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Breaking the Ice

24 May 2006
Breaking the Ice

Chewable-ice machines are in greater demand as consumers and operators alike turn on to the pellet-sized shape.

This article first appeared in the 1 April 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.

By Erin J. Shea, Associate Editor

"The ice we use in drinks is one of our hallmarks," says Todd Townsend, chief marketing officer for Oklahoma City-based Sonic, of the dense, chewable nuggets used in fountain drinks. "Some of our stores started to sell the ice by itself. It is that popular with customers."

Chewable ice is the ultimate cool. Once primarily a product of the healthcare marketplace, where large cubes can be problematic for patients, semihard, pebble-sized ice is favored in many settings, making machines that produce the style in high demand.

"The response we've gotten from operators has quadrupled during the past five years," says Lois Schneck, director of marketing for an Easton, Pa.-based ice-machine manufacturer.

Though studies her company have done find that consumer interest is stirring demand, the machines provide benefits to operators beyond just satisfying guests' ice-chomping needs.

"Machines that produce chewable ice are more energy efficient," she says. "The entire production process is more water efficient as well."

In the decade that Sonic has used nugget ice in its drinks, the crystals have done more than allow the chain to keep pace with trends.

"The drink keeps the brand around longer because the ice lasts longer," Townsend says. "That cup puts our brand in environments where it might not be otherwise."

Schneck says that the way chewable ice is produced accounts for its longevity in beverages. Unlike traditional cube machines-which rely on heat to melt ice from the evaporator plate-chewable-ice machines go through a continuous harvest process. Water freezes on the inside wall of a cylindrical evaporator while a rotating auger pushes a thin layer to the top where it is extruded.

The result is dense ice flakes compacted to form nuggets that are "drier" than cube ice and easier to chew.

"Restaurants are starting to build drink programs around chewable ice," says David Foth, marketing manager for a Denver-based ice-machine manufacturer. "It's a fairly small portion of the market but it's growing."

Schneck says that ice has become one of many ways in which an operation can remain competitive.

"If a customer knows he can get a great hamburger at two operations, he'll go to the one where he can get his drink of choice," she says. "Ice helps with that differentiator."

Both Foth and Schneck point out that utility savings make chewable-ice machines attractive to operators.

"Unlike cube machines, there isn't as much water cascading over a plate or constant reheating of an evaporator plate to create ice," Schneck says. "There is less dumping of excess water too."

Bill Douglass, CEO of Douglass Distributing, parent company of the Lone Star Food Stores based in Sherman, Texas, says chewable-ice machines have not only translated into a 25% increase in beverage sales but also into energy savings.

"Producing chewable ice costs me half of what it does to produce cube ice," he explains. "What I save in electricity could power a 100-watt bulb for four years."

In addition to electricity savings, Douglass, whose stores contain Burger King and Subway operations, among others, explains that he's seen a savings of 19,000 gallons of water. "I could fill a typical backyard swimming pool," he says.

Sanitation problems are still a concern, as they are with cubed machines, but Foth says that the cleaning is not as arduous.

"Instead of a big grid on the evaporator plate that needs to go through a cleaning cycle you've got no large surface area with the nugget machines," he says. "There is less to clean."

The Right Ice

As with any large equipment purchase, selecting the appropriate ice machine for an operation takes careful planning and attention to more than just the price tag.

Lois Schneck advises operators to examine three things before purchasing an ice machine.

  • Make sure production unit and storage bins are sized appropriately. "We tell people to size storage first and do a quick analysis of how much ice is needed during peak-period demand," she says. "Build up to having enough ice in storage rather than oversizing your production."
  • Eliminate contamination concerns where possible. "You have to handle ice in a sanitary manner and there is always going to be potential for problems," she says. "I advise people to use auto-fill dispensers whenever they can."
  • Look at lifetime maintenance costs. "Ask yourself what the machine will cost over the course of its use," Schneck advises. "You have to consider the cost of water, electricity and service calls to keep the machine running."
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