know that chafing dishes are used in buffet lines to hold food, everything from eggs and bacon to soups and appetizers. All chafers work in essentially the same way. A basin is filled with water, which is heated by either a canned fuel flame or some type of electrically heated element. The goal is to maintain the water temperature at 170&Mac251;F to 190&Mac251;F. A food pan is then inserted above the water pan. The rising steam heats the food pan, keeping food temperatures at 140&Mac251;F to 150&Mac251;F. A cover helps to hold in steam and later is removed for serving.

There’s a variety of issues to consider before buying. How much space you have and the style of your operation will surely effect your purchasing decision. However, there’s a cost for style, and we’ll detail street prices in a moment. Ultimately, your budget will likely make the decision for you.

Construction is among the top factors that distinguish lower-end chafing dishes from their expensive, finely detailed counterparts. Most suppliers talk about the four levels of chafer quality: economy, mid end, high end and ultra high end. Economy units usually sport 18/8 steel of a lesser weight than other units and feature a lift-off cover or possibly a 90&Mac251; roll top. These bare-bones units run under $200.

Mid-end units offer nicer lift-off and 90&Mac251; roll-top covers, are made of heavier 18/8 or 18/10 steel, and cost around $500. You also might find some minor decorative touches on these chafers. The most imports seen today in the U.S. market are in the economy and mid-end range.

Meanwhile, high-end units step up to 180&Mac251; roll tops, heavy 18/10 construction and prices of $800 to $1,500. This is where brass and other accents come in, as well as flourishes of design you may well look to for a high-end operation.

And finally, the ultra high-end group sports silver plate construction, high design detail and prices of $1,500 and up. Nearly all high-end and ultra high-end chafing dishes are made in the United States these days.

Consider your application carefully, with an eye toward durability and functionality. Economy units aren’t made for rigorous use, but apart from the wear and tear factor, there may be other concerns if you’re logging a lot of chafer time. Because they’re made of thinner metal, economy chafers can suffer bent corners due to mishandling, which eventually can cause food pans to sit improperly. This then results in excess steam escaping, which reduces the efficiency of the chafer. But with proper care, it’s possible these lower-priced units can suit your needs if you don’t plan on using them very often.

If you plan on using your chafers frequently and don’t want to be replacing them at a fast clip, you’ll want to consider more durable higher-end models. In the upper range of chafers, many models feature mirror-polished, stainless steel finishes. In some cases, these chafers are upgraded with silver or copper plating, or accented with brass, gold, wood, or plastic pieces. These finishes and accents are cosmetic only and don’t affect the ability of a chafer to maintain food temperatures.

The decision to silver or copper plate a chafer is really a matter of personal taste. Some specific regions of the country tend to have local preferences. For example, throughout the Southwest, copper plating, and brass and bronze accents are popular chafer choices. In Las Vegas, where glitz and glamour are a priority, silver plating is a must. Keep in mind though: These added finishes are prone to tarnishing and will require regular maintenance and polishing if you want them to keep their appearances.

Before you buy, be sure to spend some time thinking about the kind of lid that you want. Lift-off covers are common in economy and mid-end units. They come as either standard lids or domed lids. You can buy a variety of different wire attachments to hold the lid to the side or behind the chafer when it’s in use. These lids generally don’t feature any type of ventilation for steam or condensation.

Roll Top Or Lift Top?
Roll-top lids give you a lot more flexibility in your buffet service since most are fully retractable. This means the lid totally disappears from view and your guests can access the chafer from two sides.

Most roll tops have mechanisms to stop the lid at 90&Mac251; and all the way back to 180&Mac251;. Virtually every manufacturer has a slightly different device for holding the lid in place. Lower-end models will feature a pin or a latch to keep the lid in position. This must be manually put in place to keep the lid where you want it to stay.

The lids found on higher-end models are touch-sensitive. With only a small amount of pressure, the lid glides back to 90&Mac251;. Add a little more pressure and it will smoothly retract to 180&Mac251; without bumping or jerking.

Most roll tops feature a small series of patterned holes in the top of the lid for ventilation. However, some manufacturers, including Carlisle FoodService Products and Spring U.S.A., offer a unique approach for dealing with excess steam and condensation in another way. These chafers feature a water channel on the dome of the lid. The channel guides condensation back into the water pan and prevents dripping on food or the table.

Whatever model you choose, familiarize yourself and your staff with the nuances of the chafer. For example, some manufacturers design the handles of their chafers with a plastic coating or some other insulated material to reduce heat and make the unit easier to carry. It’s a great feature, but if your staffers don’t know about the plastic coating and try something silly, like keeping a full chafer warm in a holding oven—don’t laugh, it’s been done—those plastic-coated handles will melt down lickety-split.

Note that warranties vary by manufacturer. Some higher-end models come with a 1-year written warranty, while several manufacturers have unwritten policies that cover “the life of the chafer.” Depending on the specific model, lower-end units may only come with a 90-day warranty against manufacturing and construction defects.

