Foodservice equipment manufacturer Manitowoc has upped the stakes in the food-to-go market by revamping its Merrychef Eikon e2 series to create its smallest but most powerful high-speed oven to date. FEJ headed to the brand’s factory in Sheffield to find out why it believes it has created a new category leader.
Given Sheffield’s famous links to the steel production industry, it’s somewhat fitting that FEJ is on its way to visit a factory at the height of its game right now. Lying 20 minutes north of the city, on a modest industrial estate off a residential area, is one of two production facilities that Manitowoc operates in the UK.
A number of brands are — or have been — built at the factory over the years, including Moorwood Vulcan and Convotherm, but more recently one product has come to dominate them all: Merrychef high-speed ovens. And that’s precisely what FEJ is in South Yorkshire to see. The company will this month make its new eikon e2s model — the smallest of the three main Merrychef oven lines it produce — commercially available to the market.
And while manufacturers are sometimes guilty of updating products without any notably significant changes, the eikon e2s is the result of a complete rethink of the product’s legacy design.
For a start, it represents the first major overhaul to the line for more than three years, but more importantly it has been developed following extensive consultation with customers. Ironing out the imperfections that frustrated users of the existing model was very much at the heart of the design brief.
But let’s take a step back first. The current e2 model uses Manitowoc’s Planar Plume technology, which basically blows a curtain of hot air onto the food for evenness, but while it has been a big success it soon became apparent that the industry was already moving on and, in particular, foodservice operators were championing a greater focus on speed, noise and aesthetics.
For Steve Hemsil, national sales manager at Manitowoc, the food-to-go market has a very precise set of needs when it comes to foodservice equipment, and this has shaped the brand’s thought process. “One of the biggest growth areas in the catering industry is the coffee shop and the food-to-go aspects, whether that is a large supermarket or a small concession in a train station or an airport. So we created the unit with a number of briefs, which were based on preparing fresh food hot and quickly, with aesthetics, and from a noise and size point of view.”
One of the most notable enhancements is the redesigned cooking chamber, which delivers ease of cleaning and improved safety thanks to its seam-welded cavity and large rounded edges. And despite having a width of just 356mm, the internal capacity of the chamber has been increased to the extent that it can now accommodate a 12-inch pizza, which its predecessor couldn’t, and twice the number of toasted sandwiches.
“Basically the unit is 14 inches wide, but it will take a 12-inch pizza. From a size point of view, you can’t get much more compact than that,” says Hemsil.
We created the unit with a number of briefs, which were based on preparing fresh food hot and quickly, with aesthetics, and from a noise and size point of view”
At 45.3 decibels in standby mode (versus 56.3 decibels for the previous model), it is also the quietest oven that Manitowoc now offers after its R&D team rose to the task of reducing the noise the unit made. “Some of our other ovens can be quite noisy when the fan kicks in, but the feedback we got from customers was that when the oven was on standby they didn’t want to hear any noise from it. They didn’t mind it so much when it was doing something.”
Enhanced cooking techniques, which combine microwave with fan-assisted convection and blown-air technology, means the unit can perform up to 20 times faster than a conventional oven, according to the firm, while warm-up and cool-down times have been improved and ovens can now be sited next to each other, according to Hemsil.
The speed naturally depends on the product but, as FEJ witnessed, cook times of items such as wraps and toasted sandwiches can be as little as 50 seconds.
“We can do a full English breakfast in just over a minute, so from a food-to-go perspective it meets that need of getting the customer in, finding out what they want and getting the food to them very quickly. Or even take the coffee shop environment, where customers are getting frustrated because they get their coffee, sit down and then have to wait six or seven minutes for their food to turn up because it has been in a queue for a Panini grill. People want to eat their food with their coffee, and that is what it is designed around.”
An icon-driven touch-screen interface promises simple operation, while a USB memory stick can be used to transfer more than 1,024 different cooking programmes to ensure menu consistency for operators with multiple locations. For the first time, Merrychef is also making the units available in shades of red and black to go alongside the classic stainless steel appearance. Any chain likely to place a significant order could feasibly even choose colours tailored to their brand.
“The aesthetics of it are very important for those that are using it front-of-house,” says Hemsil. “Now customers have the ability to either tone them into their surroundings or to at least make them fit alongside some of the other equipment they have. Look at coffee machines. They have come a long way and look good on the back bars. We were looking to design equipment that does that as well.”
Whether customers are bold enough to opt for a colour model remains to be seen — Hemsil admitted that at the recent Lunch! exhibition, where the product was shown, visitors indicated they preferred the classic look, but he expects the alternative shades to prove popular in certain environments.
Elsewhere on the aesthetics front, the rounded top on the previous Merrychef e2 ovens has been squared off and rails have been added to the sides and back so that operators can store cups, saucers and other items on top.
Meanhile, the oven is available with two different power sources: a standard 13 amp with a traditional three-pin plug and a higher powered 32 amp version.
“The main difference between those would really depend on the quantities the customer is looking to put through,” explains Hemsil. “If they are in a situation where they would expect to do high lunch volumes then we would look to introduce the 32 amp unit because that would fit better. It is to do with the number of magnetrons in the unit — the higher wattage has two magnetrons, which allows us to cook more products at the same time.
“We can also ‘daisy chain’ them, so if a customer has only got one outlet for a 13 amp, we can actually plug it into another one and it will work. So if you take an existing coffee shop with a very busy back bar, it may use up all its three-phase sockets with the coffee machine and the smoothie blender. This can overcome that scenario.”
Hemsil is confident that, for the first time since the launch of the larger e4s, Manitowoc has a product that will allow it to knock on doors and tick a lot more boxes than it has managed in the past. It’s certainly not escaped the firm either that its rivals are also investing in strengthening their portfolios.
“The market is not saturated like some of the other sectors, but we are seeing other brands come in,” acknowledges Hemsil. “I think we have seen a bit more of Atollspeed, and TurboChef is always a big competitor of ours, but the benefit of that is it always keeps us on our toes. We have got to look for the next thing and the next way of making it quicker, smaller and faster.”
Manitowoc is adamant that it has come up with a winner in the e2s, but it certainly won’t be resting on its laurels.
Revamped design makes cleaning less of a chore
Ease of cleaning is one of the main factors that Manitowoc considered when designing the Merrychef eikon e2s. Large rounded corners have replaced the tighter, angled corners that were there in the previous version and the interior walls have been completely smoothed out, so that users don’t catch their hand on any indentations when loading or cleaning the oven.
There is also only one removable item within the cavity, rather than several as before. “This is also based on the feedback we had from customers,” explains Manitowoc’s national sales manager for the UK, Steve Hemsil. “One of the things they said was that at the end of each day the machine has to cool down and then they have to clean it, and they were finding that a little bit laborious. With just one thing to remove to clean the inside, it makes life a lot easier. The easier you can make that process, the more chance there is of operators doing it, and then hopefully that will help to prolong the life of the machine.”
The e2s is also fully ventless, which makes it ideal for front-of-house environments. A catalytic converter removes any smells, grease and smoke, cleans the air and replenishes the cavity to prevent hot air being wasted. “It goes back into the unit, which from an efficiency point of view saves a lot of time in having to re-heat the oven,” says Hemsil.