BUILT FOR SPEED: Mixers and blenders are key pieces of production equipment in many onsite environments. Above: high volume production during a lunch rush at the smoothie bar that is part of CX2, a restaurant at Vanderbilt University's Rand Dining Center.
Smoothies are a huge foodservice hit. Their popularity has led to a new breed of blender and mixer. Let's look at some trends fueling their popularity and the types of machines used to make this frosty beverage specialty.
The rise of smoothies has come about as a result of three foodservice trends. First, there's the healthful eating trend. Artificial flavors are out and customers are demanding the real thing, meaning fresh fruits. A fresh-fruit smoothie is not only appealing to the consumer, it can command a high price tag and more profit than a more traditional beverage.
The second trend helping the juicer and blender business is the consumer demand for variety. Any number of ingredients can be combined in different ways to make some unique concoctions. Many places offer "customized" drinks by offering vitamin or protein enhancers that can be added to a combination of other ingredients to make one-of-a-kind drinks or signature items. As an operator, your blender menu can easily change depending on seasonal availability of various fruits and vegetables.
The third important trend is the focus away from traditional cocktails at bars. Bars must provide appealing drinks for nonalcoholic drinkers and designated drivers. A blended, nonalcoholic drink maintains the desired profit you'd get for an alcohol beverage. Alcoholfree drinks are not the only application for bar blender drinks, however. Younger adult drinkers also like the slushy fruit drinks with alcohol. The sweet fruit flavors sell well to the younger bar crowd.
Types of blenders
Blenders have come a long way since the typical quart-size container on a motor base. The old standard, however, is still a good product for many bar drinks and has a place in many operations. Let's look at the different levels of blenders, from the basic models up to the latest superdeluxe units, so you can match the right equipment to your needs.
Blenders come in a variety of sizes and styles to serve different needs. Some have stainless steel mixing containers that are durable and long lasting. Others have polycarbonate containers making it easy to see the product inside. Container choice is a matter of operator preference. Several manufacturers now produce an extraquiet mixer that is well-suited to an intimate bar setting.
Several manufacturers also make their own version of a superpowered blender specially made for rapid smoothie production. These machines are great if that's what you need; otherwise you're wasting money. A look at the basic blender categories will help you determine which is right for your application.
The basic machine is the type that's been around for years and is similar in looks to the machine you may have at home. The difference in the home models and commercial machines, besides the price, is the motor. The commercial motor is much more durable, even though it may have the same horsepower rating as the home model. The commercial model will last longer under much greater use.
The basic machine has a onequart to 44-ounce capacity and is good for mixing drinks in relatively small quantities. Most units are 1/3 horsepower and most have a two-speed motor. Costs are typically in the $100-250 range. Just a few years ago these models were about the only choice, but with the popularity of frozen drinks, there are now many more options.
The next levels up in blender speed and production capacity are the machines made to deliver fast, consistent mixing— good for smoothies. These models generally have one-to two-horsepower motors and are able to blend ice, ice cream and fruit to an extremely fine consistency without chunks or separation of ingredients.
In addition to being more powerful, these units are also built with more heavy-duty construction features like all-metal drive gears and stronger cutting blades. The added speed and strength come with a much higher price tag, although perhaps still a foodservice equipment bargain at about $300-500 apiece. These midlevel machines will cover the needs of most.
The most powerful machines are the three-and five-horsepower monsters costing $600 to $900. High production is what these units are made to do. They will produce a perfectly blended smooth drink every time in a matter of seconds, usually much faster than the less powerful machines. Some of these machines have computerized controls that sense the strain on the motor and adjust blender speed accordingly. Some of these high horsepower units and a few of the less powerful machines have features to quiet the operation. Noise is produced in the product being blended in the container as well as by the motor itself. Motor noise is much more noticeable in the higher horsepower models and can be objectionable in quiet bar or restaurant settings. Manufacturers have provided some units with open-and-close hoods to help eliminate some or both noise sources. The hoods also serve as added protection for spills from the unit.
Some models now have mufflers that reduce the
noise of blending, which is ideal in more laid-back settings.
An additional noise reduction feature available on some models is the remote motor. The motor is under the counter and the blender drive is dropped in flush with the countertop. In addition to muffling noise, the installation looks clean without the bulky equipment on the countertop. The installation also tends to put the blender container at a good working height for the operator.
The newest entries to the blender market are high-volume machines that not only blend, but also use a microprocessor to portion ingredients and control the mix time and speeds. Imagine precise portion control and blending every time you make a smoothie. These machines can be great for saving labor in extremely high-production applications but come with a hefty price tag.
Some units can mix four to eight different liquid ingredients or fruit purees and add water to concentrates. Other models automatically dispense ice. Once you add automatic dispensing features, expect to pay as much as $2,000 or more for the machine.
One manufacturer even has a complete unit that contains and automatically dispenses all the ingredients needed except for solid fruits. The model has a refrigerated compartment for dairy products and other refrigerated ingredients like fruit purees. It also has an ice bin and water inlet to dispense into the blender container. It even has a built-in rinse station to rinse the container after making a smoothie.
The cost on this "Rolls Royce," however, is literally as much as some economy cars. These super-deluxe machines are great for high production but some operators feel that too much automation can be a negative. Customers don't see the ingredients being blended and miss the show of fresh goods for which they are paying premium prices.
If you haven't already joined the bandwagon, it is time to get a blender and start experimenting with frozen drinks and smoothies.
Dan Bendall , FCSI, is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm that specializes in planning foodservice facilities. He can be reached at 240-314-0660.