Food Dispensing and Serving Equipment

Food Dispensing and Serving Equipment

For bulk condiments, pump type dispensers are the most economical and sanitary equipment to use.


Selecting food preparation and cooking equipment is a carefully thought out decision. Much time is spent debating the merits of various features and brands. Yet it remains that some operators don't put enough thought into the equipment that is actually dispensing and serving the food and condiments being fed to guests. We are going to discuss some of the choices available and what to look for in dispensers, warmers, and hot food and soup wells.

Perhaps the most common type of serving unit for hot food is the hot food well. The unit can be a separate piece of equipment or part of a steam table. Hot food wells are sometimes also known as bain maries, although the bain marie usually refers to a larger bulk holding water bath. Hot food wells typically are sized for the 12"x 20" pan or steam table pan, as it is often known. The 12"x 20" pan is one of the kitchen standards. One-third pans, one-half pans, and other fractional size pans are all based on the 12"x 20" pan and can fit together to fill one full pan sized hot food well.

You can buy individual or multiple pan sized hot food well units up to usually five wells all connected together in one unit. In most operations, you need more than one hot well to hold the variety of products you serve. The advantage of buying a multiple unit is that there is only one electrical connection and one drain. Some have separate heat controls but others do not. If you have separate heat controls, you do not need to have all on at the same time if they are not needed or you could even put ice in one for cold food. The advantage of separate units is that you can space the wells out on the steam table counter where you want them. If you are able to buy multiple units, they are significantly less expensive than individual hot wells.

Soup wells are a type of hot food well designed to hold a round stainless steel insert. Soup wells are usually made for 7 or 11 quart capacity inserts. Purchase your soup well according to the capacity needed although typically the larger units often have accessory adapters to allow the unit to accept the smaller insert.

While soup or hot food wells are usually operated with water, some can be operated dry. Dry operation works just as well using the heat transmitted from the well to the food pan inside. Don't think, as some do, that a hot food well or steam table provides moist heat to product. Water in a steam table is only a medium to transfer heat. Food will dry quickly in a steam table which is why it should be covered when possible.

It is important to remember that with the exception of a very few soup heating units, no hot wells are designed to heat food; they are only for maintaining temperature. Since hot foods generally need to be held at 140°F or above to be safe, it is highly recommended that you buy a high wattage hot food well. A high wattage hot well is one that is rated at around 1600 to 2000 watts per 12"X 20" section. Even with high wattage units, maintaining the proper temperature in the food being served generally requires the product to be covered or top heat as well as bottom and side heat provided by the hot well to surround the product. Heat lamps on a shelf or suspended from above can provide the needed top heat.

Be aware that if you are installing a "built-in" well into a wood or synthetic stone countertop, you may need a special adapter to shield the counter from the heat. Another thing to look for when purchasing is the NSF label. As with all foodservice equipment, you should buy a unit that has been made to NSF standards for sanitation and cleanability.

Bulk food dispensers are another important item in many operations. If you are using bulk condiments, pump type dispensers are the most economical and sanitary equipment to use. When used by your guests for carry-out or in a fast casual setting, you will want a good clean looking and operating unit. Dispensers can be chosen from stainless steel, polycarbonate, or disposable plastic.

There are a wide variety of dispenser sizes and styles available. First determine how you will use the dispenser and then select a unit. You can dispense from steam table pans, large jars, or the food manufacturer's plastic bags with different types of the latest pump type food dispensers. There are dispenser pumps made small enough to fit a 1/6 size pan to units made for 1-1/2 gallon Cryovac pouches. Some dispenser pumps are made to fit the top of a #10 can and others to fit the lid of a gallon jar. Many pumps can easily be adjusted to the amount of product you need dispensed. "Stroke yield" is the amount of product dispensed in a single push of the pump. An average stroke yield is one ounce but in many of the better quality units this amount can be changed in 1/4 ounce increments for the exact needs of the operation.

Whether you are looking to dispense ambient temperature, heated, or chilled product, there is surely a unit to meet your needs. Most condiment items like catsup, mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressings, cheese sauce, and hot fudge can be easily dispensed. Check with the dispenser manufacturer to see which unit to use if you need to dispense a product with large solids like a blue cheese dressing.

One of the newest dispenser trends is dispensing directly from Cryovac pouches as purchased. Pouches tend to be very easy to handle, sanitary, and usually leave little waste. Many common mass produced brands can be purchased in pouches. Ask your supplier if the condiments you use are available in pouches. In addition to these direct dispensing units, a few manufacturers are making larger bag-in-box condiment dispensing systems, not unlike soda systems in the way they operate. They are powered by a CO2 pressure source. Pouches for the remote powered systems are usually three gallons. Consider the powered systems only if you are a very high volume user of condiments.

Heated dispensers are excellent for products like nacho cheese, hot dog chili, or hot fudge. There is the traditional ladle type server or you can choose a dispenser unit. Both types of units typically have thermostatic controls with a temperature range up to about 200°F. A good feature for the equipment for some products is a spout warmer. The spout warmer keeps product in the dispensing spout hot for best quality and to avoid food safety issues with temperature holding.

There is also a demand for insulated and chilled dispensers. The insulated units can be used for syrups and topping rails on an ice cream bar. The insulated units usually hold ice or a eutectic pack that after freezing can keep the dispenser contents cold for several hours. There are also some mechanically chilled dispensing units used most often for coffee cream. Since dairy products can spoil easily, it is best not to leave chilling to ice or freezer packs that cannot maintain constant temperatures. There are some unique small thermoelectric chillers on the market that will protect product quality maintaining a constant 41°F. The units are relatively inexpensive for refrigerated units at about $500-600. They are also unobtrusive and fit a small countertop footprint.

One important consideration after choosing the appropriate style dispenser or serving unit for your application is to look for a unit with NSF approval. Choosing units with an NSF label will ensure they will be easy to clean and keep sanitary if instructions are followed. If the disassembly of pumps is required, an NSF unit can be taken apart without the use of tools in a minute or two.

Consider your operating needs and make your purchase decision wisely.

Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. He can be reached at 301-926-8181.

PHOTO: SERVER PRODUCTS