It may not be the sexiest piece of equipment in a kitchen, but if you serve breakfast or toast sandwiches, a toaster is a key to a perfect product. Here's what you need to know to buy one.
Toasters are an essential equipment item for any operation serving toast, bagels and sandwiches. If you serve breakfast, you must have at least one. Today's toasters have been engineered to do a good job of cooking evenly and quickly.
There are two main commercial toaster types. Pop-up toasters look similar to the model you have at home, but heavy-duty versions and their toasting output are considerably different. So are the price tags (from $600 to $1,100). The commercial model will toast faster and stand up to wear and tear encountered in a commercial setting.
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 a home version for your restaurant, keep in mind that home appliances are fragile and often not permitted in commercial food operations.
Typical toasting capacities as rated by the manufacturers are between 250 and 380 slices per hour for a four-slice pop-up machine. 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 unit is already hot from previous use.
A toaster with solid- state electronic controls can 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. Yet, a pop-up toaster is less expensive than most of the higher- volume commercial conveyor toasters, which we'll discuss next.
If your toast volume outgrows the pop-up unit, you will want to consider a conveyor model. Conveyor toasters are popular in many outlets where volume is higher or varied bread sizes are used. They are generally larger in size and rated for a higher toasting capacity. Typical toasting capacities as rated by the manufacturers for various conveyor toasters range anywhere from 400 to 1200 slices per hour. Please note, however, that the manufacturers' ratings are based upon ideal conditions and are probably not achievable on an everyday level.
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 variables that may be experienced in actual operation. The ratings are also based on using drier day-old bread, which toasts faster.
There are two types of conveyor toasters: the vertical models, which traditionally toast by having the product in direct contact with a heated plate, and horizontal conveyors, which toast without direct contact with the product. Typically, the conveyor models are used in higher-production applications and can also be used to toast one side of buns. There are also some specially made units for bagel toasting.
Typically, 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, which may prove to be a more economical heat source. Keep in mind, though, that even a gas-fired toaster needs an electrical connection to operate the conveyor. It will also require an exhaust hood in some locations.
If you plan on toasting a mix of products like English muffins, bread, rolls or frozen waffles, a conveyor toaster may be your 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 a basic conveyor unit is needed, one of the features to consider is 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. Also, if you have a self-service application like a buffet line or a cafeteria you can purchase “decorator” style toasters. They come in a range of color choices and generally have a nice front-of-the-house look.
Where customers are involved, you will also want to invest in a model with a “cool touch” exterior. In self-service applications, you'll want the cooler unit for safety. Commercial toasters are more powerful and hotter than home models, so caution must be used.
Most types of pop-up or conveyor toasters can produce an acceptable product. To determine the toaster appropriate for your needs, look at the features offered and the associated price. If you are tight on space, a pop-up toaster will take up only about one square foot of counter space. However, if you are a high-volume business and require flexibility, a conveyor may be for you.
Other types of specialty toasters include the pop-down toaster. It 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. Toast quality can also be better than a pop-up, since toast does not sit in the toasting slots drying out if not removed immediately.
Finally, if you are going to be toasting lots of different products, consider some of the newer hybrid conveyor toaster-ovens. These units are not quite as powerful as a typical “bake from scratch” conveyor pizza oven, but can do a great job at melting cheese, toasting dressed sandwiches and subs and even finishing pre-baked pizzas.
If you treat your toaster well it should serve you a long time. Toasters generally should be kept in dry locations and away from 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 their life, as will keeping the heating elements free of built-up debris. As with most any equipment, if you treat it well it will treat you well for a long time.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. Bendall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.