Spring is upon us and that means it won’t be long before the weather presents an abundance of al fresco dining opportunities for foodservice operators. One of the biggest growth areas lies in outdoor BBQs — but it is imperative that operators have the correct professional equipment to hand. Here are the answer to all your questions from those in the know.
Outside of the typical restaurant customers my business gets, we cater for one-off events and parties. Therefore some weekends I may only need to serve a handful of covers but on others I might need to feed a party of 200 people. What size BBQ do I need to accommodate such fluctuations?
“How much food can be cooked in an hour on a barbecue is related to its grill area rather than its power output,” answers Bill Cooke, MD of Cinders Barbecues. “This is because the outside of food is likely to burn if you try to hurry it along. The problem is that most barbecues with large grill areas tend to be big and bulky, unless you opt for one which folds away.”
Operators might also want to think about the experience of the chef working on the appliance, especially if they are cooking on wood and charcoal, or combining different techniques. “As a rough guide, an experienced wood or charcoal chef can happily cook for about 100 covers on a 900mm-wide grill,” suggests Steve Ollerenshaw, managing director of Ox Grills. “We find that our double grills are popular because this allows more flexibility to run one or both grills depending on time of service.”
Glenn Roberts, chair of CESA, offers an alternative line of thought. He believes the physical size of the kit is less of an issue if operators put their indoor equipment to good use. “The best way to deal with larger numbers is to pre-cook in the kitchen, for example in the oven or a combi steamer, then chargrill the food on the BBQ before serving it. It’s food-safe, fast and flexible — and if the weather takes a nosedive you won’t have had to prepare and cook everything.”
Natural gas or propane. What’s the best option?
Natural gas is cheaper than propane but comes with the drawback that it is a fixed-position operation. That’s great if you want a kitchen chargrill under an all-weather structure, but consider the initial outlay plus the ongoing costs of maintaining such a set-up. “Propane provides greater versatility for mobile, outdoor use. Natural gas requires a fixed supply, therefore not always suitable for equipment that is likely to need moving on a regular basis,” says Ray Hall, MD of RH Hall, which distributes the Crown Verity range in the UK.
Ox Grills, meanwhile, is an advocate of wood, arguing that it imparts a smoky flavour on food. “Cooking over wood or charcoal also creates more ‘theatre’, which adds to the overall experience for the customer. If you are going to invest in an outdoor kitchen we think it is better to go the whole hog,” says Steve Ollerenshaw.
How quickly will I be able to get an outdoor BBQ grill up to full cooking temperature? Is the length of time this takes down to the gas supply or the burners?
The more powerful the burners, the quicker the grill will heat. And each burner should have an expected BTU/hr rating, to indicate the gas supply required. “Models that come with a roll dome will also speed up initial heat-up times and recovery periods, which should not be overlooked. It is not unreasonable to expect a good quality commercial BBQ to heat up to full temperature in under 10 minutes,” suggests RH Hall’s Ray Hall. “The Crown Verity MCB range of BBQs uses powerful 15,000 BTU/hr burners, allowing the grill to heat up to full cooking temperature in less than six minutes, with amazing recovery times.”
Martin Porter, managing director of Rexmartins, which has recently enhanced its portfolio with a new range of outdoor cooking equipment, says its BBQs also only take six minutes to get up to temperature. “The time it will take across different brands is due to the thermal insulation of the unit. As RMB products are made with the highest quality materials, the thermal insulation of each unit is very good. The quality of the fuel you use is also a factor,” he says.
Cinders Barbecues’ Bill Cooke points out that there will be differences between natural gas, propane and charcoal: “A decent gas barbecue gets up to cooking temperature in less than 10 minutes and maintains cooking speed up to the point when you switch it off. A charcoal unit needs a minimum of 30 minutes, during which time there will be black smoke until it settles down to a grey ash appearance. The heat will gradually decay until more charcoal is needed, so having standby trays of fuel at different stages of burn will be the answer to consistent cooking.”
How much is an outdoor BBQ realistically going to cost me to run? I need to be able to factor in fuel and power costs when planning menu pricing.
