Spec Check: Heated Merchandisers

Whereas hot wells were popular for holding food for front of house self-service in the past, more operators continue to look for heat and display alternatives. Heated merchandisers are a fixture in retail settings, including supermarkets and convenience stores, holding hot food that is either in pans for portioning or pre-packaged for grab-and-go applications.

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Among all foodservice operators, quick-serve restaurants tend to be the ones that use heated merchandisers most often. QSRs use heated merchandisers to hold pre-packaged and grab-and-go items at proper and safe temperatures of 165 degrees F or higher.

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"People are getting away from hot wells," says Kristin Sedej, principal of S2O Consultants, Inc., a foodservice design firm based in Lake Zurich, Ill. "We're seeing more plated items displayed on flush, heated merchandiser shelves in buffet lines."

Main considerations when specifying heated merchandisers include the available space for these units, amount of product the foodservice operation will hold at one time, the items' size and the length of holding time.

Customer expectations of the food's condition as it comes out of the merchandiser also comes into play. For example, the foodservice operator can choose to plate the food or wrap it so the customer can take it to go.

"When specifying heated merchandisers, it all comes down to the menu," Sedej says. "The more specific operators can be about the types of food that will be held, the easier it is to choose the appropriate model."

Typical items contained in these units include cooked proteins, like whole chickens, fried chicken, turkey breast and ribs as well as side dishes that include mashed potatoes, French fries, mac and cheese and vegetables. Coffee houses often use heated merchandisers to keep muffins, croissants, cookies and Danishes warm.

Merchandiser sizes run the gamut from simple countertop cases that plug in to standard outlets to larger built-in floor cases with more sophisticated hook ups. Narrowing the field to determine the right unit for the job means considering the application and products to be held.

It also comes down to marketing, as these units not only heat and hold the product; they serve as a merchandising tool. For this reason, it's important to confirm the different items the foodservice operation will look to promote during each day part.

Operators first need to determine the space available for heated merchandisers. These units are typically 18, 24, 30 or 36 inches long, with various depths available. It should be noted that cases more than eight feet long generally require special equipment to lift and move during shipping and installation.

Basically, the placement constraints depend on the amount of space available. This would involve the footprint on the floor in the case of an island or within the line for an in-line unit. The necessary capacity also is a factor. Operators should establish the number of packages, pans or products that the unit will need to accommodate.

Secondary considerations may involve aesthetics and the need to blend the merchandiser into the decor. Consequently, when specifying heated merchandisers for the front of house, design is a key consideration.

Front-of-the-house heated merchandisers generally fall into three main categories that include islands, in-line or countertop configurations. The in-line and countertop merchandisers are appropriate for both staff service and self-service access. Foodservice operators typically use island units for self-service applications. A common mistake is specifying a self-serve display case in an area where a manned service case would be more effective and safe.

While shelf merchandisers offer added versatility, models geared for snacks are seen more in front of the counter offerings. Foodservice operators would use Euro case units for items such as chicken, various fried products and potatoes.

Operators can choose from between one- and three-shelf units with either slanted or straight shelves. "While stable grab-and-go food like prewrapped sandwiches display well on tilted shelving, items such as bagged fries should be held on a level shelf to keep from spilling," Sedej says. "Built-in heated shelves are best specified in buffet applications."

Stainless steel is often used in areas of the hot case that need to be cleaned frequently. Glass, tempered or otherwise, is also commonly used for side walls, back doors and other areas to provide better visibility of the products being merchandised.

The application will determine door placement on the unit. When used in full-service restaurants, doors are on the back, while self-serve units require front door placement. For self-serve applications, ergonomics relative to consumers accessing the unit's packaged food should be a factor.

The type of product and the length of its holding time will determine whether above and/or below heat is necessary. For a more upscale appearance, operators can specify a unit with bottom heating and install decorative heat lamps from the ceiling to warm from above. For added versatility, units also are available with top heat and refrigeration below.

In choosing a unit, evaluate how products will be served. Will the pizza be in a box or offered by the slice? This not only will determine the merchandiser size but also what heating capabilities are needed. The thickness of the food and its propensity for drying out also should be considered.

Heated merchandisers provide a range of temperature capabilities. Because not all units provide the same heating abilities, selecting a model with the necessary hold-time is key.

The type of food and whether it is open or packaged also will help determine if a humidity feature is needed. Items like pizza and pretzels can benefit from this option, but it would be detrimental if using the merchandiser for fried foods.

A common mistake in specifying these units is putting too much focus on the décor aspects and not enough attention on the temperature needs and holding time. Operators also tend to order larger merchandisers with more bells and whistles than they need.

Energy efficiency should be a consideration, too, as these units are in constant use and staff or customers frequently open the doors.

Another consideration is the cost of consumables, such as light bulbs. Recent changes in legislation are leading to the phasing out of incandescent lighting which has prompted advances in the way the cases are illuminated.

Changes in lighting/heating technology have resulted in reduced power consumption. These systems can reduce power consumption in areas of the unit that are not being used. The result is consistent heat over the shelf surface. Hot spots/cold spots are eliminated and the shelf doesn't have to be as hot to hold the food properly.

Other energy-saving features include low-wattage elements, heating elements that provide more consistent temperature throughout the unit and product sensors, which automatically shut off the heating element when the merchandiser is empty.

Heated Merchandiser Options

A number of heated merchandiser options can provide added eye-appeal, versatility and energy efficiency.

If aesthetics are a priority, decor-related considerations, such as the color of the base and/or bumpers and the shape and profile of the case or base can enhance merchandising in the front of house.

Other options to consider for both merchandising and added functionality are signs, menu boards/holders, an adjustable heat/toggle switch, adjustable legs, digital controls and dividing and racking solutions. At least one manufacturer offers back lit signage.

Some manufacturers offer accessories that provide added efficiency, such as shelves for scales or packaging; containers/rails to hold tongs, thermometers and other items; and built-in thermometers for measuring food temperature.

For added energy efficiency, air curtains can keep ambient temperatures at bay.

Four Signs it is Time to Replace a Heated Merchandiser

  • Holding Temperature Issues: When a heated merchandiser is unable to maintain food at required temperatures, food safety becomes an issue. If the unit cannot keep food hot, consider purchasing a new unit.
  • Hot or Cold Spots: If burn or scorch marks appear on heated holding surfaces, the calrod is either out of calibration or failing. Depending on the severity of the problem, a new unit may be necessary.
  • Excessive Wear and Tear: If the merchandiser has broken glass, the knobs are falling apart or the lights are damaged, the front of house aesthetics may be compromised. Older units that appear damaged or show age and heavy use should be retired.
  • Pitting or Eroding: Cabinets with evidence of pitting and/or erosion, which can be caused by heavy use or cleaning with harsh chemicals, are a food safety hazard and should be replaced.
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