Ice. This seemingly simple substance is critical in most cold beverages. But not all ice is created equal. One of the hottest trends—or should we say, coldest—is the growing popularity of soft, chewable ice, commonly called “nugget ice.” Also known as “cubelets,” “Pearl ice,” “Chewblet ice,” “pellet ice,” or simply “chewy ice,” depending on the ice machine manufacturer, nugget ice is smaller and wetter than a typical cube. It is comprised of 8%–26% water, with the remainder being solid ice.
The porous composition absorbs a beverage’s flavor, allowing customers to savor flavorful, chewy ice long after the last sip of a drink. Sonic popularized the ice back in the 1980s, and some people even refer to it as “Sonic ice.” Over the past decade, and particularly the last few years, chewy ice has gained popularity with consumers. The latest mega chain to switch to nugget ice is Starbucks, which announced in May that it will start rolling out nugget ice machines.
Nugget ice machines come in a variety of sizes, including countertop and undercounter models. This article focuses on higher-capacity machines—those that produce at least 700 pounds per day needed to serve a mid- to high-volume foodservice operation.
ICE, ICE, MAYBE?
While nugget ice machines are steadily gaining more of the market, they still comprise only about 20% of ice machine sales, according to manufacturers. “Cube ice will always be No. 1,” notes one maker.
When deciding between a nugget ice machine and a traditional cube machine, analyze the economics. For starters, do your customers prefer nugget ice, and will it help differentiate your operation and build sales? Nugget ice is particularly popular at convenience stores and quick-service restaurants, especially in warmer locales. It’s also gaining popularity at restaurants, bars and coffee shops that sell blended frozen drinks, partly because it offers a consistent icy quality. Because nuggets are smaller and softer than cubes, they’re easily blended, preventing large chunks of ice. The consistency also is easier on blender blades, potentially extending their life.
One manufacturer touts that its nugget machines use about 40% less water and 15% less energy than cube machines.
Consider the lifetime cost of owning and operating a nugget ice machine. The machines use less water and less energy, so project savings in those areas; one manufacturer touts that its nugget machines use about 40% less water and 15% less energy than cube machines. Expect higher margins on cold beverages. The nuggets nestle together and displace more of the beverage than other types of ice, reducing syrup costs.
On the other hand, a nugget ice machine is a larger capital investment. One manufacturer estimates that you’ll spend 15%–20% more for a nugget ice machine, because it requires more moving parts to handle a more complex ice-making process. A cuber makes ice in batches. In contrast, nugget machines use a continuous ice-making process. Water starts to freeze inside a cylindrical evaporator. A slowly rotating auger pushes the icy solution up the walls of the evaporator before it’s extruded as nugget ice.
More moving parts also means higher maintenance costs. Never skimp on cleaning and planned maintenance. That could lead to a variety of costly problems, including scale buildup inside the evaporator, eventually causing the equipment to fail and necessitating expensive repairs or replacement. “If you are not going to keep up on your maintenance, it’s probably not a good idea to get a nugget machine,” one maker advises.
A nugget machine also isn’t the right match for operations that store ice for multiple days. “The soft ice can stick to itself,” notes one maker. “High ice turnover is required for using this ice type.”
If you’ve decided on nugget ice, you’ll next need to specify the exact type of ice. Do you want a soft ice that’s 26% water, a semi-firm ice with 8% water, or somewhere in between? Test out the different ice offerings. If you’re replacing a nugget ice machine, look for one that produces a close match, unless you have reason to change. One maker recounts that a quick-service franchisee faced a customer outcry when the operation switched to a different variety of nugget ice.
Consider whether the ice machine will sit atop an ice bin or atop a beverage dispenser, as that can dictate the nugget ice variety. Ice nuggets can congeal in the dispenser hopper and form a snowball, making it difficult to dispense ice. The wetter the ice, the more likely you’ll experience this issue. One manufacturer even offers two ice varieties—one with 26% water to use with ice bins, one with 14% water for beverage dispensers.
Next, determine your needed ice production. If you’re replacing a machine, examine whether your current machine provides a sufficient ice supply or whether you need to upsize.
Consider the equipment’s footprint; it can be a struggle to fit a high-capacity machine into today’s shrinking kitchens. Luckily, smart engineering and technology advances are yielding high-capacity ice machines that fit into smaller footprints. Some models now produce 2,000 pounds of nugget ice daily, in a space-saving 30-inch-wide design.
Depending on your operation’s configuration, you might benefit from two or more smaller machines, rather than one large one. Some operators have one machine at the drive-thru, another in the back-of-house and another for self-serve. In some cases, operators even align two machines atop one bin, using “twins on a bin,” as one manufacturer calls it. Operators with seasonal business, such as beachside restaurants, could benefit from this setup, allowing them to turn off one machine during the slow season and save on utilities. This built-in redundancy also means that if one machine needs to be cleaned or serviced, you’ll still have another working one.
