A Very Cool Heat

Induction cooktops deliver precision, speed, safety, showmanship—at a price.

By  Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products

Article Preview: 

Magnetic fields. Induced coils. Ferrites.

This is not a multibil­lion-dollar project for the Department of Defense. It’s what gets chef types all heated up. It’s induction cooking.

“I used it in the foodservice channel when I was a chef at a country club,” says Bob Derian, director of food and bever­age innovation for RaceTrac Petroleum, Atlanta. “It was a great way to have cooked-to-order foods without the flame.”

“It’s really about showmanship and exhibition cooking. That’s where it came from,” adds Jim Bressi, director of food research and development for Kwik Trip, La Crosse, Wis., who also used induction cooktops in his past life as a chef.

Induction technology creates a cooking surface that is cool to the touch, promises precision and consistency, and eliminates any open flame. It’s safe, energy-efficient and portable, and has a small footprint.

So why could we find only one c-store retailer using it?

Jerry Weiner, vice president of food­service for Rutter’s Farm Stores, York, Pa., uses induction woks for sautéing sandwich toppings and cooking stir-fries and breakfast bowls to order.

“When I started playing with induc­tion, I remember saying to myself, ‘Oh, man, where was this 20 years ago?’ ” Weiner says.

Induction allowed Rutter’s to compete during the dinner day-part while bring­ing an element of theater to stores. But induction still has a serious price point, and its relevance largely depends on the type of program being executed. Retailers should fully understand the technology and its best applications before making the induction leap.

Big in Europe

Induction technology is based on a prin­ciple called Faraday’s law of induction: If you induce a coil with a current, it creates a magnetic field. If then presented with another coil, that magnetic field will in turn induce the current into that coil.

Still with us? Good.

In induction cooking equipment, a copper coil sits under a glass cooktop, and the second “coil” is actually the pot or pan, which must be made from a magnetic material (cast iron, steel or magnetic-grade stainless steel). The magnetic field excites the electrons in the pan, which then produces heat. Because of this, all the heat is generated from the pan, leaving the cooktop itself cool to the touch.

The immediate benefit of induction technology is the lack of an open flame, making for a safer work environment and in some cases, no need for ventilation or fire-suppression systems. (See sidebar on p. 134.) Induction cooktops also emit nearly no ambient heat, keeping the store or kitchen’s temperature comfortable.

This, of course, has an economic impact as well. “With traditional (gas) technology, at least 50% of the energy you’re using is going to heat up your environment. With induction, up to 95% of the energy used goes to cooking the product,” explains Paul Hallal, senior product manager, induction, for Mani­towoc Foodservice, New Port Richey, Fla.

Induction also maintains a precise, consistent heat compared to gas. It evenly heats the cooking surface for more effi­cient cooking while still allowing the user control over the temperature level, from a low warmth to a searing heat.

And it’s fast. If you’ve seen Kelly Ripa’s Electrolux ads pitching induction cook­tops for home use, you’ve heard her tout their ability to boil water in 90 seconds. Induction cooks two times faster than gas and four times faster than electric cook­tops, Hallal says. The cooktops are avail­able as portable plug-and-play countertop units or drop-in countertop inserts.

Perhaps induction’s greatest differ­entiator is showmanship. Because of the benefits already described, induction in the United States has largely been used in mobile, made-to-order applications. If you’re at a fancy Sunday brunch having an omelet made to order, or on a cruise ship waiting for your crepes suzettes, chances are the cook behind the pan is using an induction cooktop.

While induction has been relegated to Sunday brunches here, it’s big in Europe. In Switzerland, where a number of induc­tion manufacturers are based, 80% of all equipment in commercial and home kitchens uses induction heat, Hallal says. In Germany, half of all foodservice equip­ment sold uses induction.

Induction has been slow to pick up in the United States for a few reasons. For one, it’s less understood in the industry, among everyone from operators to ser­vice techs in the field. Also, gas is cheap in North America, making the initial invest­ment in induction harder to justify.

And it’s that initial investment that causes many operators to pause. While the price has come down in recent years, an individual tabletop hub (a single “burner”) can cost about $1,500. Larger induction zones for multiple pans can cost upward of $7,000.

“They are coming down in cost as they’re becoming more prolific in use, but they were pricey to be begin with,” says Bressi of Kwik Trip, “so the bandwagon wasn’t moving as fast as the manufactur­ers would have liked.”

