The large and diverse beverage dispenser product category encompasses a variety of equipment for many types of drinks. In the area of carbonated beverages, foodservice operators can choose from multiple categories and equipment platforms. Ice/beverage combination units and ice/beverage countertop equipment represent the most common equipment operators use.
The basic function of this equipment is to store and dispense ice as well as to provide cold beverages. Foodservice operators use these units in the back of house or in a self-serve format in the front of house.
On all fountain dispensers, the actual mixing takes place at the point of dispense. Most units have discreet valves, which is one nozzle for each brand or flavor. Carbonated water and flavored syrup come together at the proper ratio in the upper portion of the unit.
When specifying a beverage dispenser, foodservice operators should consider how they will use the unit and the amount of throughput they will require. For self-serve applications, all-in-one units that include both ice and beverage dispensing valves tend to be among the better options. Ice not only offsets beverage volume but also provides continual cooling once the drink is in the cup. This option remains popular among quick-serve restaurants, which seek to provide value by allowing customers multiple refills. Multiple machines may be necessary to accommodate at least two customers simultaneously.
Beverage dispensers are typically sized for foot traffic. It is not unusual for a single location to have two self-serve units in the front of house and another crew-serve dispenser designated for drive thru orders.
Operations with behind-the-counter and drive thru beverage dispensing needs may want to consider a drop-in dispenser, which is set into countertops. Portion-controlled valves are available to help increase speed of service and accuracy. When the long levers on these dispensers sense soft drink foam, the valves shut off automatically. This allows staff to accomplish other tasks while beverages are being dispensed.
Operators need to allocate the proper space in both the front and back of house for this equipment. The amount of brands or products offered will dictate the size of the equipment and space required. Countertop ice/beverage units that measure 22 to 24 inches wide typically provide six valves. The most common type among self-service in both quick- and full-serve applications is a 30-inch-wide unit, which accommodates between eight and 10 valves. Large format dispensers, which measure 42 to 44 inches wide and accommodate 12 brands, are most often used in convenience stores and for other retail applications. For high volume use, foodservice operators can opt to use 60-inch-wide beverage dispensers that have 20 valves.
One of the most common mistakes in specifying beverage dispensers is undersizing or oversizing the unit. Understanding peak demand will allow for the proper sizing of this equipment and ensure that the appropriate number of dispense points are available.
Volume represents yet another key factor and dictates the type of equipment needed. Foodservice operators should look at how many gallons of soft drinks they dispense annually and relate that to the Volume Per Outlet (VPO) to determine the size of the unit they require. This number can vary, ranging from 500 VPOs for smaller operations to 2,000 or more for high-volume restaurants.
Foodservice operators also need to decide how many beverage options they will offer. One newer innovation is flavor shots, which provide consumers with the ability to customize their drinks. Beverage dispensers are available with up to eight different multi-flavor valves for operations looking to diversify drink offerings.
In recent years, there has been migration toward multi-flavor valves and dispensers. These units provide multiple beverage types through a single point of dispense or valve. The biggest benefit is space savings for operations with smaller footprints or limited countertop availability. Newer multi-flavor valves provide up to 16 soft drink varieties in 30 inches of space and utilize four dispense points. Customers can make their beverage selection from a touch screen or by utilizing a membrane switch.
Take into account dispenser valve and hopper capacity when specifying fountain beverage dispensers. An ice hopper capacity of 150 pounds can accommodate six drink types, while a 175-pound hopper services eight beverage brands. For higher volume applications, 200- and 250-pound units provide ice for eight to 10 different soft drinks. One of the largest hoppers available, the 300-pound unit, provides 12 valves. With today's newer technology, some 250-pound units can provide up to 16 different beverages.
Within the different classes of beverage dispensers exists various chilling methods, with the most common being mechanical and ice-cooled refrigeration. With mechanical units, the type of refrigeration system determines how much volume it can accommodate. Ice-cooled dispensers, used most often, employ a cold plate to chill product. These units, which utilize ice as a cooling agent for water and syrup lines, have an unlimited capacity.
It is critical to have the appropriate amount of ice to meet the operation's beverage dispensing needs. Carbonated beverages are best served between 36 and 38 degrees F. If these drinks are more than 40 degrees F, carbonation break out can occur, compromising the quality of the beverage. Ice profile systems are available with some units that take into account the ambient characteristics of the operation.
It is not uncommon for operators to underestimate the amount of ice needed for beverage dispensing. When lacking ice storage, it may be necessary to manually fill bins to get through lunch and dinner rushes. Operators should seek to avoid this problem, as it will increase labor needs, sometimes significantly.
When determining how much ice a restaurant will require, operators need to be aware that as much as 30 percent to 35 percent of ice will cool water and syrup with ice-cooled refrigeration dispenser units. This means that for a 250-pound bin as much as 87.5 pounds of ice will not be available for use in dispensed beverages.
Back-of-house beverage dispensers typically utilize ice bins that come in various sizes and configurations, but generally have capacities of between 60 and 100 pounds. These bins are adjacent to the dispensers for countertop use. Self-service units include top-mount ice makers that feed ice directly into a bin, which can save labor.
Drop in dispensers can include an ice bin or a portion-controlled ice dispenser that includes a hopper. The latter automatically portions ice at the push of a button, filling small, medium and large cup sizes.
Operators should determine what type of ice best suits the application. While cubed ice is easy to dispense and a popular choice for quick-serve applications, soft and chewy ice is becoming more prevalent.
Because carbonation can bring out bad taste in water, it is recommended that filtered water be used with these units. The water pressure also needs to be considered when specifying beverage dispensers.
Merchandising represents another important consideration for front-of-the-house dispensers.
These units typically include signage on the front that market the available beverages. It's beneficial to position these self-service units in a central and highly visible location to help drive drink profits.