With a food menu specialising in British classics, comfort foods and Italian staples, it was clear when Oakman Inns and Restaurants was founded nine years ago that its kitchens would need to be be well-equipped to deal with the variety and volume of dishes served to customers.
The last few years has seen Oakman expand at an impressive rate, with four new Inns opening in the past 18 months and certain branches winning awards for service and style.
That has certainly kept Armend Aljo, the chain’s procurement manager, busy. He says that each opening its carries out reinforces just how important it is to have the correct equipment.
“It doesn’t have to be top of the range or bespoke for what we want; we just look for really good equipment that can deliver fantastic food,” he tells FEJ. “It doesn’t have to be the most expensive either. The two main factors that influence our buying decisions have to be quality and service, and a balance of cost and what we need for the business to function at its best.”
While it all sounds relatively straightforward, the reality is that the business faces the challenge of keeping up with food trends and recognising customer demand remain key priorities, while harnessing an operation that sources the best possible ingredients with minimum chef interference.
“We aim for a simple operation that requires simple delivery. Since starting a relationship with Jestic Foodservice we have installed Josper ovens at all our Inns, and these, together with our deep fryers and Rational ovens have become critical items of equipment for us. I can’t imagine a kitchen without those now.”
The buying process
Aljo is solely responsible for sourcing new equipment for the portfolio, but he works together with the chefs and operations team to determine what hardware will best serve the space available, calling it a “real group effort”. Plans are afoot to expand the equipment procurement team as the estate grows.
The past few years have seen a couple of new ideas come into the kitchens for Oakman, in terms of both food and equipment, and this has varied between replacing old items and upgrading current ones to suit the development of the market.
He says: “It’s important that I take into account the equipment we already have, as well as accessing what can be bought in to better keep up with new trends. We noticed the trend for street food, so we realised we needed to invest in equipment to deal with this demand. We also now specifically look for fryers that maintain the quality of oil, as it can be dangerous if it’s not contained properly, so it’s crucial that we get this right. We started the business with standard fryers and quickly realised that we needed to upgrade to something of better quality.”
Throughout the evolution of the brand in the last year, the kitchen procurement process has focused on getting a trio of equipment priorities in order. “The three main products we changed were; improving the quality of the fridges, introducing induction ovens and installing new fryers,” describes Aljo. “At the bar and coffee service we’ve also introduced new coffee making equipment, as we noticed the rise in demand for artisan coffees. Now we have Nespresso machines but also grinders that grind when you need it. We are constantly looking at little items we can add into the operation too.”
“We’ve also installed a few kitchen gadgets – a blender that we use for mixing cocktails, and a food processor from Vitamix which heats up the substance inside, as well as blends it, making high quality soups and sauces really easily.”
With 10 sites to consider with every upgrade and improvement — and several more in the pipeline — it can take up to two years to roll out new installations in every Oakman-branded property. But it’s all worth it when the company’s faith in a new product or concept gets the desired result.
Oakman equipment priorities
Oakman Inns and Restaurants has plans to open at least three new sites this year and from a kitchen perspective that will allow it to explore different equipment avenues in a bid to evolve the chain’s culinary offering. Here are procurement manager Armend Aljo’s top three priorities.
1) Fryers & smokers
“The only new item we’ve planned at the moment is the fryers, but I’m also looking at investing in certain smoking products as I’ve noticed a real trend emerging there,” he says.
2) Wood-burning pizza ovens
“Two of the projects will have a wood-burning pizza oven. Until recently we’ve imported the oven parts from Italy and constructed it in-house at the restaurant, but now I’ve been looking to buy these ovens whole from companies over here. That way, they can be dismantled and reused, which we’re not able to do with the Italian imported items.”
3) Outdoor barbecues
“We brought in The Big Green Egg barbecue at our branch in St Albans last September, which had quite a bit of interest, so we introduced it into the property in Beaconsfield. It’s something we are still monitoring, so if it’s a success it may go into one our new sites next year. It’s a really interesting bit of kit.”