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Do's and Don'ts of Drink Dispensers

Do's and Don'ts of Drink Dispensers

An experienced barista who can quickly whip up specialty coffee drinks is a luxury many operations can't afford, so you may want to consider some sort of semiautomated or even fully automated espresso equipment.

Carbonated beverage dispensers come in a variety of footprints and capacities.

The American consumer is bombarded with shelf after shelf in grocery and convenience stores of fruit drinks, coffee based drinks, carbonated beverages, and a host of other vitamin enriched liquid thirst quenchers. The variety of non-alcoholic beverages available to consumers today is staggering.

Onsite dining customers expect the same sort of variety. As an operator you certainly need to know which beverages will sell and which won't. You also need to know the latest equipment that will best enhance the storage and serving of your beverages.

Beverages are an important part of every menu. They enhance your food offerings. There are high profit margins on many types of beverages, but you will need the right equipment to deliver the best product to your guests. Some equipment is new and others have been improved. Here are a few things you should know when selecting beverage equipment.

Carbonated Beverage Dispensers
There are a large number of dispensers on the market by a range of different manufacturers. The most popular dispenser is the soda tower. The most popular styles of soda towers are about two feet by two feet in size up to about 42 inches long and have an integral ice bin.

The ice bin is an important purchase consideration. There are units with ice bins above the dispensers and units with bins below that use augers to dispense the ice up and into a glass. One consideration is the height of units with ice storage above. The units can be six feet tall or more depending on ice storage capacity.

Loading the dispenser, therefore, will require a step stool and lifting to reach the ice bin loading area. Employees carrying and lifting heavy ice buckets can be a safety hazard.

The other consideration is whether to choose manual filling ice bins or bins with ice makers for automatic filling with the beverage dispenser. Having the ice maker at the unit is a labor saver and can help reduce the potential for contamination.

Height, however, again is a consideration if you purchase a unit with an ice maker above the dispenser. At least one manufacturer makes a dispensing unit with undercounter ice makers to maintain a low profile unit while still providing the labor savings of automatic ice filling.

Chilling a carbonated beverage is essential to quality, flavor, and maintaining carbonation. There are two ways to chill the beverage lines— use ice from the dispenser through a cold plate or use a separate mechanical cooling system. Each system has advantages and disadvantages. The cold plate can use up to half of the ice in storage to chill the beverage lines but is a less expensive than a mechanical system.

Since the cold plate has fewer mechanical parts it generally requires a minimum amount of maintenance. The disadvantages, in addition to using ice, are that the drink quality is not always consistent due to fluctuations in the dispensing temperature. It may be preferable in some cases to use an electric chiller system. The real disadvantage to this type of system is cost.

Besides the traditional soda tower, bars often use soda guns on flexible hoses for speed-pouring mixers in cocktails. Bar guns can dispense a variety of carbonated and noncarbonated beverages through the same faucet. These units save time in making drinks as well as eliminating the space occupied by a beverage tower.

Bar guns can sometimes be beneficial in a busy restaurant wait station where the wait staff can bring the dispenser to the glass rather than going through the extra motion of holding a glass up to a dispenser.

Non-carbonated Dispensers
Drink dispensers for flavored juices, tea, and real pulp juices are as popular as ever. There are a wide variety of dispensers on the market, one of the most popular of which is the clear top tank merchandising units. These dispensers chill the product by continuous circulation across a cooling plate usually in the bottom of the unit. Countertop dispensers are generally available as single, double, or triple bowl units and available in three or five gallon capacities.

In addition to the relatively standard sizes various, manufacturers make some specialized items. One manufacturer makes an extra narrow double tank unit 12 inch width. Other manufacturers make large capacity tanks holding anywhere from 8 to 15 gallons of pre-mixed product.

Whipping attachments are built-in to some dispensing mechanisms to provide a frothy specialty beverage. At least one manufacturer makes a matching unit which heats the beverage for serving hot cider or a similar product.

Some manufacturers have different systems to circulate the beverage through the machine to keep it uniformly chilled. There are special assemblies for products like ice tea from concentrate which tend to foam or another assembly for pulp products which need to maintain a continuous suspension.

The typical non-carbonated beverage merchandising dispenser operates with a mechanical lever much like the stand lever described for carbonated beverages. Sanitation concerns in many areas have spurred manufacturers to develop push buttons or no cup contact handles available on models.

