Popeye’s arguably kicked off the “chicken wars” with its much-ballyhooed chicken sandwich release (and viral taunting tweet to Chick-fil-A) in 2019. The war has continued in skirmishes and battles ever since, with the latest salvos coming in just the past few months — new or revamped chicken sandwich offerings from McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King. Regional chain Zaxby’s joined the fray, as did fried chicken leader KFC.
Recently, Popeye’s reported it has increased its average sales per restaurant by $400,000 since the launch of the sandwich. An impressive statistic, to be sure, but one that speaks loudly to the fact that the chain’s existing kitchens, like those of many others adding popular chicken dishes to their menu, are facing higher production demands.
And long-standing players in the fried chicken arena are introducing new flavors and other variations that require them to increase prep areas in order to maintain consistency and prevent cross-contamination.
These demands require adaptations inside kitchens, not only to produce the new menu items but also to support higher production levels.
Handling of raw proteins in particular requires keen attention be paid to food safety, which is why cold storage has become a hot topic in today’s quick-serve restaurants.
Though walk-in coolers are the gold standard for high-volume cold storage, workers walking back and forth for a fresh load of protein throughout their shifts slows production and reduces throughput.
The dual demand of food safety and operational efficiency means operators are looking for solutions to keep fresh proteins and other foods cold in the busy kitchen lineup.
Here we evaluate some of the most common solutions, along with the pros and cons of each approach:
Refrigerated food prep tables
Refrigerated food prep tables are plug-in appliances, available in many sizes and shapes, that keep food at a set temperature.
As with any mechanical refrigeration solution, they’re easy to use and, when operating correctly, stay consistently cold without monitoring. They require little to no training to operate and require no special attention from workers.
However, because they are appliances, these refrigeration solutions have their drawbacks, particularly in kitchens that are fresh-breading proteins.
Refrigeration units rely on a fan that pulls in air. In a kitchen using fresh breading, that fan is also pulling in the small bits of flour and dry ingredients in the air, which tend to cake up the fan and other components. A regular — and strictly followed — planned maintenance program is necessary to keep the equipment clean and functioning appropriately.
Many kitchen workers come to know the quirks of refrigerated units and the “hot spots” where their unit’s cooling isn’t working so well. They’ll often use bagged ice or other measures to keep food cold, essentially turning the refrigerator into an expensive and immobile cooler.
In addition, stationary equipment like this can be used only where it is installed — and installation itself might be limited to areas with available electrical connections. For some operations, this limitation means investing in multiple units to support multiple workstations or causing workers to take an increased number of steps to access fresh ingredients for prepping.
Stationary equipment is also more challenging to clean around and under and is less flexible in accommodating the addition of prep stations as kitchen demand grows.
An ice bath is a double-walled stainless steel bin insulated with foam and filled with ice.
These low-tech solutions are easy to use. Simply fill with ice, and it’s ready to keep foods cold for hours. A drain at the bottom of the bin allows for easy removal of melted ice.
Built-in thermometers, like those included on AyrKing ice baths, allow for easy temperature monitoring to ensure food safety.
Because of their innate simplicity, ice baths can be easily incorporated into prep stations to keep raw foods at the ready, reducing worker steps and increasing throughput.
AyrKing also offers ice bath carts — modified versions of the original ice bath with casters. These are particularly useful in expanding cold holding capacity without taking up significant space.
Regular height carts can line up easily with existing workstations to extend the available area. Or reduced-height models fit under prep tables, allowing workers to simply roll the cart out when they need to access protein for breading or other preparation and then tuck it back out of the way.
Kitchens performing hand-breading are going to get messy. It’s the nature of the work. Ice bath carts that roll out of the way allow workers to use sifters and other equipment without spillage onto nearby raw proteins.
In addition, ice bath carts are easily rolled to a location with a floor drain when it’s time to drain melted ice.
Ice baths and ice bath carts require periodic draining of melted water and refilling with ice in order to maintain safe holding temperatures.
Cold pans are multi-layer, insulated plastic pans that are pre-chilled in a freezer and then used to hold cold foods.
These pans are typically designed to fit in standard tables. Like ice baths, they are a low-tech and easy-to-use solution.
But they do require some planning and coordination. Standard cold pans have to be frozen for around 8 hours before they’re cold enough to keep food safe. Putting empty pans back in the freezer must be part of a restaurant’s daily operating procedure to ensure cold holding is available when it’s needed.
Cold pans typically stay cold for up to 8 hours. In order to support most restaurants’ standard hours, at least one other set of pans must be chilling while one is in use to provide sufficient cold holding time.
Except for some specialized products that change color as they warm, cold pans have no thermometer or other indication of when the pan is no longer at a safe temperature, creating the potential for food safety risk unless the temperature is closely monitored.
In-house engineered makeshift solutions
Makeshift solutions refer to any keep-cold solution comprising equipment not made for the purpose.
These kinds of uses, like using a double boiler as a kind of ice bath, employ the tools on hand without investing in new materials. But uncontrolled, nonstandard uses provide no insulation to maintain temperature and are not designed for this kind of use, potentially risking food safety.
Choosing the keep-cold solution that’s right for your operation involves weighing various pros and cons. Turn to the food prep experts at AyrKing for more information on supporting safe, effective and efficient kitchens.