FER REPORT: Combi Ready

Sign up for the annual Combi Challenge, hosted by the Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas), Downey, Calif., and you can test drive a wide range of combi ovens—from three-pan counter units to big roll-in-rack versions—at no cost or obligation.

“Our goal is to give attendees a one-stop shop for combis,” says Nicole O’Rourke, senior program advisor at SoCalGas. 

The event, slated for Aug. 11 this year, takes place at the company’s Food Service Equipment Center, a state-of-the-art facility built to help operators compare new, energy-efficient equipment. Guests can explore more than 150 pieces of equipment from as many as 60 different manufacturers on any given day.

For the Combi Challenge, now in its ninth year, O’Rourke and staff invite manufacturers of gas-fired combis to send in their latest units. Last year, the event drew nine manufacturers, and SoCalGas expects the same turnout this year. The organizers give each manufacturer a section of the facility to plug in one combi model. Makers are welcome to send a chef, who can use the combi to prepare 2-3 oz. samples of any dish of their choice for attendees. 

Organizers solicit attendees to the event—typically local restaurant and hotel operators and some chain representatives—through an email campaign. About 120 attendees came last year.

The challenge runs three hours total with the first two hours comprised of educational sessions focused on keeping your combi operating at peak performance, followed by hands-on learning and food sampling. If your concepts already boast a combi, consider the event a refresher course on how to make the most of your investment as well as gain inspiration for new menu items. If you’re in the market for a combi, there is no better way to see what’s available. 

“[SoCalGas] always does a first-class job with the program,” says Martin Cowley, senior manager-design and construction for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Anaheim, Calif. “It’s always worth going to get accurate, pertinent information that you can apply to your operations. They have so many vendors on hand, and you come away understanding the full capabilities of the combi.”

The Big Deal 

Combis deliver speed, menu flexibility and great food quality, according to users. They first hit the U.S. market back in the mid-1980s, and noncommercial operators were among the early adopters. 

Fast forward to 2015 and all kinds of segments, not just institutional kitchens, are using combis to proof dough, steam vegetables and seafood, roast and hold all kinds of dishes, rethermalize pre-plated meals and even bake fries and broil steaks. Some chefs who attend the Combi Challenge also are using them for sous-vide cooking, O’Rourke says.

One of the combi’s more highly coveted features is its ability to greatly increase product yield. With elevated prices on beef and other meats expected through 2016, yield matters. 

“At this year’s challenge, we’re going to focus on how cooking proteins in a combi saves operators money by increasing yield,” O’Rourke says. She heard a story from a past attendee who prepared prime rib in a combi and realized he was able to get an additional portion out of each roast compared with cooking it in a convection oven. He did the math, proved the return on investment was going to take less than two years and convinced his boss to purchase a combi.

“People perceive combis to be expensive,” she adds, noting the full-featured units can cost tens of thousands of dollars. “But after the initial cost, the units will hopefully pay for themselves through higher yields, better food quality and labor savings by using more efficient cooking methods.” Also, the combi’s cooking mode replaces the work of two pieces of equipment: the steamer and the oven. 

Over The Years

SoCalGas hosted the first Combi Challenge in 2006. The company also annually puts together the Fryer Challenge (see FER, March 2013, p. 24) with the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Food Service Technology Center (FSTC), San Ramon, Calif., as well as a pizza-oven event, called For The Love of Pizza, where attendees gain tips on how to produce perfect pies and buy the right conveyor oven or hearth oven for their operation. 

Why have a combi challenge? Because combis represent a substantial investment and can come with a steep learning curve, O’Rourke notes. “Combis demand your attention because they’re so programmable now,” she says, and the programming is more intuitive than it has ever been. “We wanted to give people the opportunity to come in, see a bunch of models, compare and contrast and choose the best one for them and their staff.” Today, combis have a place in all kinds of operations because they’re available in mini, half, full and roll-in-rack sizes.

Dave Berger, associate store team leader at Whole Foods Market, Scottsdale, Ariz., attended the Combi Challenge while working in the grocery chain’s regional operations. 

“We were looking at possibly introducing combi ovens in our service delis, and the event connected me with a lot of different companies that we would potentially work with and all the technologies they offered,” Berger says. “They were all willing to talk with me and demonstrate how their particular unit works.”

Over the years, more operators have become aware of combis, O’Rourke says. She used to have to explain the equipment. The market has expanded, too. It has gone from a few models with minimal features to more than 12 manufacturers offering highly competitive units. 

“There were far fewer choices back then,” she recalls. “Combis are a lot easier to use now; some come with touchscreens, and you can program one-touch menu selections. There are a lot more options. You can get a smoker [using real wood chips] or a sous-vide temperature probe.”

Organizers have made a few changes to the event program since the beginning. They used to ask chefs to prepare a basket of different foods so attendees could see the versatility of the combis, for instance. But that approach resulted in too much waste, so chefs only prepare one sample—usually a protein or vegetable. No formal judging takes place except a casual, people’s choice-type award for the tastiest food sample. One year, there was a cook-off where chefs made their favorite menu item and were formally judged on the dishes. 

Classroom Happenings

Attendees are encouraged to take advantage of the free educational sessions when they attend the Combi Challenge; sessions are presented by a mix of industry experts. Topics change from year to year, but they’ll often cover proper installation and maintenance and how to maximize the combi’s functions through programs and controls. SoCalGas is such a proponent of the energy efficiency of combis it offers a $750 rebate to help offset the cost of qualified units.

“We always try to include a seminar on maintenance because it’s important for combis, and a lot of times it’s forgotten,” O’Rourke explains. “We want end users to understand how to take care of their unit. If they do the necessary maintenance requirements, it will run fine.” 

David Zabrowski, general manager of Fisher-Nickel Inc. and the FSTC, will be on hand this August to walk attendees through how to select an energy-efficient combi and what exactly makes it an efficient piece of equipment. For example, it’s a good practice to set the combi to convection mode when you’re not using it. If you leave it in combi mode, it will unnecessarily produce steam and use water. The unit only takes a few minutes to go from convection to combi mode, so a convection-mode idle won’t slow things down.

“We want people to walk away and be wowed by the combi,” O’Rourke says. She says come to the event and test out models, network with peers and enjoy great food. Space is limited. To sign up, log onto socalgas.com/innovation/fsec

The following manufacturers have participated in past Combi Challenges:

Alto-Shaam Inc.

Angelo Po

Blodgett Corp./Middleby

Cleveland Range Inc./Manitowoc Foodservice

Electrolux Professional Inc.

Eloma USA/Ali Group

Fagor Commercial Inc.

Henny Penny Corp.

Hobart Corp./ITW FEG

Rational USA

Unox Spa

Vulcan/ITW FEG


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