Shapes Abound
An array of shapes is available to help you design the buffet line of your dreams. Of course, the standard is a rectangular model that accommodates a full-size, 8-qt. food pan. Half-size model capacities vary by manufacturer but generally come in around 4 and 5 qts. Most manufacturers also offer round models in full and half sizes. Round full-sizers generally hold about 6 qts., while half-size units hold about 4 qts.

There’s also an oval option in various capacities, which suppliers say is getting more attention these days. The oval shape complements the old standards, adding flair in presentation.

Whatever style you choose, keep expansion options in mind. If matched servingware is important, make sure your manufacturer offers a wide assortment of chafers in different sizes and styles, and matching accessories such as coffee urns, teapots and serving ware. Otherwise, you may find yourself with a mixed-and-matched buffet setup.

Design Innovations
Even though chafers are considered to be somewhat standard in foodservice facilities, that doesn’t mean design enhancements aren’t taking place. Several manufacturers are working on innovative approaches to traditional chafers.

Recognizing that many foodservice operators are using induction cooktops for display cooking presentations, Spring U.S.A. has developed a Convertible Induction Buffet System. This system was originally designed for Marriott Hotels, which wanted to get away from using big chafing dishes. Marriott wanted its customers to feel like the food was more freshly prepared and they wanted to serve dishes in smaller quantities. Also, this system allowed Marriott to take full advantage of its induction cooktops.

Oneida Foodservice offers what it calls an induction chafer, but the technology is different from traditional induction. The electric Oneida chafer retains all energy in a self-enclosed housing, and the heat transfers to porcelain food containers that are inserted into the chafing unit.

The system keeps food warm using traditional electromagnetic induction technology, with induction plates installed in a buffet line where the chafers sit. With chafer-to-plate contact, heat is generated and the system maintains a constant, reliable temperature for the chafing dishes without overheating.

American Metalcraft is also adding flexibility to chafers with its Trio unit. The Trio is a half-size model that comes with two quarter-size serving pans and a soup station. This gives you three different configuration options all in one small package.

And Alegacy Foodservice Products Group has added a capacity option within its traditional design. Some of the company’s chafing dishes come with 43&Mac218;8”- and 41&Mac218;2”-deep water pans. This allows you to use either 21&Mac218;2”- or 4”-deep food pans, whereas many competitive chafers can only use 21&Mac218;2”-deep pans.

Now, we all know that things are always changing in this category, and these aren’t the only companies working on chafer innovations. Most manufacturers are looking for a way to establish differentiation with their chafing dishes, and they’re constantly reviewing and renewing their designs. As manufacturers bring us more news of their developments, we’ll pass those details on to you.

Dressing Up The Buffet
Since chafers are designed to display food in an attractive and appealing manner, you won’t want to skimp on the accessory items. Countless serving utensils are available to match your chafing dish, including serving spoons, slotted spoons, salad servers, cold meat forks, tongs and more. A few companies make special spoons that hook to the side of the chafer and prevent the spoon from falling into the food pan. Some companies make serving trays to match their chafers, as well.

Many companies include electric heating attachments in their accessory selection since the majority of units sold are used with canned fuel. Some of these heating elements simply sit in the bottom of the water pan, while others have to be screwed onto the bottom of the chafer base.

Opinions are mixed on using electric heating. In the long run, electric units are far cheaper to use in terms of operating costs. (Canned fuel costs can add up quickly.) There is also the added convenience for your staff, since no one will have to continually check to make sure that the fuel is lit. And, of course, there is the safety factor since there’s no open flame, which your insurance company will appreciate. In some locales in New York and California, electric is the only choice since health and safety regulations limit the use of open flames and canned fuel.

On the other hand, the added cords needed for the electrical element can be a different kind of hazard. The last thing that you want is for your staff—or worse, your guests—to trip over stretched cords. Also, the reality of off-site foodservice is that very often electrical outlets aren’t accessible. Most manufacturers agree that electric is a convenient option where it’s feasible, but it greatly reduces the mobility of the units.

If you do a lot of catering or need to transport your chafers, you should consider stacking models. Some manufacturers have special product lines designed to stack easily and economize on space.

You’ll also want to consider padded transport cases. These cases protect the finishes of the chafers and help to safeguard them from minor bumps and scrapes. Also, the cases make it easier to stack them for transport or storage.

Usage Tips
Everyone has at one time or another gone through a buffet line and ended up with cold or unevenly heated food. In the words of one manufacturer, “There is only so much that the design of the chafer can do to keep foods warm. It’s up to the operator to use it properly.”

Proper use starts by making sure that the food is hot when you put it in the chafer. Food that’s been around for 15 minutes and cooled will never maintain the same quality as foods that have consistently been kept warm.

You’ll also want to make sure that the water is hot when you add foods. Oftentimes, rushed workers will forget to preheat the water and will light the fuel beneath the chafer at the same time that they add the food. Foods then have time to cool while the water is brought to a steaming temperature.

The bottom line is that planning how you use your chafer is just as essential as which model you choose.

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