Cooking equipment: Heating things up

Cooking equipment rentals can range from propane-fired grills and fryers to hot boxes, convection ovens and stoves. Much of what gets rented for cooking isn’t new, but almost everyone has a different mix of rentals and a different way of handling cooking equipment.

With all cooking equipment, however, safety is a major concern and the source of most of the questions from rental customers. Propane, in particular, can bring up the most questions and professionals say it’s important to point out the difference between commercial and homeowner equipment.

“Customers have difficulty with the safety valves on propane tanks,” says Elizabeth Wilson, CERP, All Occasions Event Rental, Cincinnati. “It is very easy to lock up the tank and then it appears that the cooking equipment is faulty because it won’t light. Whenever possible, we hook up the propane and test fire the equipment onsite. All items also are test fired at our warehouse as part of the inventory prep/ready to rent process.”

Wilson says the company also provides customers with written instructions shipped with the equipment, gives an onsite demonstration if someone is present at delivery and will talk with the customer by telephone to help them light propane equipment. “We emphasize that this is commercial cooking equipment and that it is very different than a backyard grill,” Wilson says.

Brian Jenkins, president, Dallas Party Tent and Event, Arlington, Texas, says propane has been a large source of customers calling with equipment problems as well. “We now have our delivery drivers set up the propane equipment for our customers and actually purging the system and starting it. This way it is ready when the customer needs to use it,” Jenkins says. “We have manufacturer’s directions laminated and attached to equipment. We also have PDF copies on our website. We have found that this has curtailed a lot of calls that we used to get.”

“Usually, either our delivery crew will instruct the renter on the equipment or if the customer is picking up, the crew person loading the vehicle will review how to operate the equipment with the customer. We also have instructions online available to the customer,” says Steve Kohn, owner, Miller’s Rentals and Sales, Edison, N.J.

Providing more instruction than might seem necessary is important, he adds. “Usually anything that requires a client to turn a knob or flip a switch, you can be pretty sure you will get a call for further instructions or questions such as, ‘Do I have to plug the electric beverage fountain in?’” he says.

Providing manufacturer instructions is a good idea, says Gerry Donner, sales/marketing, Region Welding, Union, Mo. The company’s most purchased item is the Regency II combination charcoal and propane grill. “For safety, follow the exact directions on propane models,” she says. “All models have safety devices on them. For charcoal, do not over-fire the unit. Also, maintain and check each unit when it comes back from the customer.”

Chris Petroff, Western regional sales manager, Gold Medal Products Co., Cincinnati, agrees. “Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and have adult supervision. Equipment should be maintained after each rental. Also, always buy from a reputable manufacturer and look for agency approvals, such as UL. Make sure it is rental quality and that replacement parts are easily obtained.”

When renting cooking equipment, another thing to discuss with customers is electrical needs. “Our biggest issue is customers overheating the electrical outlet by plugging too many things into one circuit,” says MacKenzie Portelance, director of business development, Liberty Party Rental, Hendersonville, Tenn. To prevent overheating or electrical breakdowns, rental stores may need to explain how many appliances one outlet or circuit can handle.

All say to prevent issues, maintenance of cooking equipment is essential, even though cleaning requires labor.

“Stoves, ovens, grills and other equipment require a lot of prep and cleaning on the front end and back end,” Jenkins says. “If someone is considering purchasing such equipment, ensure that you have the staff to properly clean and maintain the equipment and be sure to consider the labor on the front and back end when determining rental price.”

Sous vide for the future

Josh Sonneborn, owner, Signature Event Rental and 5Flavors Catering in Springfield, Ill., has been in the food industry for more than 10 years. When he couldn’t find the equipment he wanted to rent, he started his own rental store. Now he works with local catering companies and country clubs, handling larger events.

He’s experienced as much as 20 percent growth for catering over the past year and has had 40 percent growth for rental each of the past five years. “Not every rental customer becomes a catering customer, but 100 percent of our catering clients go for the rentals. It’s worked out well,” Sonneborn says.

Recently, Sonneborn also has found a new way to cook for his wedding and event customers: Sous vide or immersion circulation.

Immersion circulators use water to cook food that has been sealed in plastic by a cryo-vac machine. The machine creates a permanent seal and takes the air out. Also, the cryo-vac method helps with the marinating process. There’s atmospheric pressure inside that bag that pushes the flavor further inside the meat. Then the packet is put in the water, which is circulated and heated to the desired temperature.

“We can use an immersion circulator for pretty much anything you need to heat. We’ll take a wood-grilled beef tenderloin. We’ll barely grill it and they we’ll cryo-vac it. Then we’ll put it in the circulator and program the desired temperature. The circulator will bring the food up to temp and hold it there. It’s very precise — you can set your temperature to a tenth of a degree Celsius,” he says.

“This is great for event services because everybody is always running late and cooking beef to temperature is extremely difficult. This will sit inside until it’s ready to be served. It can sit there for five hours if it needs to. The other advantage to that is it will be a true mid rare medium all the way through. You cannot mess it up,” he says.

The circulators also have cut down on the equipment that needs to be brought in, such as pans and hotboxes, Sonneborn says. “We’ll have as many of five of these set up at an event. Food for 300 can go into a few coolers. The first time a client saw us use the circulators, we totally freaked him out. I walked in with one large cooler of food for 200 people. Before, that would have been three rolling hotboxes,” he says.

It does take time — at least a few hours — for the water to reach the desired temperature and it also depends on the temperature of the water at the event site, he says. Still, the benefits outweigh the negatives for Sonneborn. “It used to be this timing game and we don’t have to do that anymore,” he said.

The machines, about the size of a shoebox, have changed his operation. “When we went to those, from a catering standpoint
and from an efficiency standpoint, it changed our lives. It changed how we operated. It’s more designed for bulk cooking — I would use it for 50 people minimum, although last week, we used it for a party of 38,” he says.

Sonneborn rents catering equipment, but not the immersion circulators. Instead, he rents the usual suspects like convection
ovens and fryers.

“We have two convection ovens in our rental fleet and I despise moving them,” he says. Other than the size, he says, “the convection ovens are great — they are a pretty low-maintenance item.”

“We had a couple fryers that we made modifications to. They are standard 35-lb. fryers that would be put into a restaurant, but we took a pallet and a piece of stainless steel cut to fit the top and then we ran brackets around it to make sure it doesn’t tip over. That goes out to catering companies,” he says.

“I think immersion circulators could be rented in the future. In the beginning when we started out, there’s no way I could have afforded five of these things. They fall into the class of convection ovens and fryers. It’s becoming pretty popular and it’s invading the restaurant scene,” he says. — Whitney Carnahan