A few weeks ago, during a focus group session we were conducting, a participating nurse manager wanted to confirm that the discussion would end on time, at noon. She wanted to get to the cafeteria in an adjacent building before the “guest chef” ran out of her favorite special — made to order “Tuscan Bread Salad.” At noon sharp I found myself following five nurses to the cafeteria to see the action first hand.
There was a a Sizzling Salad station with a long line of med center employees and visitors ahead of us. The salad was very good — I got one of the last ones before the chef ran out of prepared raw ingredients. Planned scarcity does indeed work.
A unique situation, a fluke, or no other good choices on the menu that day? None of the above. Just a good concept that is not employed nearly as often as it could or should be. And the “Sizzle” doesn't have to be hot — though that helps drive more revenue. In its most modest form, a station like that in Figure 1 can offer distinct advantages even if it lacks the char-broiler.
Action, color, choice, face-to-face contact and personal attention provided by a personable service attendant or “Guest Chef” all contribute to a successful “Sizzling” milieu.
Yes, they're a form of “action station” and one that's experiencing increasing popularity as part of the “healthy foods” phenomenon. Combine “healthy” with the perception of “fresh” (as in being made right before your eyes), add some individual customization via ingredients and dressing, and you have a retail concept that is both popular and a positive contributor to the bottom line.
There are many other reasons to consider a “made to order” sizzling salad concept as part of your retail profile:
- higher quality perception
- positive image
- increased revenue
- cost control (compare to a self-serve salad bar)
- cleanliness (compare to a salad bar after the first lunch rush)
- controlled access, reducing the chance of contamination
Consider the menu mix carefully
Before we go into design specifics, let's look back in time to the days when the only “action station” or point of service concept in a typical onsite retail foodservice facility was the short-order station. A small grill, small counter-top fryer and perhaps a two-burner range for fried eggs would have been typical. The equipment was usually placed against a back wall or confined to a corner so that the smallest possible exhaust hood would be required and thus draw out the least amount of precious conditioned air.
Of course this meant the chef/cook had his/her back to the customer for the better part of the experience. It was also the place where you found hamburgers cooked some indeterminate time in advance, floating in a pan of strange, grey liquid.
We were once hired to reconfigure a relativity new hospital cafeteria installation and arrange the cooking equipment so the cook would face the customer. The hospital administrator was tired of talking to the back of the short-order cook every morning while ordering an omelet. A sense of engagement matters!
Of course, correctly exhausting the smoke and fumes from any action station is important and code-required. But the primary reasons for such a design is to enhance sales, generate revenue and improve the face-to-face interaction between the customer and the attendant. Proper ventilation and airflow are important design factors for these reasons as well.
Still, a Hot Sizzling Salad station is not inexpensive. The higher cost of dedicated labor must be recovered along with raw material cost. Thus, volume must be high and speed of service must be quick even as choice and personal attention are offered.
Workflow must be efficient, with all components and tools conveniently located. For quick service and maximum volume the daily mix of featured items needs to be carefully considered.
In our experience, only one type of protein - flank steak, tenderloin, chicken breast, shrimp, salmon, pork loin, or special feature item (e.g., portabella mushrooms, broiled pineapple) should be offered. Offer only one or two dressings so mixing bowls need not be changed or cleaned between orders.
A nice touch is to construct a recessed refrigerated cavity for the mixing bowls, adding to the perception of chilled and fresh. Convenient refrigerated storage for both cold salad items, and items that will be broiled (we prefer a broiler concept for the visual appeal and coloration of the product) is essential. Backup ingredient stock also needs to be quickly available for high demand periods.
Health inspectors are becoming increasingly strict about hand washing and are usually requiring a dedicated hand sink with single use towels, soap dispenser and trash container to be near any food workstation (check with your local code).
Manage the ROI
A “Sizzling Salad” work station should be designed so that one or two service workers can operate the station. Typically, two during a very busy lunch period, and one during breakfast, dinner or on weekend days when volume is lower.
Sizzling Salads at breakfast? Perhaps not exactly. But consider mounting the broiler on a mobile stand and replacing it with an induction range omelet station or an induction wok for a change of pace during the day or evening. The induction range or wok can also be used for hot pasta-protein salads and endless other combinations.
Thinking again to the need for revenue and a positive return on investment (ROI), menuing a value-added touch can help boost or justify a higher price point for a quality “Sizzling Salad.” Try providing a quarter of a small, crusty, freshly baked round of bread with the salad. The bread rounds should be pre-cut and displayed attractively at the station to keep up with the demand. Alternately, offer the choice of a rye or whole-wheat option or perhaps a third of a baguette. Or, for the gluten-free customer, wheat free crackers.
Any full concept is, of course, easier to create and implement in a new facility or during a renovation. But many operations have implemented simplified versions of this kind of concept in existing facilities for a very small investment.
A stand-alone station can be created with a mobile, mechanically-refrigerated cold counter for ingredients and a mobile work counter that serves as a mixing station. A portable food warmer cabinet can be used for hot protein items prepared in another part of the facility. (Backup refrigeration and hand washing facilities still need to be convenient).
At first glance it may appear that the Sizzling Salad concept may be too capital and labor intensive but these factors need to be measured relative to the revenue potential of a higher item selling price, better portion control and the added attraction drawing in potentially more customers that will then purchase other items that will boost the average check.
Remember: Sizzle sells, and usually at a good margin.
Paul Hysen, FACHE, FAAHC, is President of The Hysen Group and has been a professional onsite foodservice consultant for over 40 years. The Michigan-based Hysen Group has provided services to clients in 46 states and numerous foreign countries on projects ranging from high volume coffee kiosks to 100,000 square foot food production centers.