Spec Check: Beverage Dispensers

Just as there is seemingly an endless variety of beverage types, a wide range of dispensers are available to meet the needs of foodservice operators.

"It's rare that an operator would just offer soda anymore," says Ken Reimer, owner of Ken's Beverage, a beverage equipment and service provider based in Plainfield, Ill. "Flavored and sparkling water, energy drinks and iced coffee are becoming more popular, because consumers want choices."

The most common type of carbonated beverage equipment includes ice/beverage combination units and ice/beverage countertop equipment. Suitable for use in both the back of the house and self-serve applications in the dining area, this equipment not only dispenses beverages, but also stores and dispenses ice. These units work by mixing carbonated water and flavored syrup at the proper ratio. Each beverage type has a separate nozzle.

A 30-inch-wide unit with between 8 and 10 valves represents the most common type used for self-service in both quick- and full-serve applications. Countertop ice/beverage units that measure 22 to 24 inches wide typically provide 6 valves. Large-format dispensers measure 42 to 44 inches wide and accommodate 12 brands. For high-volume use, 60-inch-wide beverage dispensers provide as many as 20 valves.

Multi-flavor valves and dispensers provide a variety of beverage types through a single point of dispense or valve. This provides space savings for operations with smaller footprints or limited countertop availability. These 30-inch-wide dispensers provide 4 dispense points for up to 16 soft drink varieties. Customers can make their beverage selection from a touch screen.

Ice bins work in conjunction with back-of-the-house beverage dispensers and are located adjacent to dispensers for countertop access. Although they come in various sizes and configurations, bins generally have capacities of between 60 and 100 pounds. Operators looking to save labor can utilize self-service units, which include top-mount ice makers that feed ice directly into a bin.

Drop-in dispensers typically include either an ice bin or a portion-controlled ice dispenser that includes a hopper. With the latter type, operators can push a button to automatically portion ice for small, medium and large cup sizes.

Specifying Considerations

  • Operators should first consider how and where they will utilize their beverage dispensers. For example, units that include both ice and beverage dispensing valves are most appropriate for self-serve use. This type of dispenser has become more common for quick-serve restaurants, which seek to provide value by allowing customers multiple refills.
  • Determining which dispenser best suits an operation typically depends on the model's throughput. Depending on volume, self-service applications may require more than one machine to accommodate at least two customers simultaneously.
  • Size the beverage dispensers according to the operation's
  • anticipated foot traffic. Busier locations may require at least two self-serve units in the front of house and another back-of-house dispenser specifically designated for drive-thru orders.
  • Operations with back-of-house and drive-thru dispensing applications should consider a drop-in dispenser, which gets set into countertops.
  • For operations that prioritize speed of service and accuracy, specify portion-controlled valves. When the long levers on these dispensers sense soft drink foam, the valves shut off automatically. This allows staff to accomplish other tasks while dispensing beverages.
  • Allot the appropriate space for self-serve and back-of-house dispensing equipment as well as the necessary bags and boxes of flavoring.
  • Beverage volume represents a primary consideration and will determine the type of equipment needed. To determine how many gallons of soft drinks an operation will serve annually, look at the VPO, or Volume Per Outlet. This number can range from 500 VPOs on the low end to more than 2,000 for high-volume operations.
  • With fountain drinks, take into account both dispenser valve and hopper capacity. Units with ice hopper capacities of 150 pounds can accommodate up to 6 drink types, while a 175-pound hopper can accommodate a maximum of 8 beverage varieties. Operations with higher volume should consider 200- and 250-pound units, which provide ice for 8 to 10 different soft drinks. Also, 250-pound units can provide ice for as many as 16 different beverage types. One of the largest hoppers available, the 300-pound unit provides 12 valves.
  • Foodservice operators can choose from different chilling methods to best address their applications. Ice-cooled dispensers, the most common version, use a cold plate to chill product and have an unlimited capacity. With mechanical units, the type of refrigeration system determines how much volume the unit can accommodate.
  • Before deciding on a unit, operators need to ensure it provides the appropriate amount of ice to meet the operation's beverage dispensing needs. Some units include ice profile systems that help determine ambient characteristics of a restaurant.
  • When looking at ice production with ice-cooled refrigeration dispenser units, it's important to note that more than a third of the ice produced will be used to cool water and syrup rather than dispensed beverages.
  • Quick-serve restaurants and convenience stores typically utilize beverage dispensers with remote coolers.
  • Small-volume operations should consider electric countertop beverage dispensers.

