Technology is Bringing Ice Machines Into The Spotlight

At first glance, an ice machine may seem like a straightforward piece of restaurant equipment. But, from cooling ingredients to complementing a cocktail’s presentation, ice performs a diverse variety of functions in the kitchen and behind the bar. As the technology behind these foodservice foot soldiers advances, operators are looking for machines that don’t just perform the requisite cooling, but allow them to enhance customer experience.

TECHNOLOGY AND ICE MACHINES – THE CHILL FACTOR

The three basic types of ice produced by ice machines are cube, nugget and flaked — each of which offer different characteristics for operators to leverage. Cube-ice melts slowly, making it ideal for minimizing dilution in cold drinks and cocktails. Nugget-ice can also be used in drinks, offering slow-melting qualities along with a softer texture that makes it easy to chew. Flaked or shaved ice is moldable and soft, so it’s well suited to displaying chilled meats and seafood.

“Nugget ice is super cool and is going to be one of the emerging [varieties] of ice you’re going to see more of,” says Josh Wolfe, director of Sales in Ontario for Food Service Solutions. “It has more to it than just cooling effect; it has great texture and is fun to chew. It soaks up the flavour.” Nugget ice was first popularized by U.S. fast-food chain Sonic, with “Sonic ice” garnering a cult following for its crunchy, chewable texture.

“The overall trend is toward nugget ice,” agrees Trey Hoffman, Hoshizaki America Inc.’s product manager for Ice and Water. Hoffman notes nugget-ice machines are more expensive and require more maintenance than cube-ice machines, but also offer a way for operators to stand out in a competitive market. “If you have four people in a car and, all things are equal, one of those people is an ice chewer, they’re going to say ‘let’s go to Sonic’ because they have that chewable ice,” explains Hoffman. “Those little differences can make a big difference overall.”

Both Wolfe and Hoffman agree the ability of nugget ice to absorb the flavour of its surrounding liquid has potential beyond quick-service chains. “I’ve begun playing around a little bit with cocktails [served] with nugget ice,” says Wolfe. “After you drink your cocktail on the rocks, you can spend a few minutes chewing on this ice to have a secondary experience.”

Wolfe adds there are now various small-sized nugget-ice machines on the market that can easily fit under the counter in most bar set-ups — a smart choice for bars interested in producing a small volume of nugget ice to complement a few select drinks in their cocktail program.

Ice is a key part of the drink program at Braven, Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality’s (O&B) steakhouse in the JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District. Julien Lavoie, O&B’s director of Operations in Alberta, says the restaurant uses a combination of ice machines and hand-chipped ice for its cocktail menu. “The ice actually changes the dynamic of the drink,” he explains. “You mix the same ingredients over a large cube, rather than in a shaker with an ounce of shaved ice, and it’s going to taste very different.”

In addition to its current cube-ice machine, Lavoie says Braven will soon be adding a flaked-ice machine to its arsenal. “We’re going to be introducing a cocktail with shaved ice and champagne — almost like a champagne snow cone,” he says.

Like most bars and restaurants, Braven makes its large-format ice cubes (cubes that are bigger than about one inch) by hand; however, Hoffman says Hoshizaki is aiming to change that. “Right now, the large-format-ice market is not served by machines; it’s served by people hand-making this ice with molds or presses,” explains Hoffman.

In Q2 of 2020, Hoffman says Hoshizaki will be introducing a sphere-ice machine that can produce balls of ice around 1.8 inches in diameter. Marketed toward bars and restaurants with high-end cocktail programs, the sphere-ice machine aims to automate the time-consuming process of making large-format ice by hand.

At a projected list price of US$12,000, the sphere-ice machine is a bigger investment than most ice machines, but Hoffman says it could be a game-changer for the right operators.

KEEP ON KEEPING ON WITH TECHNOLOGY AND ICE MACHINES

New technology is making it easier for operators to detect and solve problems with their ice machines. Many Hoshizaki ice machines are now capable of using a 3rd-party remote monitoring system from Fastcomm, which allows operators to check on the status of their machines using a computer or smartphone.

“You can see how much ice it’s making and, if there’s an error, you’ll get a notification,” says Hoffman. “Remote monitoring gives you the ability to do predictive maintenance. You can find out there’s a problem when it occurs and respond accordingly, so it’s going to prevent downtime,” he adds.

In spite of technological advances, cleaning continues to be one of the biggest maintenance challenges for operators. “[Ice machines] have all the magic qualities you need for biological growth,” explains Hoffman. “They have water and they have oxygen; if they’re [located] in a restaurant, especially a pizza or a fried-chicken restaurant, they have plenty of nutrition in terms of flour.”

Hoffman says while most ice machines need to be cleaned every six months, machines set in restaurants where a lot of flour is used are at particular risk for developing mold and need to be cleaned more frequently. Cleaning and maintenance routines for ice machines are not one-size-fits-all; they vary based on the environment in which the ice machine is located.

“I’m looking for that magic bullet of a technology that prevents biological growth in ice machines so you don’t ever have to clean it or you have to clean it very infrequently,” says Hoffman. “But of all the technologies available to us right now — none of them do it 100%.”

As Wolfe points out, regular cleaning and maintenance may be a short-term inconvenience but, in addition to preventing potentially unhealthy conditions, they ultimately save operators money over the long-term. “The better you clean the machine, the more efficiently it will run,” says Wolfe. “That means environmentally, the cost goes down and, to the operator, it also means the operating cost goes down. It means more money in their pocket.”

OLD RELIABLE

While new technology opens up opportunities for operators to get creative with ice, many continue to be satisfied with basic, well-made ice machines that can hold up to the wear-and-tear of high-volume service.

Zac Woo, head bartender at Toronto restaurant Baro, says the restaurant uses three ice machines (two Kold-Drafts and a Hoshizaki) across its four floors to keep up with its large demand for ice. “As a bar manager or just an operator, things that matter to me about an ice machine are: Is it reliable? Does it produce enough ice? Is the ice consistent?” says Woo.

He says for busy establishments such as Baro, the most important feature of an ice machine is its dependability during busy service times.

Ultimately, the best ice machines offer consistent cooling as well as the ability to elevate an operator’s offerings, adding new textures and dimensions.

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