Beverage production and dispensing equipment is sometimes overlooked in operational planning. You may think that since you offer the standard complement of coffees, sodas, and juices, there isn't much more to consider, but it makes sense to choose equipment that will enhance the guest experience and your ability to provide a quality product.
Remember—almost all of your guests order a beverage of some sort and beverages are often the most profitable items you have to sell. So it pays to be knowledgeable about hot and cold beverage service equipment.
Coffee and Espresso Equipment
Coffee makers range in size from single one-half gallon decanter units to 80 gallon and larger banquet urns. Small decanter or bottle brewers have been around for decades and serve well. An alternative many smaller operations are using are shuttles which are insulated, transport well and dispense product easily through a faucet. These shuttles are great for moveable buffets.
Another popular serving method is the airpot. Airpots are completely sealed and insulated like a thermos. They are attractive and easy for customers to operate. According to one manufacturer, they can hold temperature and quality up to eight hours. They are excellent for serving a variety of specialty or flavored coffees since a group of airpots can be held on a rack making merchandising easy.
The move up in coffee volume is to an urn, most likely a double three gallon size used in many medium to large size operations. A few manufacturers make smaller urns but the most popular is the twin three gallon unit. A common purchasing mistake made by operators is to buy too large a coffee maker. A twin three gallon urn can make enough for over 600 cups of coffee per hour and a single brew in one urn can generally serve one seating for a 100-seat operation. An urn does not allow a small operation to deal effectively with decaf coffee or any other special blends or flavored coffees which are becoming more and more popular.
If you want to make your operation known for a great cup of coffee, one item, water quality, cannot be overemphasized. When you think about it a cup of coffee has just two ingredients, coffee and water. The vast majority of what is in each cup you sell is water, so it is imperative to treat your water like a valuable resource. If you don't, you can't provide the best cup of coffee even with using the best ground product on the market. Getting a high quality water filter that removes minerals and impurities is as important as getting a good coffee or coffee maker.
Being able to offer a good espresso for most coffee bar operations is a must. There are many machines on the market made in a variety of sizes, capabilities, and ease of operation. A match to your expected volume is easy to make once you decide on the degree of sophistication needed for your machine. Because of training staff to operate manually operated machines, fully automatic machines are more popular as establishments see the need for a consistent product and quick service. Unless you have someone with the training it is difficult to ensure consistent quality in a manually operated machine.
The fully or super-automatic machines are popular but are often very expensive. They do, however, produce a quality consistent espresso with minimum waste and little chance for operator error. The super-automatic has a built in bean storage hopper and grinder. With the press of a button, the exact weight of beans is dispensed, ground, tamped into the brewing chamber and brewed with the precise amount of water at the proper temperature. The brewing chamber is even automatically cleaned and the used grounds stored or flushed down the drain. Machines are made that have a refrigerated milk compartment and automatically steam and mix the milk for a quality cappuccino. These machines are ideal where there will be many operators and training each on a traditional machine would be difficult. At the other end of the spectrum there are machines that use powdered mix and are very simple to operate. They are perfect for snack bars or cafeterias but may not be appropriate for the discerning tastes of guests at a coffee bar.
Carbonated Beverage Dispensers
The post mix dispenser has evolved from small countertop units with ice bins beneath to today's units which often have between 8 and 20 dispensing valves and integral automatic ice dispensers. The actual dispensing equipment for carbonated beverages is quite varied. There are a large number of dispensers on the market by a range of different manufacturers. The most popular dispenser is the soda tower. The most popular styles of soda towers are about two feet by two feet in size up to about 42 inches long and have an integral ice bin. Besides the traditional soda tower, there are soda guns on flexible hoses that are great for speed pouring.
Chilling a carbonated beverage is essential to quality, flavor, and maintaining carbonation. There are two ways to chill the beverage lines—use ice from the dispenser through a cold plate or use a separate mechanical cooling system. Each system has advantages and disadvantages. The cold plate can use up to half of the ice in storage to chill the beverage lines but is less expensive than a mechanical system. Since the cold plate has fewer mechanical parts it generally requires a minimum amount of maintenance. The disadvantages, in addition to using ice, are that the drink quality is not always consistent due to fluctuations in the dispensing temperature.
In some cases it will be preferable to use an electric chiller system. The mechanical system refrigerates the carbonated water prior to serving and is usually able to maintain the optimum dispensing temperature. Large capacity refrigerated systems can dispense a large number of beverages in a short period of time consistently below 40ï¿´´F. The mechanical refrigeration system will not use up ice at the bin and can be remotely located, thereby freeing up space at the dispenser. The primary disadvantage is that the cost of a mechanical system can be high.
Carbonated frozen beverage dispensers, often seen in convenience stores, are now becoming a popular feature. These machines operate much like a typical soft serve machine, but are specially equipped to maintain carbonation in the freezing cylinders to provide specialized drinks. There have been a number of innovations in the equipment recently that have improved maintenance and reduced energy consumption. Newer motors have eliminated some of the moving parts resulting in fewer maintenance calls and easier routine cleaning. Dispensing capacity has also increased for high volume operations. Similar improvements have been made in the popular granita or slush machines, used for non-carbonated beverages. Many of the machines now have oversized chiller motors making them suitable for outdoor use and in the sun where there have been problems keeping the product frozen.
Drink dispensers for flavored juices, tea, and real pulp juices are as popular as ever. There are a wide variety of dispensers on the market, one of the most popular of which is the countertop unit. These countertop dispensers are generally available as single, double, or triple tap units. In addition to the relatively standard sizes various manufacturers make some specialized items. Many types of drinks are available in either powdered mix or liquid concentrate. There are many dispensers made for each type of beverage. The typical non-carbonated beverage merchandising dispenser operates with a mechanical lever much like the stand lever described for carbonated beverages. Sanitation concerns in many areas have spurred manufacturers to develop push buttons or no cup contact handles.
The machine manufacturers have been able to make many of the units very narrow to fit small spaces. One manufacturer makes a model that can dispense either one or two juice flavors in a dispenser which is only 8 inches wide. Other units having up to four beverage flavors available are as small as 18 inches wide. Self contained post-mix dispensers are available from several manufacturers in models providing one to four flavors of product. Some manufacturers now make machines which can dispense concentrate from a remote location using the same bag-in-box packaging used with carbonated beverages. In many cases, it has proven to be a convenient way of dispensing. The cleanliness of the bag-in-box approach is appreciated by many operators.
Hot drinks such as hot chocolate and cider are also popular beverages to be served from powder or liquid concentrates. Dispensing machines with hot water reservoirs can pour drinks nearly as quickly as the water can be heated. Many of the hot drink machines are set to pre-pour a specified portion size since one touch of the activating button pours a whole cup of beverage.
Remember to think of beverages as another menu item you offer. Treat them as such when you consider the quality of products offered to your guests. Take the time to find the best equipment within your budget to prepare, hold, and merchandise the products offered. Most of all don't forget beverages are some of the most profitable items you sell.
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.