Common Specifying Mistakes

  • Don't underestimate the amount of ice beverage dispensing requires. When a foodservice operation lacks ice storage, it may be necessary to manually fill bins to get through busier meal periods. Operators should seek to avoid this problem, as it will increase labor needs, sometimes significantly.
  • Try to avoid undersizing or oversizing the unit. Knowing the peak demand will ensure not only that the foodservice operation obtains properly sized equipment, but also that the appropriate number of dispense points are available.
  • Consider the type of ice that best suits the application. Although cubed ice is easily dispensed and often used in quick-serve operations, a growing number of consumers prefer soft and chewy ice.
  • Use filtered water with beverage dispensers, since carbonation can bring out the bad taste in water.
  • Water pressure is often overlooked when specifying beverage dispensers.
  • Carefully assess merchandising capabilities for front-of-the-house units. Lighted signage can help encourage impulse sales.
  • Because it's cheaper and easier to store ice than make it, operators should be careful not to oversize the dispenser's ice maker.
  • Although ice makers on dispensers are rated per 24-hour
  • period, this is based on a perfect environment and is not typical. Operators need to make sure ice makers and dispensers are matched to the expected peak volume.
  • Allocating room for the dispenser is not the only consideration. It's also important to carve out space for storing bag and box syrup, which feeds the dispenser.
  • Operators should not overlook Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requirements when it comes to self-serve beverage dispensers. As of March 15, 2012, ADA implemented
  • 34-inch counter height specifications.

A Service Agent's Point of View

  • Service agent Ken Reimer, owner of Ken's Beverage, offers four tips to assist in specifying the proper beverage system.
  • Base ice consumption on sales and cup sizes. With full-serve dispensers, the staff dictates how much ice is used, but with self-serve units, customers typically over-serve themselves.
  • When specifying a self-serve unit, does the operation allow for unlimited refills? This will impact consumption.
  • Self-serve dispensers can pay for themselves, since this equipment speeds up service and helps control labor costs.
  • Units with ice machines on top cut down on labor costs and accidents [that can result] from staff members carrying ice around.

Restaurant Beverage Trends

Beverage trends in restaurants tend to mirror the segment as a whole, although foodservice operations are typically slower to adopt new varieties compared with the retail channel.

"Basically, we're seeing two overriding beverage trends that have been going on for more than a decade," says Gary Hemphill, managing director of research at New York City-based Beverage Marketing Corp., which provides consulting, research and data and advisory services to the global beverage, food and consumer packaged goods industries. "Consumers are seeking healthier beverages and more variety."

Beverage concepts are best poised to straddle the line between health and indulgence and attract both consumers looking to stay fit and those who are not, according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm headquartered in Rockville, Md. A number of foodservice operations are focusing on quality coffee and tea programs as well as specialty beverages. Tea, in particular, is positioned for growth as both a healthier option and one that provides a vehicle for flavor exploration.

The focus on unique and healthier beverage alternatives has resulted in a decline in soft drink sales over the last decade. "Although Americans still drink more carbonated soft drinks compared with any other beverage, this market is struggling due to the focus on health as well as the increasing variety of other beverage types," Hemphill says.

Bottled water continues to be a strong performer, with growing sales attributed to the grab-and-go market. Customization and flavor blending with iced tea and juice offerings also has become more widespread in today's restaurants.

"In addition, newer categories, including energy and sports drinks, coconut water and bottled and canned coffee, are becoming more prevalent," Hemphill says.

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