Weddings, religious events, the harvest, you name it — medieval times were great for celebrations because they offered seemingly endless displays of food. Fast forward to today, and the tradition continues with the same medieval-inspired buffets providing an efficient, easy (and thankfully, more sanitary) way to feed large groups of people.
Look at any school, military mess hall, hotel, catering operation or other foodservice establishment, and you’re bound to see a buffet hard at work. But what would these buffets be without the right equipment? Today we’ll take a look at how one critical piece of foodservice equipment — the drop-in buffet warmer — can make all the difference in the success of your buffet operation. Ready for celebration-worthy results? Here’s what to look for with a drop-in buffet warmer.
Understanding drop-in buffet warmers
There are key features to look for when purchasing a drop-in buffet warmer. We’ll get into what those are, but before we talk details, let’s take a minute and review a few basics about how a buffet warmer works and what it can do for you.
The mechanics of a buffet warmer are somewhat familiar. When you expose hot food (or cold food, for that matter) to ambient air, the molecules within the food naturally want to get to the same energy level. It’s a process that’s called “constant temperature.” It’s why cold lemonade sitting outside on a hot day starts to get lukewarm, or why your piping hot pizza cools down to room temperature when it’s on the table.
As you know, when certain foods or drinks stay at tepid temps for too long, bad bacteria can grow and cause not-so-nice side effects for anyone who eats or drinks them. Safety and sanitation are crucial for a successful operation, and establishments need to ensure they’re holding food at the correct temperatures.
That’s where buffet warmers come into play. These solutions work to preserve the quality and temperature of food held on the buffet line for short periods of time by slowing this natural cooling process down. Both portable buffet warmers and drop-in buffet warmers achieve this, but drop-in warmers are a more permanent option. Unlike portable buffet warmers, drop-in solutions are installed directly into a countertop or buffet table for a seamless, integrated look and feel that’s perfect for operations with a steady stream of buffet diners. But like other foodservice equipment, all drop-in buffet warmers are not created equal. Here are four things to consider before moving forward with a drop-in buffet warmer purchase.
1. Design options that meet your needs
As the saying goes, “Variety is the spice of life.” And when we’re talking about buffet warmers, you can bet your bottom dollar that the same sentiment applies. You need options. Therefore, It’s important to look for manufacturers who offer buffet warmers in a variety of sizes, styles and configurations. That way, you can find a solution that meets your unique design, space and layout requirements. Just remember, drop-in units are installed directly into the counter, so you need to measure correctly and check that the unit’s specifications will work within your unique space. If you’re feeling at all uneasy about this process, be sure to ask a design expert, qualified equipment vendor or other knowledgeable consultant for assistance.
Additionally, if your operation is on the smaller side, you can always leverage drop-in and portable buffet warmers together for added flexibility. For instance, let’s say your weekend brunch buffet draws a heavier crowd than your other offerings. You can continue to use a drop-in buffet warmer for all your different service hours — but then add a portable warmer to help with the temporary uptick in demand that comes from your breakfast buffet. Then, when the rush dwindles for lunch, you can pop that portable unit in storage and simply take it back out the following weekend.
2. Base + overhead heat
Most traditional buffet warmers work by directly transmitting heat to the food through a warming base. This type of heat transfer is called conduction, and it’s very effective for quick-turn applications. But there’s a way you can up the warming ante by adding an infrared overhead heater to your base. With these warmers, infrared rays radiate down onto the food and help slow the cooling process.
Let’s say you have a pan of BBQ pork sandwiches that you need to hold for more time than you originally thought. By combining base and overhead heat, you can support these increased hold times. Simply place your pan of food on the base warmer and then flip the switch for the overhead heater — and your tasty sandwiches are good to go for longer. The increased flexibility puts you in the position to keep food at the best temps to keep your customers happy.
3. Thermostatic control
Most buffet warmers come standard with either infinite or thermostatic temperature controls. With infinite controls, heat settings simply range from low to high; there's no actual temperature options on the dial. On the other hand, thermostatic controls provide specific temperature settings for your equipment. Knowing which controls to select can make a big difference.
Selecting a drop-in buffet warmer with thermostatic features is often the better choice. That’s because a precise temperature setting encourages increased energy efficiency by adjusting to the thermostatic need of the unit. In addition, these types of controls provide more consistency, which allows you to establish standard operating procedures that outline the exact holding temperatures for different foods.
No question, maintaining the quality of hot-held foods is one of the biggest challenges for foodservice operations. And of course, some meals hold up better than others. For example, a hearty and delicious chicken soup can hold for hours at the right temperature without compromising quality in the slightest. But try holding hamburgers for more than a short period, and the quality quickly deteriorates.
One way to maintain your foods’ integrity and boost your hold time is by purchasing equipment with an added humidity feature. By adding the slightest touch of moisture to holding environments, you can maintain the delicious flavor and texture of your buffet items that much better. Drop-in buffet warmers don’t typically have a humidity feature, but consider if other equipment like a humidified drawer warmer or cabinet are the right supplement for your drop-in warmer. Oftentimes, you need to hold your prepped food for a period of time before it makes its way to the buffet, and this could be a great addition to consider.
5. Safety and sanitation standards
A recent survey found that nine out of ten people said the cleanliness of an establishment determines if they’ll be a repeat customer or not. Your counters, floor and buffet line can influence the way people view the safety of your food. So keep your sanitation expectations high. For starters, establish a standard operating procedure for cleaning protocols and stick to them. That way, all your staff will be on the same page, and your space will look as good as your food tastes.
In addition, there are regulations and codes that apply to commercial kitchen equipment. For example, almost all health departments require that equipment meets specific standards for safety and sanitation. Purchasing units certified with the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) or Underwriters Laboratory (UL) is one of the best ways to ensure your equipment easily matches with regulations. In fact, most health inspectors look for these certifications while conducting an inspection. It’s always best to be well-informed, as regulations and standards can change quickly. Be sure to check with your local health department before making any equipment purchases.
Drop-in buffet warmers are a perfect addition for many types of foodservice establishments. These solutions offer an integrated look, while preserving the quality and temperature of foods on the buffet line. We’ve covered a lot today, but we’ve only just scratched the surface. Want to gain a better understanding of drop-in buffet warmers? Connect with a Hatco representative to discuss your unique needs.
Want to do a little browsing first? Take a look at our drop-in buffet warmers here.