In today’s wired world, operators have found that they increasingly have turned toward high-tech food service equipment. But in these quests, some solutions either are emblematic of being cutting-edge, or problematic because they are over-the-edge.

The former appears to be the case for a new ice-making system, which to date has attracted the interest of convenience store operators and, in the not-too-distant future, may be adopted by restaurants and other food service purveyors.

The ice production system, called “Point Of Use,” sports an air-cooled hub that can be tucked away, either on the roof or in the basement of an establishment. Operators can centralize ice making in the roofs and basements, but have the capability of distributing ice to four in-store beverage stations.

Space savers

Convenience stores have been the early users of the Point Of Use platform, since most c-stores sport multiple beverage dispensers. Also, the system allows them to make the most of their in-store footprints.

“It’s really saved us space,” said Michael Uphus, an operations supervisor for Thriftway Super Stops, a nine-unit chain owned by Sute Oil Inc. The company installed the Point of Use condensing unit in the basement; it automatically reloads ice into three above-fountain stations and a storage bin.

Other food service representatives played up the restaurant and lodging applications of the system, which Manitowoc Ice, Inc., Manitowoc, Wis., developed.

“This is really cutting-edge technology,” said Jim Phillips of Harrington’s Bar & Supply of Butte, Mont., who has installed the system in several convenience stores. He predicted that such solutions “will become widely employed.”

That, however, could take some time. The solution was only introduced late last year. Furthermore, several representatives from fast-food operations that were asked to comment on Point Of Use were either not aware of the system or have not seen it in action.

While some casual restaurants have moved the hubs of their icemakers — the condensing units — to their rooftops, the actual icemakers are located in the back of the house. That requires employees to manually distribute ice to various areas in the restaurants.

“More and more restaurants are starting to put ice machines on top of their fountains because of labor and workers’ comp considerations,” Phillips said.

For example, Uphus said, having ice on demand eliminates the need for employees to refill the bins, which means workers don’t have to haul buckets through the store. “That reduces the risk of wet floors and accidents at the facility,” he said.

“Our condensers are roof-mounted, but employees have to haul ice,” stated David Wade, director of construction for Houston’s Restaurants Inc. of Phoenix. Late last month the dinner-house operator took the wraps off its newest restaurant, Cowboy, in Newport Beach, Calif.

Wade added that Point Of Use “sounds like an interesting concept,” but expressed some doubt over whether it would have applications at his company.

Remote condenser

In addition to work flow considerations, the early testers of the icemakers took kindly to its remote-condensing unit. For example, Uphus said that the Point Of Use system keeps the store noise-free and does not generate any heat, which “makes it more comfortable for customers.” Describing the noise generated by the self-contained ice machines at other Thriftway units, Uphus said, “All heads turn every time the compressor kicked in.” Going forward, Uphus said all new store “builds” will have the Point Of Use system, and he will “strongly consider” retrofitting it to several stores that are slated to be remodeled over the next couple of years. Other store managers have maintained that Point Of Use has not wreaked havoc on septic-sewage systems, which suburban and rurally based operators are forced to tap when their stores cannot connect with municipal waterways.

“We’re not on the city sewer. A water system would have caused our water tank to overflow and flood,” said Brian Hawkes, owner of Lone Pine Conaco in Hamilton, Mont., who installed Point Of Use when the store opened last summer.

Elsewhere, Mobil Corp. (based in Fairfax, Va.) is testing Point Of Use at one of its On The Run c-store concepts, according to company spokesperson Susan Carter. “We’re evaluating a prototype of the system,” she said, but added that the test “is way too early to assess.”

At what cost?

As is the case with most new technologies, a hovering cloud that could constrict the penetration of Point Of Use installations may lay in the price.

Several sources have noted that the main condensing unit lists for about $4,500, and that each ice machine can cost about $3,000, excluding installation costs. That could make some operators skittish about upgrading.

Still, Phillips maintained that those price points will not be apt to cause operators to balk. “It’s not much more expensive than if a restaurant were to buy three or four stand-alone icemakers.”

Point Of Use may have widespread applications for hotel operators, the majority of which rely on self-contained ice bins at the refreshment stands on each of their floors. Yet, there does not appear to be an immediate rush of hotel chains replacing their ice-making machines with more sophisticated equipment like the Point Of Use system.

Reprinted with permission from Nation’s Restaurant News, February 15, 1999.