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    FRESH FOODS: Quicker cooking, plumper profits

    Buehler's Fresh Foods was after a prepared food offering with better quality, and operations with greater efficiency. It found both in an equipment upgrade.

    In cutting-edge food retailing, all eyes are focused on "quick and convenient," and that fact was hardly lost on Buehler's Fresh Foods when it recently sought to upgrade its prepared food program. The 13-store chain wanted to stay on top of burgeoning consumer demand for the category, but to do that it first had to address some problems that were holding it back.

    Over the past year, Wooster, Ohio-based Buehler's thoroughly evaluated its existing cooking technology. For one thing, the open fryer units it was using were to blame for the inconsistent and often dry texture and appearance of its chicken and some other foods central to the program. The grocer decided to it had to improve product quality, and at the same time ratchet up its prepared food operation's efficiency and profit margins.

    Quality concerns

    The chain had a reputation to uphold, according to Roland Krueger, Buehler's deli/bakery merchandiser.

    "At Buehler's we strive to create a total atmosphere of comfort and convenience for customers," he explains, adding that an integral part of that strategy is a highly functional, high-quality prepared food program.

    But the quality issues "threatened to drive customers away," admits Krueger. He and his teammates turned to Cleveland, Ohio-based foodservice equipment distributor Astro, Inc. for help.

    "After discussing Buehler's vision and goals -- and hearing about some of the food quality concerns they were having -- we recommended that they purchase Henny Penny equipment," recalls Astro president Sherri Burton.

    Burton accompanied Krueger and other members of the Buehler's team to a hands-on equipment demonstration at Henny Penny's Eaton, Ohio headquarters. "When we visited the Henny Penny headquarters," notes Krueger, "they thoroughly addressed any and all of our questions and concerns we had about switching products."

    Buehler's ended up purchasing several types of Henny Penny equipment. The first component, and the centerpiece of the upgrade, was an electric high-volume pressure fryer with automatic pressurization to ensure product quality. The unit features a Computron 8000 control option for programmable operations, a built-in filtration system that extends shortening life at optimal levels, and an insulated fry pot and high-efficiency heating elements that help save energy.

    Buehler's also liked the utilitarian attributes of the PFE-561 fryer, which is able to cook up to 18 pounds of food in a single load.

    Krueger says the new fryers were installed quickly and efficiently. He and his team saw an immediate improvement in operational efficiency, which in turn prompted them to overhaul the rest of the program with new equipment, including Henny Penny's HEC-104 Hot Express Case, the HMR-123 two-tier heated merchandiser, and the SCR-6 countertop rotisserie with the Therma-Vec Even Heat Process that Henny Penny says combines infrared heating with cross-flow convection, and drive assembly, drip trays, and drain pans that are easily disassembled for quick cleanup.

    Krueger gives Henny Penny high marks for how easily its new equipment was rolled out into Buehler's stores. It was crucial that the equipment switchover didn't lead to periods of product downtime or product inconsistencies, and the new system was up and running without a hitch, he says.

    Astro conducted training sessions for key associates in each store, making the transition all the smoother. "They even did a follow-up training [session] as well...which has helped make life a lot easier for me," says Krueger.

    The increased efficiency of Buehler's new cooking equipment compared with the stores' old setup has handily translated into profits that "have greatly increased since we began using the products," notes Krueger. "We were hoping for an increase, but what we have seen has exceeded even our own expectations."

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