PUMP IT UP: Dispensers are able to fit many containers, including onegallon plastic jars.
HIGH VOLUME: Pouch-based dispensing systems are ideal for busy operations.
SWEET STROKE: Keep cleanability in mind when buying a dispenser.
The selection of food preparation and cooking equipment is often a carefully thought-out decision. Much time is often spent debating the merits of various features and brands. Yet it seems that most restaurant operators don't put much thought into the equipment that is actually dispensing and serving food. Below is a discussion of what to look for when buying dispensers, warmers, and hot food and soup wells.
In a self-serve world, bulk food dispensers are on the front line of service. If you are using bulk condiments, pump-type dispensers are both economical and sanitary. When used by your guests for carryout or in casual foodservice operations, you'll want a clean-looking and welloperating unit. Dispensers come in stainless steel, polycarbonate or disposable plastic varieties.
Many dispenser sizes and styles are available. You can dispense from steam table pans, large jars and from units that hold the food manufacturer's products in plastic bags.
Dispenser pumps are made small enough to fit a 1/6-size pan and large enough for 1-1/2 gallon Cryovac® pouches. Some dispenser pumps are made to fit the top of a #10 can and others to fit the lid of a gallon jar. Many pumps can easily be adjusted to the amount of product you need dispensed. "Stroke yield" is the amount of product dispensed in a single push of the pump. An average stroke yield is one ounce, but in many of the better-quality units this amount can be changed in 1/4-ounce increments to reflect the exact needs of the operation.
Whether you are looking to dispense ambient temperature, heated or chilled product, there is surely a unit to meet your needs. Most condiment items like catsup, mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressings, cheese sauce and hot fudge can be easily dispensed. Check with the dispenser manufacturer to determine which unit to use, particularly if you wish to dispense a product such as chunky blue cheese dressing.
One of the newest dispenser trends is dispensing directly from purchased Cryovac® pouches. Pouches tend to be very easy to handle and sanitary, and usually leave little waste. Many common mass-produced brands can be purchased in pouches. Ask your supplier if the condiments you use are available in this format.
In addition to these direct-dispensing units, a few manufacturers are making larger bag-in-box condiment dispensing systems, not unlike soda systems. They are powered by a CO2 pressure source. Pouches for the remote-powered systems usually hold three gallons. Consider the powered systems only if you are a high-volume user of condiments.
Heated dispensers are excellent for products like nacho cheese, hot dog chili and hot fudge. You can choose between the traditional ladle type server or a dispenser unit. Both types of units typically have thermostatic controls with a temperature range up to about 200°F. A feature worth looking into is a spout warmer. The spout warmer keeps product in the dispensing spout hot to avoid clogs and maintain safe holding temperatures.
There is also a large demand for insulated and chilled dispensers. The insulated units can be used for syrups and topping on an ice cream bar. The insulated units usually hold ice or a eutectic pack that, after freezing, can keep the dispenser contents cold for several hours. Also available are mechanically chilled dispensing units most often used for coffee cream.
Since dairy products can spoil easily, it's best not to leave chilling to ice or freezer packs that cannot maintain constant temperatures. Small thermoelectric chillers are now available that will protect product quality at a constant 41°F. They are relatively inexpensive for refrigerated units, costing about $500-600. They are also unobtrusive and fit a small countertop footprint.
One important consideration after choosing the appropriate style of dispenser or serving unit is to look for the NSF label. Choosing units with an NSF label will ensure the equipment will be easy to clean and keep sanitary if instructions are followed. When pumps must be dissembled, an NSF unit can be taken apart without tools in a minute or two.
Hot Food Wells
Perhaps the most common type of serving unit for hot food is the hot food well. The unit can be a separate piece of equipment or part of a steam table. Hot food wells are sometimes also known as bains marie, although the bain marie usually refers to a larger, bulk holding water bath.
Hot food wells typically are sized for the 12" x 20" pan or steam table pan. The 12"x 20" pan is one of the kitchen standards. One-third, one-half and other fractional pans are all based on the 12"x 20" pan and can fit together to fill one full pan.
You can buy individual or multiple-pan hot food well units. Up to five wells can be connected together in one unit. The advantage of buying a multiple unit is that there is only one electrical connection and one drain. Some have separate heat controls but others do not. If you have separate heat controls, you do not need to have all on at the same time if they are not needed, or you could even put ice in one for cold food. The advantage of singular units (each with their own electrical cord and drain) is that you can space the wells out on the steam table counter where you want them. However, individual hot wells are significantly more expensive to buy if you want several of them, as opposed to buying a multiple hot well system.
Soup wells are a type of hot food well designed to hold a round stainless steel insert. Soup wells are usually made for 7- or 11-quart inserts. Purchase your soup well according to the capacity needed, although typically the larger units often have accessory adapters that enable the unit to accept the smaller insert.
While soup or hot food wells are usually operated with water, most can be operated dry. Dry operation works just as well using the heat transmitted from the well to the food pan inside. Don't think, as some do, that a hot food well or steam table provides moist heat to the product. Water in a steam table is only a medium to transfer heat. Food will dry quickly in a steam table, which is why it should be kept covered when possible.
It is important to remember that with the exception of a very few soup heating units, no hot wells are designed to heat food; they are only for maintaining temperature. Since hot foods generally need to be held at 140°F or above to be safe, a high wattage hot food well is highly recommended. A high-wattage hot well is one that is rated at around 1600 to 2000 watts per 12" X 20" section.
Even with high-wattage units, maintaining the proper food temperature generally requires the product to be surrounded by heat from the well. Top heat from heat lamps on a shelf or suspended from above can also help maintain food temperature.
Be aware that if you are installing a "built-in" well into a wood or synthetic stone countertop, you may need a special adapter to shield the counter from the heat. Another thing to look for when purchasing is the NSF label. As with all foodservice equipment, you should buy a unit that has been made to NSF standards for sanitation and cleanability.
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. He can be reached at 301-926-8181.