Foodservice Equipment Reports

Any Way You Slice It

If you have a large facility or a central commissary supplying several small or medium facilities, then this article likely isn’t for you. You’re probably using a big automatic production slicer from Grote or Bizerba. But if you’re like a lot of facilities out there with anywhere from 150 to 3,000 inmates, you’re probably using countertop slicers.

You may not give those slicers much thought. After all, with a little regular maintenance, a good slicer will last for years and years. But if you stop and think about it, those slicers may be the one piece of equipment you’d rather not do without.

“Any time we have a prison lock-down or a power outage that puts us on emergency generators, we go to sack meals,” says John Gimesh, foodservice director at Corrections Corp. of America, Nashville. “The slicer becomes the most important piece of equipment in the kitchen. We don’t make peanut butter sandwiches. They take too much time and people get tired of them quick.”

First question to ask is whether to spec manual or automatic slicers. A number of folks we talked to suggest there’s no reason to spend the extra money on automatic slicers if you have essentially free labor to operate slicers manually. Others say it depends on the population of your facilities.

“In smaller facilities, I’d use manual slicers,” says Richard West, director of foodservice, Maryland Division of Correction, Baltimore, “but I buy automatics to support 3,000-bed populations, and keep a manual in reserve.”

A facility with 1,000 inmates, for example, usually will require 2,000 slices of deli meat or cheese per meal. That’s a lot of slices from a manual slicer, but acceptable in many operations.

“I stopped purchasing automatic slicers because inmates tend wash the whole unit down with a hose and they ruin it,” says J. Kevin O’Brien, CEC, foodservice director, MDOC Coldwater Correctional Complex, Coldwater, Mich. “So we just purchase manually operated slicers now. With manuals, they complain they have to move the arm by hand, but we tell them it’s a good workout.” Unless your staff is prepared to supervise proper cleaning of an automatic (with electronic controls), a manual slicer is more forgiving.

Slicer Basics

There’s a wide range of slicers available, from smaller light-duty models to heavy-duty machines typically more appropriate in operations like yours. Some slicers are built with a plastic housing, but more often you’ll find units made from anodized aluminum or stainless steel. Both plastic and aluminum can be molded. As a result, there are fewer angles, edges, seams, nooks and crannies to harbor soil; as a result, they’re easy to keep clean. Plastic usually contains an antimicrobial agent as well. The drawback is they scratch easily. Stainless, while it resists scratches, must be bent and sometimes may have seams where dirt and microbes can accumulate even while the surfaces are easy to keep clean.

The more parts made out of stainless, usually the higher the quality of the machine. But stainless is more expensive, and plastic and anodized aluminum are perfectly acceptable materials for many, if not most, parts. An aluminum (or stainless) body and chassis likely will give more heft to the machine.

Spec a unit with at least a ½-hp motor. Most heavy-duty slicers use this size motor to drive the slicing blade, which is referred to as the knife. A higher amp motor may provide more consistent power with tougher-to-slice products such as cheese. Some models draw 2.5 amps; others up to 7 amps.

Manufacturers use either a gear drive or belt drive to transfer power from the motor to the knife. Some manufacturers may argue that gear drives are more reliable, but both should provide enough power and be fairly trouble-free with proper maintenance. Belts on heavy-duty slicers are typically V-shaped ribbed poly, so they don’t slip, but they will wear in time and require replacement. Manufacturers usually design gear drives with a continuous lubrication feature so they don’t require a lot of maintenance.

Don’t skimp on budget when it comes to the knife. First, consider size. Smaller, lighter duty slicers come with 9”- or 10”-dia. knives. Heavy-duty machines typically come equipped with 12”- or 13”-dia. knives. Larger knives are better for a few reasons. A bigger machine with a larger knife can accommodate bigger products—boneless hams and turkey breasts in addition to luncheon meats and cheeses. Larger knives slice product more easily and precisely, and because they have more knife edge, they stay sharper longer than smaller knives.

Manufacturers fashion knives from three types of materials: carbon steel with a chrome or nickel finish; stainless steel; or stainless with a special alloy edge. High-carbon knives, said to take an edge and keep it nicely, are “stain-resistant” as opposed to stainless, and, if not maintained, can stain and corrode in a high-moisture or high acid environment (slicing tomatoes, for example). You may have a choice of knife types on some models, while other manufacturers stick to just one type of knife material. No matter which material you choose or get, plan to maintain the knife well. The entire unit depends on it.

Stay Sharp

If you keep your knife sharp, you’ll slice more product in less time with less waste. Most slicers come with knife sharpeners specifically designed for each model or series. Sharpeners may be removable or permanently mounted depending on the model. Some of you say a sharpener is one more part inmates will attempt to steal because they can use the stones to sharpen weapons. For that reason, it makes sense to order one you can remove and put away between uses. Others say permanently mounting it makes sharpening convenient and reminds workers and supervisors to sharpen the slicer knife regularly.

Some slicer models have a warning light that illuminates after a certain number of strokes to let you know the knife needs sharpening. Some even have an automatic sharpener; simply push a button and the sharpening stones engage for about 15 secs., just enough to put a sharp edge on the knife without over-grinding.

Material used to make sharpening stones, by the way, is important. Composite stones can absorb moisture, and shouldn’t be used when wet. Several manufacturers use Borazon stones which don’t absorb water and can be used wet. (Borazon is a trade name for a crystal form of boron nitride, a substance hard enough to scratch a diamond.) They generally come with a lifetime guarantee. So if your inmates are hosing down the units (which they shouldn’t be), go for Borazon.

You can get serrated knives, which don’t require sharpening; some of you may see that as a plus. But they’re really designed for slicing frozen product. They’re not recommended for refrigerated meats and cheeses because they don’t slice as cleanly as a plain edge. And serrated knives are more prone to chipping.

