Taking on any commercial kitchen project from scratch is no mean feat, even for the most experienced foodservice operator.
But for a market entrant with limited experience in the sector, building a state-of-the-art CPU on a 1970s industrial estate, success was far from guaranteed. From the outset, the cost of kitchen equipment and energy supply issues presented hurdles to The Professional Nursery Kitchen — a Basildon-based caterer set up specifically to supply nursery schools with meals.
With the CPU now up and running, the kitchen is ready for production on a huge scale. Deals have already been secured to supply 15 nurseries and, running at full capacity, it will be capable of producing up to 5,000 meals a day.
So how did The Professional Nursery Kitchen overcome its challenges and reach a level of production that the company hopes will eventually lead to it becoming a major regional force.
FEJ picked up the conversation with managing director, Jonathan Player, at the CPU site in Essex. The first step in a project of this scale was to design a kitchen which would flow and to specify equipment which could cope with the level of cooking and food storage required. Player sought out advice from kitchen design specialist, PHCC, which jumped at the chance to design a kitchen from a clean slate with room for expansion — a rare opportunity in a day and age where kitchens are generally shrinking.
Baron and Williams Refrigeration, part of the Ali Group, were two of the primary equipment brands selected for the task at hand. “Visiting the Baron factory kicked it off in my mind,” reveals Player, although he admits the cost of the initial quote came as a surprise. “It helped us to envisage it as we’re not from a food background; we run nursery schools.”
The high-tech, advanced CPU that Player wanted meant equipment costs were far above what was initially budgeted for the project. Therefore, a phased approached has been adopted whereby equipment will be purchased in stages as the company expands and requires greater production capacity. The kitchen was designed with flexibility and expansion in mind and so more appliances can be brought in as the business progresses, spreading out the cost. Combi ovens were a main focus, along with boiling pans, bratt pans and other bulk appliances.
The pinchpoint is the blast chiller and its 90-minute cycle because we’ve only got one. Depending on how it’s run, it’s got huge capacity”
Aside from getting to grips with the costs associated with creating a large-scale catering kitchen, Player notes that energy supply to the kitchen was a major obstacle when setting out to build the CPU: “They wanted £150,000 to put a sub-station on this plot because everyone on the industrial estate is already running at max capacity.”
This kind of investment would be a frightening prospect for any operator, let alone one looking to get a new business off the ground. But alternations to kitchen equipment and operation processes meant not only did The Professional Nursery Kitchen avoid having to pay for a sub-station, but it achieved efficiencies that it believes will lead to savings of almost £30,000 a year for the company.
Steve Hammond, managing director of PHCC, who designed the kitchen and supplied the Baron and Williams appliances, explains: “We didn’t even have a 13 amp socket and we only inherited one existing electrical supply. We were introduced to a company called Cavendish who advised that we get the electrical load down to as little as possible on equipment and use gas instead, which we were able to do with most appliances. We got our electrical load down to a reasonable level but we were still over the allocated supply that we needed.”
Additionally, the CPU adopted inverted driven condensing units on its 17 cold rooms — facilities which traditionally use a significant amount of energy. The entire system was able to run at an impressive 67 amps. It is claimed this is the first use of this technology to be used in a CPU. Usually it is employed in sky scrapers where high energy consumption is placed on a small plot of land.
According to Hammond, even manufacturers like Williams, which is experienced at supplying CPUs, was surprised at the impact of switching condensers over from a traditional one to inverted driven units.
In addition to the condensing unit technology, a smart system now monitors all the electrical currents that are being used in the kitchen and coldrooms and automatically makes adjustments. For example, when the coldroom reaches required temperature it will switch itself off or, if the mixer or blast chiller comes on, the system will allocate the appropriate supply to where it’s needed.
“But it’s not been restrictive,” insists Player. “The way the design has been done and the way the flows have been considered, all we’re doing is not running heavy equipment that doesn’t need to be run together. For example, the blast chiller and the utensil washer, we wouldn’t be washing the gastronorm trays because they’re in the blast chiller. As long as you’re conscious of that, it runs and it runs efficiently. We save £28,000 a year in energy. There was a £50,000 increase in cost because of using gas equipment instead of electric, but in two years we’ll recover it.”
And that’s just energy saving. The operator can also claim back immediately off its tax, making the energy saving investments effectively cost-neutral. “Really, we stumbled across it because initially we couldn’t get the power but the information’s there and all the suppliers and contractors had an ability to switch. They wanted £150,000 to install a sub-station. The investment to make energy efficiency changes to this building and kitchen was £50,000; with allowances and a £28,000 a year saving it was a no brainer,” says Player.
With the problem of energy supply solved, The Professional Nursery Kitchen can now look forward to churning out children’s meals for nurseries in the region and potentially beyond. Having only just launched the business, and with the additional pieces of Baron equipment scheduled to arrive later this year, the CPU is only running at half capacity initially.
Even so, Player reveals the site can comfortably produce around 2,000 meals a day in blocks of 600. The plan is to turn the site into a production line set-up where staff don’t have to follow food around the production stages. The kitchen and lay-out of the coldrooms were designed from the outset in a manner that will cater for these plans.
If anything, Player thinks the main challenge will be keeping up with demand. “The pinchpoint is the blast chiller and its 90-minute cycle because we’ve only got one, atlhough we’ve got space to add more in,” says Player. “Depending on how it’s run, it’s got huge capacity. I think we can produce more than we can comfortably sell from here. If you had prep chefs, cook chefs, packing people, distribution people, the food would flow five times the speed. At the moment we don’t have the need to warrant that but when we reach that point we will. If we ever meet capacity here I’ll retire!”
I’m confident that we can produce enough here so that we can distribute to a refrigerated distribution centre and supply the south”
It seems that the pipeline is certainly looking good. “We get a strong number of enquiries each week and we’ve been converting them. Demand has been good. We’ve got a couple of larger nursery chains who are coming to visit — they want to run nurseries not kitchens. We knew before even committing to this that there was a need,” Player outlines.
On a more local level, the response has also been strong. Chefs at The Professional Nursery Kitchen have responded very well to the equipment, according to Player. Furthermore, Environmental Health, which has been keeping a close eye on the CPU due to its role in supplying children’s meals, has logged extremely promising results for the site.
For Player, hearing that industry professionals are impressed is a sign that things are well on track. Before the CPU model rolls out, however, he wants to get the initial site running at optimum efficiency.
“I think the trick is getting this model to work, I’d then like to move it up the country. Nurseries are everywhere and equally spread nationwide, so ideally, it would be great to have another hub the other side of London so we can supply all of the South and London. I’m confident that we can produce enough here so that we can distribute to a refrigerated distribution centre so we can then supply the south.
“If we did want to go further it would probably mean building another one of these CPUs in the north. But before we even think about going down that road we need to get this absolutely perfect. I’m really into procedures and processes. Businesses run well when they’re run by rules — if you follow them it works. I want to implement that here. If we can crack that in this building I see no reason why we couldn’t roll it out wider.”
Although it’s early days, there is no doubt that the investment that has gone into creating the right kitchen lay-out and equipment infrastructure will allow business to boom for the sector’s newest catering venture.
Kitchen cooking spec sheet
– Baron Serie 900 4 burner gas range on gas oven
– Baron Optimus combination oven
– Baron Serie 900 gas boiling pan
– Baron multi task bratt pan
Volume of meals the CPU can produce per day
Coldrooms on site
Projected energy saving per year