Hot-off-the-griddle technology

by Dan Malovany
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At the top of the morning, consumers want to wake up with something to warm them up along with a hot cup of coffee, so naturally, they’re turning to frozen waffles. In fact, Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI, reported that consumption of frozen breakfast foods — waffles, pancakes, breakfast sandwiches and entrees — grew at a 3.4% clip in fiscal 2012.

Leading the way was the Eggo brand, which posted its all-time highest share in the waffle category, according to a recent report in Milling & Baking News. While its core products performed well, Kellogg diversified its line with new thick and fluffy waffles and, more recently, grab-and-go Wafflers, which come in a Brown Sugar Cinnamon Roll and a Strawberry Strudel variety and are “packed with flavor” so no syrup is needed.

Innovation drives sales in many categories, and it’s no exception with waffles and pancakes. Kellogg is one of the companies leading the way with such new products as S’mores Eggo waffles, Special K Red Berry waffles and Eggo Drizzlers, which come with packets of blueberry and strawberry toppings that contain 35% less sugar than traditional syrup.

Kellogg, however, is not alone in going beyond conventional and Belgian varieties. Restaurant chains and retailers are rolling out multicolored, fruit-filled, cream cheese-stuffed and chocolate-enrobed waffles, just to name a few, noted Rick Parrish, director of sales and marketing, Franz Haas Machinery of America, Inc., Richmond, VA. Shelf-stable pancakes and waffles — often sold in in-store bakery/delis and convenience stores — are

gaining traction.

Let’s not forget, they also come in all shapes and sizes. “We’re seeing characters inside the waffle,” Mr. Parrish said. “Instead of the conventional waffle grid, we’re seeing images of bears and different character shapes to appeal to kids and families.”

A sticky proposition

With the addition of fruits, flavors and more intricate griddle designs, waffle producers must employ various types of technology to extract waffles from their engraved plates as cleanly as possible. An aggressive grid pattern such as one with the intricate shapes of an animal often require needle-removing stations to pull the waffle out of the griddle, Mr. Parrish explained. A waffle’s formula, especially the amount of sugar content, can make some products stickier and more difficult to remove. Teflon coatings, as well as a light application of oil, he added, can make extraction much easier.

While needles effectively remove waffles, vacuum removal provides a more versatile option as well as quicker changeovers because operators do not need to remove or adjust individual needle-picker stations when switching plates to make a ­different product. “Vacuum removal is more versatile, but often it doesn’t pull the waffle out of the plate like a needle picker that will put holes in the waffles,” Mr. Parrish said. In-house trial runs, he added, can determine which system is best for specific products.

Carbon buildup often turns up as a product quality issue. The black pieces of burnt waffle batter may be caused when residual bits and scraps stick to the plates during the extraction process and possibly lead to rejects or the discoloration of products down the line, said Kevin Forrest, president and CEO, TSA Griddle Systems, Carrollton, TX. Enhancing product quality, improving consumer satisfaction and reducing reject rates to the single digits — even the low single digits with sticky low-fat batters — can fatten the bottom line since many larger industrial waffle systems produce upward of 20,000 pieces an hour.

Mr. Forrest noted the company relies on proprietary plate coatings. TSA uses stainless steel brushes, similar to those that it uses on its pancake and French Toast griddles, to clean the residual matter from the metal waffle plates. “We can get very aggressive with making sure that the plates remain clean,” he said.

Building better batters

To create premium, value-added pancakes and waffles, food companies often add maple-flavored bits, chocolate chips, blueberries and other inclusions, noted Mark Young, southeast sales director, Hinds-Bock, Bothell, WA. Accurate depositing — including a well-aerated batter with an even distribution of inclusions — provides the front-line controls that ensure consistent products.

To keep inclusions in suspension, Hinds-Bock employs an agitated U-shaped hopper with a gentle-­action helical blade that continuously folds the batter and keeps it from gassing off or forming a skin at the top. As long as inclusions are introduced into the batter in the appropriate ratio, such agitation as well as accurate scaling can provide uniform product appearance and eventual cost savings, according to Mr. Young.

Tailing — where a dribble of residual batter creates a string after depositing — can be minimized or even eliminated with positive shut-off spouting, which pushes the batter out of the cavity completely. “That helps with the cleanliness of the product and fewer rejects or waste of batter due to tailing from griddle-to-griddle or from well-to-well as clamshells close on ­traditional waffle lines,” Mr. Young said.

Mr. Young noted servo-pump ­depositors can reduce changeover and sanitation times by almost half due to fewer mechanical parts — such as gaskets, O-rings and other components — that need to be broken down and cleaned. All of these elements enhance the bottom line.

“You’re able to take a very accurate servo motor and use that motor to then power a positive-displacement pump to drive batter through that system and into a tube manifold,” Mr. Young said. “That allows a multiple array of products to be run with the smallest amount of mechanization. You can run a 1-oz mini up to a 4-oz large waffle or griddle cake with no change of parts.”

To streamline sanitation, E.T. Oakes designed a takeaway cart that jacks up the manifold and slides it out of place before it’s wheeled to a washdown area. While one manifold is cleaned, a second one can be dropped in place in a process that requires just one person, according to Bob Peck, vice-president of ­engineering for the Hauppauge, NY-based company. “It used to take two people a half hour for changeovers,” he said. “With the takeaway carts, we can do it in about 10 minutes or less with a single person.”

To control batter-depositing ­accuracy, Oakes relies on mass flow meters. “Rather than depending on pump accuracies to meter batter into the manifold, we use mass flow meters to measure the actual mass flow to the manifold,” Mr. Peck explained. “We gauge real-time flow to improve the overall accuracy of deposits.”

Stacking up savings

At the other end of the line, ­automatic stackers reduce labor. “When you go into a plant, they may have six to eight people who are hand-stacking a product on a line that’s producing 600 pieces a minute,” noted Patrick Goche, general manager, Forpak, Burnsville, MN. “Waffles generally convey into a flow wrapper and then into a cartoner. You can really remove a sizable amount of labor by automating the stacking process.”

Typically, stackers run at 100 pieces a minute per lane, allowing systems to be built to a production line’s volume and rates. Size is generally not a problem. “On standard stackers, you can stack sizes from 3 in. to 7 in.,” Mr. Goche said. “Shapes, however, can be a little tricky. Round products are the simplest to run. Ovals, if you’re talking about a 4- by 4.5-in. product, run well. If you want to stack an oval that’s 3 in. by 5 in., now you have to make sure that the narrow side comes forward into the stacker.”

Additionally, a bypass conveyor allows short-run items to be hand-stacked or just conveyed through the stacker. “Generally these products are not run in large volumes,” Mr. Goche said. “They may run once a week, once every two weeks or once a month so operators don’t have to move equipment to produce those products.”

To improve profitability, some companies are looking for bigger and faster production lines. Haas now offers larger 11-in. by 24-in. (280-mm by 600-mm) waffle plates that hold 10 pieces per plate compared with eight pieces previously. Mr. Parrish added that the new system now runs 60 plates a minute compared with 40 plates in the past. Bottom line, as they say, often depends on how much product runs through a griddle.

With rising commodity prices and a limited ability to increase ­prices to cover costs, bakers and other food manufacturers must find ways to increase capacity, reduce downtime and maximize production line efficiency rates.

In the end, with ingredient prices so high, “waste not” is what everyone wants.

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