Stir Up Customer Thrills With Display Cooking

Looking for a quick infusion of customers and revenue? Display cooking can quickly fill the bill.

Display cooking stations come and go—literally—which makes location selection, planning and preparation all the more critical.

FoodService Director - display cooking“What’s really interesting is that everyone thinks you automatically have to have the café built for [display cooking],” says Julie Jones, director of nutrition services at The Ohio State University (OSU) Medical Center in Columbus, OH, “but you can do a lot on a shoestring [budget], too. Some may feel that if it’s not a permanent station it must be sort of a pain from a back-of-the-house perspective. But our customers are thrilled with it, and that’s what counts.”

Where the station gets set up depends on the availability of a power source, says Jones. In OSU’s case, the dining area’s original design included an abundance of power lines, many of them in columns, which means greater flexibility. “We even have a station that basically wraps around a column,” she says.

Prep begins early, but the actual display station gets set up during breakfast service, says Jones. The process takes from two to four foodservice staffers between two and three hours to complete. OSU doesn’t use gas power, preferring to rent electrical equipment or stick with basic butane burners. Sinks are nearby, and thus unnecessary for the station.

Pathways: Jones calls transporting raw materials from the kitchen the most challenging facet of operating a temporary display station. “We have to figure out our traffic pathways to keep people moving through our cafeteria, and product moving through,” she says. She and her staff are fortunate to have a pair of doors, on opposite sides of the dining room, that connect with the back of the house, “so we can get a little bit more throughput than we would have if we had just one door.”

Customer access to the station is regulated by stanchions that form a single line. To build traffic, Jones always has one of her assistant directors, Berta Lucas, “out selling the event, hawking the event, meeting and greeting the people and directing them to through the line. If we’re making omelets and there are five omelet stations she will direct them to one of them.”

Abundant food: “You want [customers] to see food, and abundant food,” says Joe Maher, vice president for customer support for Foodbuy, a division of Compass Group, and a one-time Eurest chef. “You have all your mis en place [supplies] in front of them displayed in nice big piles with different colors.” More food than will be needed is unnecessary, he adds.

Compass chefs generally place cold food in display plans, bowls and/or containers on ice in front of diners, and hot food in steam table pans. While many operators add mirrors strategically placed over food for added emphasis, Maher does not, although he will instruct chefs to keep the food tilted a bit toward the customers “so that it shows well. You also keep it nice and full so that they’re looking at the food instead of the pan.”

Before the station even opens for business, chefs need to make sure they have everything that they need to do their dish. “You want to have your vegetables and your proteins, and usually there is some sort of sauce involved,” says Maher. “It’s also good to have impulse items on hand. So for example, if you’re doing a pasta dish you might want to have some rolls there. The customers might also want to buy some garlic bread, and maybe a beverage. This allows them to come to the station and get everything they need, like a one-stop shop.”

Any size: The space needn’t be large, Maher notes. “We do some things on a portable chef’s table. You can use a 6-ft. banquet table, or even less space than that. The important thing is to have a chef out front working with the food so that the customers can see him, you get that interaction, as well as the sensory stimulation from the smell and the sizzle.” More often than not, the tables have a small shelf underneath where chefs can keep all their supplies. 

Stations should be located “somewhat close” to the kitchen, Maher suggests, “but as long as you have a runner, someone who can help keep the station stocked, you’re all right.  Obviously, the closer to the kitchen you are the simpler [things will run], but that’s definitely not something that should keep you from doing it.”

As for apparel, Maher prefers traditional chef whites. “If you’re doing an ethnic dish you might have someone wear the ethnic garb, which might attract some attention.”

Music is “absolutely” a plus, Maher believes. “If it’s ethnic cuisine you want to have ethnically themed music, and around the holidays you certainly want to have some holiday music. It adds another dimension. You want to create an atmosphere: it’s the food, it’s the way people look, it’s the customer interaction and the music. So if you’re preparing Cajun cuisine, you want tohave some New Orleans jazz playing.”                           

Selling the Sizzle

Foodservice handles diversity in job trainingFood can sometimes sell itself—but a display station needs the right person.

Training a chef to handle a display cooking station means instilling a degree of salesmanship and inspiring confidence—as well as emphasizing the need to maintain well-organized, meticulously clean facilities.

A chef working at an exhibition station “needs a personality,” says Tom Doehm, corporate chef for Metz & Associates, a contract caterer based in Dallas, PA. “As I’m looking at display I’m trying to not only show a product but to entice the customer into trying the product. If I have someone doing display who interacts well with people and gets into conversation with them, that’s great. It’s almost like trying to gain their confidence.”