Dispensing machine manufacturers have been able to make many of the units very narrow to fit small spaces. One makes a model that can dispense either one or two juice flavors in a dispenser which is only 8 inches wide. Other units having up to four beverage flavors available are as small as 18 inches wide.

Self contained post-mix dispensers are available from several manufacturers in models providing one to four flavors of product. Some now make machines which can dispense concentrate from a remote location using the same bag-in-box packaging used with carbonated beverages. In many cases, it has proven to be a convenient way of dispensing. The cleanliness of the bag-in-box approach is appreciated by many operators.

Hot drinks such as hot chocolate, cappuccino, and cider are also popular beverages to be served from powder or liquid concentrates. Dispensing machines with hot water reservoirs can pour drinks nearly as quickly as the water can be heated.

Many of the hot drink machines are set to pre-pour a specified portion size since one touch of the activating button pours a whole cup of beverage. The espresso and cappuccino machines that can whip foam to top a hot beverage have become popular recently. Some manufacturers have provided coin operated mechanisms to provide pay by the cup service.

Coffee and Espresso Equipment
Coffee makers range in size from a single half-gallon decanter unit to 80 gallon and larger banquet urns. The small decanter or bottle brewers have been around for decades and will serve well. As an alternative, many smaller operations use shuttles which are insulated, transport well and dispense product easily through a faucet. These are great for moveable buffets.

Another popular serving method is the airpot. Airpots are completely sealed and insulated, and according to one manufacturer, can hold temperature and quality up to eight hours. They are attractive, easy for customers to operate and are excellent for serving a variety of specialty or flavored coffees, since a group of airpots can be held on a rack, making merchandising easy.

The move up in coffee volume is to an urn, most likely the double, three-gallon size used in many medium to large size operations. A few manufacturers make smaller urns but the most popular is the twin three-gallon model.

A common purchasing mistake made by operators is to buy too large a coffee maker. A twin three gallon urn can make enough for over 600 cups of coffee per hour and a single brew in one urn can generally serve one seating for a 100 seat restaurant. An urn does not allow a small operation to deal effectively with decaf coffee or any other special blends or flavored coffees which are becoming more and more popular.

If you want to make your operation known for a great cup of coffee, one item, water quality, cannot be overemphasized. When you think about it a cup of coffee has just two ingredients, coffee and water.

The vast majority of what is in each cup you sell is water, so it is imperative to treat your water like a valuable resource. If you don't, you can't provide the best cup of coffee even with using the best ground product on the market.

Getting a high quality water filter that removes minerals and impurities is as important as getting a good coffee or coffee maker.

Being able to offer a good espresso for most operations today is a must. There are many machines on the market made in a variety of sizes, capabilities, and ease of operation. A match to your expected volume is easy to make once you decide on the degree of sophistication needed for your machine.

Traditional espresso makers are classified by the degree of automation. Because of training staff to operate manually operated machines, the super-automatics are becoming more popular as establishments see the need for a consistent product and quick service. Experienced baristas can make excellent coffee but unless you have someone with the training it is difficult to ensure consistent quality in a manually operated machine.

Traditionally you would use a special coffee grinder as a necessary accessory for making good espresso. The grind is extremely fine, much finer than regular coffee, so it is important that if you are grinding, a specialized grinder is used.

Many operations now have gone to using "pods" that don't require you to grind the beans in-house. Pods come in a box from your purveyor as pre-ground, pre-portioned coffee doses sandwiched in filter paper. They are more costly than grinding yourself but you don't need to worry about portion control and waste.

The super-automatic machines are popular but are often very expensive. They do, however, produce a quality consistent espresso with minimum waste and little chance for operator error.

The super-automatic has a built in bean storage hopper and grinder. With the press of a button, the exact weight of beans is dispensed, ground, tamped into the brewing chamber and brewed with the precise amount of water at the proper temperature. The brewing chamber is even automatically cleaned and the used grounds stored or flushed down the drain.

Machines are made that have a refrigerated milk compartment and automatically steam and mix the milk for a quality cappuccino. These machines are ideal where there will be many operators and training each on a traditional machine would be difficult.

There are machine varieties that are so simple to operate that they are specifically for the self-service market and are perfect for snack bars or cafeterias. Your guest will expect beverage variety when dining out. Give them the best you can in product quality and select the equipment that will best support your needs. The profit margins on many types of beverages are good and product cost low, but you will need the right equipment to deliver the best product to your guest.

Dan Bendall is a principal of Food-Strategy, 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.

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