Taking a page from the pizza and sandwich segments, Tiff’s Casual Grill & Bar gets a lot of mileage from its double-stacked impingement conveyor ovens.
The belt–driven workhorses relieve bottlenecks on the cooking line and turn out a variety of menu items more quickly and consistently than conventional equipment. For nearly three decades, they have helped the five-unit, Pine Brook, N.J.-based Tiff’s chain streamline its kitchen operations and cope with mounting competition from national chains invading its turf, the northern New Jersey suburbs near New York City.
What’s noteworthy is that Tiff’s co-owner-operator Michael Romanelli is not a limited-menu player in pizzas or toasted subs like many conveyor users. Rather, his restaurants boast a 100-item, broadly American menu sprinkled with Italian and other ethnic specialties. The menu runs the gamut from portobello and spinach ravioli to quesadillas, Buffalo wings, Thai calamari, baby-back ribs and New York strip steaks. Check averages are $13 at lunch and $18 at dinner. Annual unit sales range from $2.5 million to $5 million.
The impingement conveyor oven cooks by passing food through a heated chamber on a mechanized belt, and Romanelli started using one back in 1980. Wowed by the throughput he saw in pizza production — for example, he noted that the conveyors in his brother’s pizza shop could crank out 100 pies in 45 minutes — he has adapted it to speed up the full-menu kitchen as well.
“Because I eat, drink and sleep the business, I’m always looking for ways to put out good quality in two or three steps,” said Romanelli, who took his first restaurant job at age 13.
He pointed out that even a seemingly simple item like a sautéed chicken breast is relatively complicated.
“The chef puts oil in the pan, waits for a certain temperature, flours the chicken, sautés it, adds the chives, and so on,” Romanelli said. “Before you know it, this one item has 20 steps.”
Even a brief lapse of concentration results in a burned item and the need to start over. Soon, patrons are waiting impatiently. Enter the impingement conveyor, which uses jets of convection heat to dispel the blanket of cold air that surrounds food as it moves it along the belt. It browns and cooks the product far more quickly than a conventional oven.
Through trial and error, Romanelli learned to convert some popular sauté items to the conveyor, relieving bottlenecks and enhancing consistency and quality. Take shrimp scampi, for example. All the ingredients that a sauté cook needs to systematically and skillfully combine in a pan over an open flame — butter, garlic, scallions, parsley and seasonings and raw shrimp — are preportioned in a casserole dish. When it’s time to pick up an order, a cook simply unwraps the dish and puts it on the conveyor belt.
“After it runs through the oven, you just plate it over warmed linguine and put on a little parsley and garlic bread,” Romanelli said. “I could show anyone how to do that in minutes.”
Romanelli summed up the benefits: “First, we were able to control the cooking time and never worry about undercooking or overcooking an item. Second, we were able to take the thinking away from the chef and the cooks.”
Ultimately, using the conveyor has reduced the workload of the sauté station by at least 50 percent, Romanelli estimated, and the method boasts enhanced speed of service and consistency of food to boot. Ensuring prompt service and table turns are vital for an entrepreneurial restaurant group battling much larger restaurant chains, he said.
Romanelli has found ways to adapt other dishes as well. Lobster tails, for example, take two passes to cook thoroughly in the conveyor because of their size. Chicken breasts for Chicken Parmesan are pounded flat and briefly deep-fried before they are run through the conveyor. Other successes are lasagna, stuffed shells, quesadillas, garlic bread, nachos and tortilla-shell pizzas.
Romanelli is especially proud of his conveyor-cooked Buffalo wings, a lighter alternative to the standard deep-fried version that he claims Tiff’s introduced to New Jersey years ago.
“We run them through a couple of times and toss them in sauce,” he said. “It takes a little longer, but they come out nice and crispy. So we’re offering another healthy product people can enjoy.”