KANSAS CITY — Food safety, labor issues, rising ingredient costs — all things that commissaries deal with on a daily basis, and also issues that directly impact the necessity of portion control equipment.

“Our customers are always looking for equipment that is reliable, accurate, and easy to clean and sanitize with quick change-over,” said Lance Aasness, executive vice-president for Bothell, Wash.-based Hinds-Bock Corp. “Consumer demand is continually pushing for more variety — flavor, portion size, and dietary and allergy concerns such as gluten-free, nut-free and dairy-free. Equipment must be able to be sanitized and ready within minutes for the next product run.”

Food safety concerns, especially in the baking industry, continue to rise and are driven by the buyers and the supply chain of bakery foods for the retail marketplace, said Stewart Macpherson, vice-president of sales and marketing for Unifiller Systems. This directly affects equipment suppliers, who have to provide commissaries and intermediate bakeries with ready-to-go machines.

Cheesecake batter filling equipment“As food health and safety standards continue to rise, it means that manufacturers of equipment need to be one step ahead of the game by supplying machines that meet or exceed those certification requirements,” he said.  “With a rapid increase of machines being imported into North America from countries with little concern or no knowledge of the sanitary design standards required in the U.S. baking industry, it makes it that much more important to work with our customers and provide them peace of mind.”

Accurate, reliable equipment can help prevent unwanted findings during a random audit, Mr. Aasness said.

“If you get randomly audited and your ingredient list on the label does not match with your product, you may be required to pull your product from the shelf — losing the total cost of putting that product on the shelf and quite possibly a vendor,” he said. “Aside from that, the more important point is that shoppers have grown to trust and rely on labels to help them make the best shopping decisions based on their needs and dietary or allergy requirements. Not reporting an ingredient in a product can result in very serious health concerns for consumers.”

Easing the burden

Food safety issues also are affected by labor problems, Mr. Macpherson said, especially when it comes to dealing with the rising number of allergen issues.

Unifiller cherry pie filling equipment“Allergens and product cross-contamination is a concern for bakers more than ever before, so machines need to be easy to clean with unskilled labor,” he said. “That is why we design all our machines to have the absolute minimal amount of parts to clean, maintain and handle and that can be disassembled without the need for tools. Furthermore, Unifiller machines will only go together one way — the correct way — or it simply won’t go back together.”

Mr. Macpherson noted that many commissaries and central kitchens continue to struggle with the ever-growing task of finding and employing even entry-level workers. Recent increases in minimum wage levels could mean that these companies need to turn to alternative production methods.

That means an investment in equipment, and the switch to automated portioning could pay off big.

“One of the biggest needs is to reduce the amount of labor, and one of the highest costs is the constant retraining of newly employed workers,” he said. “We have seen an increase in the need for automated depositing systems that require minimum operator skill.”

Rising costs

And that goes hand-in-hand with the need for increased accuracy, Mr. Aasness said. When labor is very inexpensive or a start-up company does not have the funds or contracts yet to purchase equipment, hand-portioning might make sense. After that, it’s a smart move to consider.

“Consistency and accuracy are key,” he said. “Many kitchens still use the hand scooping, eyeballing or ladle method of portioning. This will not provide a consistent accurate product that consumers look forward to and it will most definitely affect your bottom line at the end of the year. Every single item that goes into your products has been paid for by you. The higher the accuracy in portioning, the higher your profits will be.”

Unifiller cake icing equipmentIt goes without saying that accuracy is doubly important when ingredient costs are on the rise. Mid-sized wholesale manufacturers are competing in a very aggressive, price-driven segment, where volume sales are needed to increase the profitability of the business, Mr. MacPherson said. Every method toward lean manufacturing and improved portion control is even more critical than ever before.

“Like many things in the bakery business we have seen huge price increases over the last year and basic raw materials like sugar, flour, eggs and dairy so portion control is even more critical than ever before,” Mr. MacPherson said. “But equally as important is the product consistency. Customers expect to get the same consistent quality every time they purchase a familiar product. which is where clean and accurate depositing comes in.”

As is the case with most equipment, flexibility is key. Many commissaries have limited space to work within, so equipment that is flexible, portable and can fit within an allotted footprint is necessary.

“Bakeries also need equipment that is flexible,” Mr. Aasness said. “Often you will see an intermediate bakery with a desire to grow, and with growth their production equipment needs to be able to grow and produce many different products.”