Nugget machine manufacturers have introduced several features in recent years for smoother operations, improved efficiency and easier maintenance. Some options to consider are:
MAINTENANCE-FREE BEARINGS. Traditionally, the bearings on the auger system need to be greased every six months—a task that’s often overlooked, leading to equipment breakdowns. Today, several manufacturers have developed maintenance-free alternatives. For example, one manufacturer uses an oil injected polymer that surrounds the rollers in the bearing, designed to last the product’s lifetime.
INFRARED EYE. At least one maker offers an infrared eye that measures the amount of ice in the bin. When the bin is full, ice production shuts down, ensuring that the bin doesn’t overflow.
FLUSH CYCLE. Unlike batch ice makers, continuous ice makers typically use 100% of the water fed to them for making ice. That’s why it’s so important to have and maintain a water filtration system that removes impurities before they get to the machine. As an extra measure, at least one maker offers machines with an hourly two-second flush cycle to remove scale and sediment buildup between production cycles.
QR CODES. At least one manufacturer has added QR codes to the front of its ice machines, allowing foodservice managers to quickly access equipment information, including the model number, serial number, warranty details, the user manual and cleaning instructions.
REMOTE MONITORING. This feature provides a glimpse into how a chain’s machines are operating at different locations, alerting operators to developing problems. It can help service techs diagnose issues remotely, ensuring they arrive on-site with the needed parts.
ECO-FRIENDLY REFRIGERANTS. Refrigerant regulations continue to evolve as both the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency introduce new requirements. Some manufacturers have switched to R-290 refrigerant, which has a negligible global warming potential. The maker says the change has been a “win-win,” reporting that they’ve seen an increase in ice production while reducing energy usage.
With these updates, it’s never been easier to operate and maintain a nugget machine. And while they’re still high maintenance compared to cubers, nugget machines are considered much cooler by guests who crave chewy ice!
Keeping Your Cool
As an essential part of any ice machine setup, a condenser prevents the equipment from overheating. You can choose from three options:
• Air-cooled machines output their heat into the room, causing the HVAC system to work overtime, and can be noisy. Make sure you leave enough clearance to allow for airflow.
• Water-cooled machines are quieter and cooler, but they require a separate water line, and some municipalities have restrictions on their use.
• Remote condensers are the most popular choice for high-capacity nugget machines. They remove the noise and heat output away from your work area and away from guests. They’re typically installed on the roof or behind the building.
Specify what works best for your operation’s configuration and needs. Keep in mind that not every nugget machine offers all three condenser options.
Note the following details on some of the latest high-capacity nugget ice machines from manufacturers.
MODEL: Horizon Elite 1412
CAPACITY: Up to 1,372 lb./24 hr.
DIMENSIONS: 22 7⁄10 -in.W x 24½ -in.D x 21¼ -in.H
FEATURES: Choose the remote monitoring option to receive real-time alerts and notifications or to diagnose issues remotely.
CAPACITY: Up to 890 lb./24 hr.
DIMENSIONS: 22-in.W x 24-in.D x 26-in.H
FEATURES: The hourly two-second flush cycle on this model helps reduce impurities and mineral buildup, improving sanitation and reliability. A stainless auger with a greaseless bearing adds durability.
MODEL: QuietQube RNF-2000C
CAPACITY: Up to 1,915 lb./24 hr.
DIMENSIONS: 30-in.W x 23 3/5 -in.D x 27 2/5 -in.H
FEATURES: The remote condenser system on this unit operates typically on a rooftop or behind the building, removing noise and heat from the kitchen or guest area.
CAPACITY: Up to 1,053 lb./24 hr.
DIMENSIONS: 21-in.W x 24-in.D x 27-in.H
FEATURES: Place two of these front-breathing, space-saving models on top of one bin for built-in redundancy. Or shut down one unit during slower months at seasonal operations.
CAPACITY: Up to 714 lb./24 hr.
DIMENSIONS: 22-in.W x 24½ -in.D x 28-in.H
FEATURES: The machine combines dryness of ice with easy dispensing. With its energy-efficient 115V operation and environmentally friendly R-290 refrigerant, it’s a sustainable solution.
MODEL: Prodigy Plus N2030
CAPACITY: Up to 2,008 lb./24 hr.
DIMENSIONS: 30-in.W x 24-in.D x 29-in.H
FEATURES: A QR code on the unit provides quick access to service manuals, cleaning guides and warranty history. Sealed, maintenance-free bearings ensure reliability.
Editor’s note: All capacities measured at 70°F air/50°F water and air-cooled, except for Follett, Manitowoc and Scotsman, which are remote.
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