Weiner of Rutter’s concedes it’s a high investment compared to traditional gas ranges, “but the ongoing costs are literally just the pans.”

Induction in the C-Store

For all of its benefits, induction doesn’t necessarily fit in every operation. If you were working with Betsy Sallade-Farina, president of foodservice consultancy Tabletop Solutions and member of the Foodservice Consultants Society Interna­tional, she would look at your menu, your customer, the caliber of your employees, traffic volume and facilities.

“There are some applications that are natural, and some that we’re going to need to really drill down on the concept to figure out,” such as a store open 24 hours a day, she says.

  • Menu and Customer. Induction is ideal if you want to cook food to order in front of the customer. While induction heats faster than gas or electric ranges, it’s still not as fast as grab and go. Will your customers be willing to wait a few minutes for their meal? That said, cooking to order means less food waste and the ability to charge more. And the real strength of induction is the ability to place a cooktop in virtually any space and start cooking. If you’re not making food in front of the customer, the investment may be harder to justify.
  • Employee Caliber. Cooking on any type of range requires more labor than an oven, especially the automated high-speed ovens that have taken over the market. “Very, very high-volume opera­tions would probably require a dedicated cook,” says Sallade-Farina. But Weiner contends induction ranges are even easier than some ovens. Every item has a set cook time, and the employee simply turns the temperature dial to the appropriate notch and cooks for its allotted time. While the cooktops themselves do require care, employees need to be trained to take special care not to bang the pans. If a pan is even slightly dented, it breaks the induction, rendering it useless.
  • Traffic Volumes. “If the traffic isn’t there and the food can’t be turned over every single day, the value of offering freshly cooked food is going to be greatly diminished,” Sallade-Farina advises.
  • Facilities. Induction’s small foot­print makes it easy to set up a station virtually anywhere, but consider the other equipment inherent in using any cooktop, including prep areas, refrigeration and hot-holding cabinets located close to the cooking station for easy access, and proper hand-and dish-washing/sanitizing sinks.

Sallade-Farina’s advice certainly relates to the foodservice operations at Rutter’s. Stores that have Rutter’s expanded food­service offering each have two induction woks, set out in the store in plain view of the customers. The woks are used at breakfast to make bowls—scrambled eggs with the customer’s choice of toppings served on a bed of hash browns—and dinnertime entrées such as chicken teriyaki and pasta with Alfredo sauce. The burners are also used to sauté all the vegetables for sub sandwiches; once cooked, they are placed in hot-holding drawers on the sandwich line.

Because they heat up so efficiently, the induction cooktops aren’t turned on until an order is placed, and they’re flipped off as soon as each order is done. It takes 3 minutes and 40 seconds to produce a stir-fry with freshly sautéed vegetables, from order to delivery in the customer’s hands.

Weiner opted for a concave vs. flat cooking surface because the concave sur­face ensures the entire wok pan fits snugly in the bowl—promising even heating and reducing the risk of the pan being knocked off.

While not using induction now, Bressi of Kwik Trip foresees using it for product demonstrations. “We even built our food product demonstrators little carts that they can roll out into our store, and at any given day they could be doing sand­wiches or pizza slices,” he says. Induction cooktops would be very useful for dem­onstrating home meal replacements or other heat-and-eat entrees, he says.

The Future of Induction

Despite slow acceptance in the United States, induction has the potential to become more prevalent as prices drop and the technology is used in more types of equipment.

“I definitely think it’s going to increase stateside,” says Sallade-Farina. She points out that schools and hospitals embraced induction when they brought cooking out from the kitchen to the front lines.

“Now that people are used to the wait time for fresh, it will grow,” she says.

A topic not even broached in this article is the use of induction for hot holding in both back-of-house and self-serve applications. High-end buffets use induction warmers that are built into the counter for an upscale look. And Hallal of Manitowoc sees induction taking the place of water-based holding units—leading to more precise holding and shorter times for units to get up to temperature. “I also see it being in con­vection ovens, fryers, pasta cookers, pizza ovens. I truly see that the future will be induction,” Hallal says.

C-store induction trailblazer Weiner is likewise bullish on the technology. “Maybe not for me but for my grand­children for sure, this is the home kitchen of the future,” he says. “I cannot see this not getting there. It’s just too good.”

Click here to download full article