Toasters may not get a lot of your attention when making equipment purchase decisions but they are an important part of many operations. They are an essential equipment item for any operation serving toast, bagels, or sandwiches, especially if breakfast is served. As an operator, your main interest is a unit that can produce a piece of bread with an even, golden-brown toasting quickly. That's what today's toasters have been engineered to do.
Pop-ups vs. Conveyors
There are two main commercial toaster types. Pop-up toasters used in commercial applications look similar to the model you have at home, but their heavy duty components and output is considerably different and so is the price tag. For $600 to $1,100, the commercial model will toast faster and stand up to wear and tear that will be encountered in a commercial setting. Controls, heat elements, and overall construction of a commercial unit is much more heavy duty than domestic models as evidenced by the unit weight.
A typical four-slice commercial toaster weighs between 18 and 20 pounds and is constructed of heavy duty components and stainless steel. In contrast, the domestic model weighs between two and three pounds and may have many lightweight plastic components. Also, keep in mind that home appliances are generally not permitted in commercial food operations.
If a pop-up toaster is in your capacity range, consider whether a unit with mechanical or solid state controls better meets your needs. A unit with mechanical controls uses a timer only for toasting time. With only a timer you will need to compensate for quicker toasting when the toaster is already hot from previous toasting. A unit with solid state electronic controls uses those controls to adjust toasting time and temperature, creating uniformly toasted product batch after batch without changing the doneness setting. The price for solid state technology, however, may be 50 percent of the toaster's cost.
If your toast volume outgrows the pop-up unit, you will want to consider a conveyor model. Conveyor toasters are popular in many outlets where volume is higher or varied bread sizes are used. Conveyor toasters are generally larger in physical size and rated for a higher toasting capacity. Typical toasting capacities as rated by the manufacturers are between 250 and 380 slices per hour for a four-slice pop-up machine and anywhere from 400 to 1200 slices pert hour for various models of conveyor toasters.
It's important to note that manufacturers' ratings are based upon ideal conditions and are probably not achievable in practice. As a rule of thumb, estimate a realistic toaster output capacity at about 70 percent of a manufacturer's rating. Rated toaster capacities do not take into account loading and unloading time, varied bread sizes and other variables that may be experienced in actual operation. The ratings are also based on using faster-toasting, drier, day old bread.
Vertical vs. Horizontal
There are two types of conveyor toasters. Vertical models traditionally toast by having the product in direct contact with a heated plate; horizontal conveyors toast without direct contact with the product. The cost of conveyor toasters generally starts at about $900 to $1,000 and increases quickly, along with added flexibility and features. Typically, conveyor models are used in higher production applications and many can also alternate between toasting buns or bread. (Bun toasting means that only one side of the product is toasted.) There are also some specially made units for bagel toasting.
Typically, the degree of doneness on a conveyor model is determined by the speed of the conveyor, which is infinitely adjustable. Some models can be set for either front or rear delivery, meaning that one employee can load the unit while another uses the toasted product to make a finished sandwich. A few conveyor toasters are gas-fired rather than electric, allowing for what may be a more economical energy source. Keep in mind that even a gas-fired toaster needs an electrical connection to operate. It will also require an exhaust hood in some locations.
If more than the basic conveyor unit is needed, some of the features you can expect include more precise heat control. Some offer separate control of the top and bottom elements, which can be good for toasting products like English muffins, for example. If you have a self-service application where the unit is visible to customers, there are “decorator-style” toasters available. They come in a range of color choices and can enhance the look of your front-of-house.
Where customers are involved, you will also want to invest in a model with a “cool touch” exterior. When the patron is doing the toasting this adds an element of safety. Commercial toasters are more powerful and hotter than home models, so caution must be used.
In order to determine the toaster appropriate for your needs, look at the features offered and the associated price. If you are tight on space, an advantage of the pop-up toaster is that it is compact and will take up only about one square foot of counter space. If high volume and flexibility is what you are looking for, a conveyor is likely the obvious choice.
There are other types of specialty toasters. One is an interesting spin on the pop-up toaster -- the pop-down toaster. The pop-down toaster uses a less complex mechanism to drop toast on to a receiving tray under the unit rather than the conventional action of raising the toast. Thus, time is not lost removing toast from the slots before reloading, which allows more production capacity than a similar pop-up model. Toast quality can also be better since toast does not sit in the toasting slots, drying out if not removed immediately.
Finally, if you will be toasting lots of different products, you may want to look at the newer hybrid conveyor toaster-ovens. These are not quite as powerful as a typical “bake from scratch” conveyor pizza ovens, but can do a great job at melting cheese, toasting dressed sandwiches and subs, and even finishing pre-baked pizzas.
If you treat your toaster well it should serve you a long time. Toasters generally should be kept in dry locations and not be in areas that get sprayed down for cleaning. Toasters with electronic controls are especially prone to damage from water. Also, like any piece of equipment, toasters need periodic maintenance. Oiling motors in conveyor models will help extend the life as will keeping the heating elements free of debris.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities, and is a member of FCSI (Foodservice Consultants Society International). Bendall can be reached at [email protected]