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As spring breezes morph into summer heat waves, ice-cold beverages are one of the best ways to attract new customers and keep them coming back again and again.
Ice serves as the foundation for any beverage program. Accordingly, the type, placement and maintenance of a convenience store's ice machine or machines should be maximized to ensure the highest-quality summertime drinks.
Competition for customers is fierce in the convenience store market. One way to increase revenue is to differentiate a beverage program and attract as many customers as possible by offering two ice form choices: chewable and cube.
Chewable ice, also known as nugget ice, is an ideal complement to summer beverages. Its easy-on-the-teeth characteristics leave "ice-chewing" consumers wanting more. Simultaneously, this versatile ice form provides rapid cooling while taking on the flavor of the beverage. Store owners benefit because chewable ice machines are energy efficient, cut water costs and provide maximum liquid displacement, which decreases costs per cup.
For non-ice chewers, cube ice's familiar form provides good liquid displacement as well. Cube ice melts slowly, enabling customers to enjoy the taste and integrity of beverages longer. Convenience stores offering both chewable and cube ice often can make both available within the same beverage station via two dispenser heads.
Keeping It Cool
It is important for store owners to choose not only the best type of ice form, but also an ice machine able to operate efficiently within the environment where it is installed.
In order to produce ice, machines dissipate heat away from mechanical components through air or water coolers. Air-cooled machines are known for being more energy efficient than water-cooled machines, which require a significant amount of water to operate.
Air-cooled machines use electric fans to remove heat produced by mechanical elements. In an enclosed environment, this ventilation can create significantly increased temperatures, even damaging nearby equipment. To avoid this scenario, some air-cooled machines have a remote condenser -- a fan placed on the roof of the building to push heat outside the establishment. A remote condenser increases ice production and reduces air temperature around the ice machine. Several air-cooled commercial ice machines are Energy Star qualified.
Water-cooled machines circulate cool water around mechanical components. Despite their effectiveness in drawing heat out of the machine and the building, water-cooled machines are often more costly due to significant water consumption.
Ice consumers and c-store owners alike require ice that enhances the taste of cold drinks. High-quality ice with no discoloration, off-taste or smell is ensured through preventive maintenance, water filtration and cost-effective machine operation.
Ice quality relies heavily on water quality. Seventy percent of ice machine issues are due to poor water quality, delayed water fill, or little to no water supply. Consequently, ice may be irregularly shaped, production may be reduced, and the taste, odor and clarity of the ice may be adversely impacted.
Common water problems include:
-- Chlorine is added to many public water systems to eliminate harmful bacteria and microorganisms, yet high levels of chlorine can corrode metal and stainless-steel parts in ice machines.
-- Minerals such as calcium and magnesium suspended in hard water can cause clogging and scratching when passing through the machine. Scale or lime deposits may also develop inside the machine and act as insulation, causing the machine to work harder and increase operational costs.
-- Hard water causes some establishments to use salt-infused water softeners. The salt content can negatively affect the taste of the ice and potentially discourage customers from returning.
These water conditions are best resolved through high-quality water filtration systems that suit the specific needs of each application. High-quality systems can filter up to 90 percent of chlorine, particulates and salt to remove unwanted taste, color and odor from tainted water.
Convenience store owners should examine their water supply and operating environment in order to purchase the best water filtration for their operation. For example, residential filters are not designed to meet the demands of commercial applications.
In addition to proper water filtration systems, a regular cleaning and sanitation regimen is key to ice machine efficiency. Inadequate maintenance can cause scale, lime, bacteria, mold, algae and other harmful microorganisms to build up inside the machine. Deposit buildup can result in poor ice quality, reduced ice production and eventual failure to operate.
Cleaning and sanitizing an ice machine consists of running a cleaning solution through the water system twice -- once to remove buildup and the second time for sanitization. A technician should clean and sanitize all water-related components including the water distributor, ice-thickness sensor, cube-size sensor, evaporator and water-holding reservoir.
The right cleaning solution to match the type of evaporator used is crucial. Machines with nickel-plated evaporators require a nickel-safe cleaning solution, which is widely available from local service companies.
Generally, ice machines should be cleaned twice a year. Ice machine manufacturers provide step-by-step cleaning instructions specific to each ice machine model. For older machines, cleaning/sanitizing information is often available online. Newer machines may feature a semi-automatic cleaning button that guides the store owners through the cleaning and sanitization process. In some cases, manufacturers offer training on how to clean and sanitize ice machines properly and diagnose prospective problems.
A Chilly Atmosphere
Along with variety and ice quality, customers seek convenience stores that have an enjoyable atmosphere. To accomplish this, store layout is crucial. Placement of equipment is highly strategic, especially for ice machines.
It is important to carefully analyze a machine's heat/air circulation characteristics to prevent mechanical damage. Surrounding machines can be affected by the heat or air circulation the ice machine creates, and airflow restriction may negatively impact the ice machine's function.
When using an ice machine in an island beverage station, consider the noise characteristics of the specific model. A loud beverage station may degrade the customer's experience. Other areas of the store may absorb noise better and offer a more soothing environment.
Another important factor when determining how large a unit to purchase is customer demand. A store owner should check with the manufacturer to determine how many pounds of daily ice production is needed for its customer count and what size of machine is appropriate. This planning will ensure customers always have ice for their drinks.
Some convenience store owners manually fill ice makers, which requires significant effort and can be disruptive to a store's environment. By installing an ice machine above a dispenser in place of, or in addition to, an ice machine in the back of the house, the ice is automatically stored. This design increases the amount of time employees can spend improving the customer experience.
Ice machines are hot commodities in the summertime. Customers are more likely to quench their summer thirst at convenience stores that provide a variety of quality ice-form options, a great atmosphere and attentive customer service.
Jeff Biel is a product manager at Scotsman Ice Systems. He is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University with a degree in chemical engineering. Biel also earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the Keller Graduate School of Management.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.