Small talk, big boost: Indeed, Doehm explains, guests generally love to chitchat with the chef as he describes the product he’s preparing. “All of a sudden the customers are saying, ‘You know, this guy may be right. If he says I’ll like it, then I’ll try.’ Once you get them to try it—and of course assuming you’re putting out a good product—you usually have them.”

But can that relationship with customers be taught? Doehm believes that, to some degree at least, it can. “I think there is some training that’s involved,” he says. “Obviously you want to stay away from [discussing] some very personal things. You want to stay with very generic questions, even if it’s talking about the weather, what’s going on out there today, what are you doing in this part of town, that kind of stuff.” To help develop the gift of gab even in shy chefs, Doehm has them do some public speaking, which adds poise and confidence.

Training can also help display chefs smooth over mistakes they may make. “You have to know your product and you have to think,” says Doehm. “If you make a mistake out there, is it something you can cover up so they don’t know it’s a mistake? If you’re talking about the preparation and you realize you’ve put something in the pan in the wrong sequence, can you get past it?”

The secret is to do “a misdirection,” he adds. “You kind of turn their attention to something else so they don’t realize that you already put that in.”

Training for display prep also involves teaching chefs to work “extremely neat and clean,” he says. “You’ve got to be very precisely organized, because you don’t have a whole lot of room to spread product out. You can’t make it look sloppy or you lose the customer right off the bat.” The initial set up must include everything that will be needed, since the chef can’t leave the station to go get it in the middle of preparing a dish.

The type of containers to use depends on the items being prepared. If food prep is scheduled to go on for an extended period some items may need to be iced down or refrigerated, or heated. “If you’re just setting up for a very brief demo you might want to use nice glass containers,” says Doehm. “They look nicer, they’re neater, and will make things look a little more organized—and show people that you’re not hiding anything.”

Chefs must also be trained to wipe down their areas as they cook. “It will have a chance to air-dry, so you’re still meeting health codes,” Doehm notes. “If you’re temping with a thermometer, make sure that you wipe it down with the wipe that is set aside for the thermometer only to make sure that it stays clean and sanitized. A lot of people don’t do that.”

Tools of the Trade

Like snowflakes, no two display stations are alike–but they do share some basics.

The tools of the trade for cooking in front of customers are many and varied, leading some to think of a display cooking station as almost the culinary equivalent of a Swiss Army knife.

What a display cooking operation needs “really depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” says Barry Greenberg, fsd and executive chef at the Iowa Memorial Union, the student union building on the campus of the University of Iowa. “If it’s a one-time situation or a long-term station within a designated spot—for instance, if it’s a demo station that’s going to be in the spot every day—then it’s going to be built with equipment, hookups and things of that nature that are pre-existing. That way you’re not reinventing it every single time you go out there.”

Naturally, a permanent display area means a wider menu and greater flexibility—for example, the ability to barbecue or grill over an open flame. “That’s not something I would want to try in the middle of the dining room somewhere,” Greenberg suggests. “When it comes to live cooking versus assembly, I think that would be a good place to draw the line.”

Following are common components of display cooking stations, according to Steve Shipley, director of culinary relations at Johnson & Wales Univ.:

  • Induction systems come in handy, Shipley insists, “when you work at a law firm in a 50- or 60-story high-rise in New York City and you’re on the 26th floor with no exposed flames allowed.”
  • An 8-ft., cloth-skirted table is also necessary, says Shipley.
  • Induction burner and sauté pans, which need to have something magnetic in their base in order to work with the induction cooker.
  • Refrigeration is “a good idea,” he says. “What’s important to remember is that when food is being heated you’re taking it over 140°F. If you have any type of proteins such as chicken or meat you should either have them refrigerated or on ice so that they stay under 40°F.”
  • Having a hand sink is not a necessity, Shipley says, “but you have to have access to some type of water somewhere. Whether you’re making omelets or sautéing different dishes you’ve got to clean those pans somehow.”
  • Utensils include a pair of tongs, some type of spatula, wooden spoons for stirring foods like risotto, and tasting spoons for yourself and guests. Cutting boards may also be needed, and color coded ones to help avoid cross contamination are helpful.

“A nice thing to have when you’re doing display cooking is a table in front of you on which you have your display set up and a second table behind you where you can store your backup items,” says Shipley. “Sometimes these display tables actually have shelves underneath where you can store plates, extra pans or other supplies.”

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