The cost of running a BBQ will be down to your gas supply, so make sure you use the best quality you can in order to keep your costs low, advises Rexmartins’ Martin Porter. “Another factor is the build and material quality of the BBQ. Our RMB BBQs are made of the highest quality stainless steel and with impeccable build quality, meaning they are able to retain heat for longer, resulting in lower running costs,” he says. It is always good practice to look at the most convenient option of propane and modify your plans if the cost is a problem.
However, the sums stack up very well in its favour, according to Cinders Barbecues’ Bill Cooke. “Propane is sold by weight and a 19kg cylinder (about waist height) will power a higher capacity 20kW catering barbecue for 12 hours at about £2.50 an hour. Choosing an appliance with at least two separate grilling areas cuts this to £1.25 per hour as you turn one area off for your one-off events and smaller parties.”
Fuel quality is certainly a major factor, especially where wood is concerned. “High quality logs are more expensive but they impart an amazing flavour and are best if you are serious about wood-fired cooking,” insists Ox Grills’ Steve Ollerenshaw. “As a rule though, gas will be cheapest, followed by charcoal, with wood being the most expensive. Bear in mind that once installed, grills like ours are almost zero maintenance so will not require replacement gas parts over time.”
I have looked at stainless steel BBQs and cast iron cooking grills in the past. As a professional caterer, should I always go for the stainless steel option?
Look for a barbecue that uses commercial grade stainless steel. Be wary that many domestic models use stainless steel, but are of light duty construction. Check out the grid racks, too. Stainless steel ones work better than coated ones that invariably chip and flake off in time. “Look for good portability as many barbecues have poorly-constructed wheels,” says RH Hall’s Ray Hall. “Importantly, ensure the product comes with a full commercial warranty. Some have a lifetime guarantee! Remember that you would not buy a domestic cooker for your commercial kitchen, so apply the same thought-process for your outdoor barbecue.”
Steve Ollerenshaw of Ox Grills says that in terms of the cooking surface itself, there is an advantage to cast iron over stainless steel due to better heat retention, as stainless steel is more conductive, but it does take longer to heat up and is harder to clean. “Overall, we prefer stainless, but we have to specify quite thick cooking surfaces because it is easier to warp. In terms of the rest of the grill unit (not the cooking surface) there is no contest that stainless steel is best for a commercial application.” CESA’s Glenn Roberts adds: “Whatever model you choose, make sure it is designed for commercial use and has the CE mark.”
I have heard that outdoor BBQs now come with a range of accessories that assist / enhance the cooking process. What accessories would you say I absolutely need to get the best out of my BBQ?
A BBQ that can be easily adapted with accessories will always allow for a varied menu offering and encourage menu creativity outside of standard burgers and sausages. Grills, steam pans, additional side burners and shelves for extra prep/serving space will all enhance a standard BBQ. A temperature probe is essential, too.
For Bill Cooke at Cinders Barbecues, the one accessory above all else which will ease cooking and serving is a solid griddle. “It enhances the self-clean by increasing heat below while presenting food additions like mounds of fried onions or mixed vegetables. Griddles are slower than open barbecues and there is less taste to what you are cooking, but they can always be lifted off when the pressure of a queue is on.”
Rexmartin’s Martin Porter adds: “You will need accessories such as scrapers, wire brush cleaners and tongs. It is also recommended to cover your BBQ between uses. All RMB BBQs come with a standard accessory kit, and we can also create a bespoke kit to your exact requirements.”
What sort of cleaning regime is required for outdoor BBQs? Do I follow the same approach to cleaning and maintenance that I take for indoor kitchen equipment?
A good cleaning regime is even more necessary for outdoor equipment than for indoor kitchen equipment. This is because of the environment in which it operates and the conditions it is likely to be stored in. All commercial barbecues come with the recommendation to store in a clean and hygienic area, but it will not be as controlled as your kitchen and the cleanliness of the barbecue should take this into account.
“Look for products that are easy to clean and maintain — removable parts such as grease traps, particularly on barbecues, are invaluable,” notes RH Hall’s Ray Hall. “As with any commercial equipment, BBQs should be cleaner after each service to ensure carbon and grease does not build up.” Martin Porter at Rexmartins suggests the amount of cleaning required will be similar to that of an indoor kitchen: as often as possible. “This will create a higher standard of hygiene and quality for your kitchen and the same rules will apply to an outdoor kitchen. RMB modular BBQs offer a sink unit, which makes cleaning your BBQ much easier,” he comments.