One other hint: Items slice most easily when they are cold, especially cheeses; if you can leave most product in the walk-in until just before you’re ready to slice (rather than pulling it all out), it’s safer from a food safety standpoint and more efficient.

Of course, a sharp knife that slices more easily is potentially more dangerous. Most manufacturers design their slicers to be sharpened in place so the knife is protected by the knife ring cover. The knife also can’t be sharpened unless the gauge plate (that narrows and widens to adjust slice thickness) is closed.

Keep it Clean

Thorough cleaning and sanitation are important, but so is safety. Most slicers are designed with a tilting product tray and carriage so you can clean the slicer between the knife and the housing between tasks without completely taking it apart.

Many models allow you to remove the carriage and product tray for more thorough cleaning at the end of a shift. Since most of you want as few removable parts on equipment as possible, a few models specifically designed for the corrections market have non-removable, tamper-proof product trays.

A safety feature found on many models allows you to tilt the product tray only when the gauge plate is closed. That ensures that the knife is flush with the ring guard so the edge isn’t exposed during cleaning.

Typically, slicers also have some sort of kickstand that lets you prop the machine up at an angle, making it easier to clean underneath it. One model has a lever that lifts the slicer onto legs with wheels so you can roll the machine out of the way to clean the countertop. Another manufacturer offers a gas piston lift assist that helps tilt and hold the slicer up so you can clean under it.

In a lot of your facilities, of course, inmates aren’t the most careful when it comes to cleaning. As related earlier, most would rather just hose equipment down than clean and sanitize it properly. While that isn’t a good way to clean a slicer, it’s not as disastrous as it used to be.

Most manufacturers offer a sealed, water-resistant on/off switch, and automatic units with digital controls have sealed control panels. Some manufacturers offer a high-moisture package that includes treatment inside the base and on other parts to help prevent oxidation and corrosion.

Running On Automatic

If you decide to spec automatic slicers, take note of a couple of areas where models differ from manufacturer to manufacturer.

First is speed. The number of speeds on different automatic slicer models varies from two, three and four all the way to nine. Nine speeds seem a bit excessive for most applications, but two speeds don’t seem to provide quite enough flexibility. You’ll have to decide what works best in your operation.

Perhaps as important to productivity as number of speeds is a feature that lets you select the stroke length of the carriage. You may have your slicer set on a high speed, for example, but if you’re slicing salami, the carriage may travel its full length of about 12” for each stroke when it only needs to travel 4”, the width of the salami. And the faster the carriage travels the more the slicer is likely to shake. A better alternative may be a slicer with an adjustable stroke length.

Some models have three or four preset stroke lengths. At least one manufacturer lets you set the stroke length to any point you want along the carriage. The set point remains in memory for 30 seconds after pausing, giving you enough time to replenish product.

Look for a powerful carriage motor with permanently lubricated sealed ball bearings. Most manufacturers build the drive into the base of the unit, but one slicer maker designed its drive to mount directly on the carriage rail.

Another aspect of slicers that should be automatic is security. Most of you want equipment that’s simple to operate with as few removable parts as possible. The equipment you buy also has to be built like a tank to withstand the kind of abuse it’s likely to get.

One slicer manufacturer designs and builds all its products specifically for the corrections market. Most other manufacturers offer a corrections package on at least some of their models. Typically these models are assembled with tamper-resistant screws, non-removable handles and knobs that are drilled, pinned and lock tightened, and often treated to withstand higher moisture. These are the kinds of details worth asking about.

One more aspect to take into account in your purchase decision is the availability of both service and parts in your particular area. A great piece of equipment doesn’t do you any good if you can’t get support or replacement parts when you need them most. Preventive maintenance, of course, is the best defense against the need for a service call.

“We have a dedicated maintenance person assigned to all our kitchens, so we keep up on it,” says Ray Bullock, assistant chief of food services at the San Diego Sheriff’s Dept., San Diego. “We stick to one model, so it’s easy to fix and get parts.”

The department has six jails and four probation centers, including one 3,000-bed facility. Most meals are produced in a 41,000-sq.-ft., cook-chill production kitchen. Two large production slicer-stackers prep up to 1,500 lbs. of meat per day. But Bullock and the staff still rely on several countertop slicers throughout the system, as well.

Any way you slice it, you probably don’t want to be caught without a slicer built for your environment. With a little homework, you’ll find the model that works best for you. 

Safety First 

Limiting knife exposure during slicing, sharpening and cleaning is key to slicer safety, and manufacturers have done a good job of designing safety features into their equipment. Some of these are common to all models, but others are available only on select units or as optional features. Check carefully to be sure the model you spec has all the features you want.

No volt release. Common to most slicers, this safety feature requires you to restart the slicer after a power loss before it will continue operation.

Home start interlock. On some models, you have to make sure the sliding product tray is pulled all the way toward the operator before the slicer will start. That means it won’t start up while the operator loads product onto the tray. On some automatic versions, the product tray returns to this position when you shut off the slicer.

Gauge plate interlock. This feature prevents you from tilting or removing the product tray for cleaning when the gauge plate is open and the knife is exposed.

Knife cover interlock. Several models have an interlock that prevents them from operating if the knife cover is removed.

Auto shut-off. Some models automatically shut off the knife motor if the product tray or carriage hasn’t moved for a certain amount of time. On some models it’s a 10-sec. delay, on others it’s 30 secs.

Close to stop. On some models, a quick turn of the index knob that sets slice thickness back to zero automatically shuts off the machine.

Corrections Slicers

Globe Food Equipment Company

Hobart Corporation

PrisonBilt

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