Whether it is toasted bread, bagels, buns, or English muffins customers have come to expect evenly browned fresh bread items. Toasters are an essential equipment item for any operation with sandwiches on the menu and critical if breakfast is served. Even cooking and speed are what today's toasters have been engineered to do.
The most common toaster for a small toast volume is the pop-up model. Although the pop-up toaster used in commercial applications may look similar to the domestic model, the output is considerably different and so is the price tag. For $600 to $1,100 you can buy a toaster that looks similar.
However, the commercial model will toast faster and stand up to wear and tear that will be encountered in the commercial setting. Controls, heat elements, and overall construction of a commercial unit are much more heavy duty than domestic models as the unit weight suggests.
A typical four-slice commercial toaster weighs between 18 and 20 pounds and is constructed of heavy duty components and stainless steel; whereas, the domestic model weighs between two and three pounds and may have many lightweight plastic components.
Although it may seem like good economics to buy the home version for the cafe, in addition to not lasting long, they are generally not permitted in commercial operations.
If your toast volume outgrows the pop-up unit, you will want to consider a conveyor model (see photo above). Conveyor toasters are popular in many operations where volume is higher or varied bread sizes are used. Conveyor toasters are generally larger in physical size and rated for a higher toasting capacity.
Typical toasting capacities as rated by the manufacturers are between 250 and 380 slices per hour for a fourslice pop-up machine and anywhere from 400 to 1200 slices pet hour for the various models of conveyor toasters. (Please note, however, that the manufacturers' ratings are based upon ideal conditions and are probably not achievable in practice.) As a rule of thumb, estimate toaster needs based on about 70 percent of the manufacturers' ratings. Rated toaster capacities do not take into account loading and unloading time varied bread sizes and other real time variables. The ratings are also based on using faster toasting drier day old bread. If you think your toast volume may grow into needing a conveyor toaster, know that the cost difference between a basic conveyor and a fast pop-up unit is not significant.
In order to determine the toaster appropriate for your needs, look at the features offered and the associated price. Let's examine some of the features you may want to consider.
If a pop-up toaster is in your capacity range, consider whether a unit with mechanical or solid state controls better meets your needs. A unit with mechanical controls uses a timer only for toasting time. With only a timer you will need to compensate for quicker toasting when the toaster is already hot from previous toasting. A unit with solid state electronic controls uses those controls to adjust toasting time and temperature, thereby, creating uniformly toasted product batch after batch without changing the doneness setting. The price for solid state technology, however, may be 50 percent of the toaster's cost.
Many plug-in toasters are available in either 120 volts or 208/240 volts. If the toaster is going to move around, a 120 volt model may be appropriate as those outlets are likely to be in many locations. If you can plan for the larger voltage, a specific location for the toaster can be advantageous.
Typically, but not always, the higher voltage unit may produce up to 25 percent more slices of toast because of the higher wattage heating elements associated with the higher voltage. If you go with the 120 volt model, be sure the outlet is a dedicated circuit. If on the same circuit with other outlets the high amperage of the toaster may trip off the circuit.
There are two types of conveyor toasters, the vertical model that traditionally toasts by having the product in direct contact with a heated plate, and the horizontal conveyor that toasts without direct contact with the product. The conveyor models are used in higher production applications and many can alternate between toasting buns or bread. Bun toasting means that only one side of the product is toasted.
There are also some specially made units for bagel toasting. The degree of doneness on conveyor models is determined by the speed of the conveyor, which is infinitely adjustable. Some models can be set for either front or rear delivery meaning that one employee can load the unit while another uses the toasted product to make a finished sandwich. A few of the conveyor toasters are gas fired rather than electric heated, allowing for what may be a more economical energy source. Keep in mind, though, that even a gas-fired toaster needs an electrical connection to operate the conveyor.
If you plan on toasting a mix of products like English muffins, bread, rolls, or frozen waffles, a conveyor toaster may be the best bet. The cost of conveyor toasters generally starts at approximately $900 to $1,000 and increases quickly, but if flexibility and capacity are needed, conveyor toasting may be the proper choice.
If more than the basic conveyor unit is needed, some of the features you can expect include more precise heat control. Some have separate control of the top and bottom elements that can be good for toasting various products like English muffins, for example.
Another feature in some units is a "cool touch" exterior. Buffet operations where the patron is doing the toasting prefer the cooler unit for safety. Safety is something you must think about if you are positioning a toaster where guests will use it. Commercial toasters are generally more powerful and hotter, so caution must be used.
There are other types of specialty toasters. One is an interesting spin on the pop-up toaster—the pop-down toaster. The popdown toaster uses a less complex mechanism to drop toast onto a receiving tray under the unit rather than the conventional mechanism on a pop-up model used to raise the toast. The pop-down feature means that time is not lost removing toast from the slots before reloading, and toast does not sit in the toaster drying out if not removed immediately.
If you treat your toaster well it should serve you a long time. Toasters should be kept in dry locations and not be in areas that get sprayed down for cleaning. Toasters with electronic controls are especially prone to damage from water. Also, like any piece of equipment, toasters need periodic maintenance. Oiling motors in conveyor models will help extend the life as will keeping the heating elements free of the debris that builds up.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm that specializes in planning foodservice facilities. A member of Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI), Bendall can be reached at 240-314-0660.