DALLAS -- There's little debate that retailers are using fresh foods to boost their profile in the eyes of the consumer and differentiate their stores from the competition. Products like specialty produce, fresh-baked artisan breads, hot entrees and gourmet cheeses bring the highest potential for increased profits.However, pursuing this multipoint strategy also carries a high level of liability --

DALLAS -- There's little debate that retailers are using fresh foods to boost their profile in the eyes of the consumer and differentiate their stores from the competition. Products like specialty produce, fresh-baked artisan breads, hot entrees and gourmet cheeses bring the highest potential for increased profits.

However, pursuing this multipoint strategy also carries a high level of liability -- one mistake in freshness, quality or taste, and that hard-earned profile is substantially diminished.

One of the ways operators are protecting the integrity of these perishables and maximizing their appeal is by investing in the right fixtures. In so doing, equipment has emerged as a critical element in the larger effort to build consumer traffic.

At NAFEM 99 -- the biennial trade show sponsored by the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, based in Chicago -- retailers comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the ten market categories represented at the show, according to Steven Cobb, chairman of the NAFEM 99 steering committee.

"More than anything, [retail change] has been driven by consumer demand," he told SN as the final show preparations were underway. "As consumers increase spending on prepared foods, retailers have increased their [commitment]. You see that in the marketplace today, with various operators trying to find their niche or success formula in taking advantage of this opportunity."

The show, running September 29 - October 2 at the Dallas Convention Center here, combines the latest in food-service equipment and supplies with an educational program that examines a host of related issues, from food safety and employee training, to best maintenance practices and work-area design. Popular equipment concepts that are likely to catch the attention of retailers includes cook-chill systems, central kitchens/commissaries, multipurpose equipment and refrigerated food storage.

Supermarket executives will also find common operational elements in the equipment they are using in stores today, according to Cobb, who is also president of Henny Penny Corporation, Eaton, Ohio.

"There is a higher emphasis on pieces of equipment that allow you to maintain quality, but [complete] your preparation and cooking at non-peak times," he said. "Or, you have equipment that is faster and more efficient at peak times."

The goal is to install devices in such a way that store associates can work efficiently "through the peak period or around the peak period," he added.

Regardless of function, a piece of equipment must represent reliability, flexibility and simplicity. Cobb said that these standards are the benchmarks that dominate the show floor.

For example, "when I think flexibility, I think 'multifunction' -- I can take care of 80% of my menu within one particular piece of food-service equipment," he said, adopting a retailer's point of view.

Even different cooking methods fall under the standards: "Steam is multifunctional. It allows you to cook more than one type of entree in a single piece of equipment. It's also forgiving, and fast," continued Cobb.

"The whole trend is towards what we call a 'set-and-forget' control atmosphere, so that training can be minimized -- you and I can walk up to a piece of equipment that you or I have never seen before and within three to five minutes have a pretty good idea how to get that equipment up and running," he said.

"It's very simple and very basic, yet behind those touchpads is a complex operating environment that allows you to have sophisticated equipment," he added.

The reliability-flexibility-simplicity formula extends to the educational forums as well. There are more than 50 seminars, roundtables and demonstrations covering all aspects of equipment's role in the food industry. The information is presented as the NAFEM 99 Solution Series, and is divided into formats. The Foodservice Experts Forum is made of of theater-style seminars moderated by leading industry professionals knowledgeable about facility design, production techniques, menuing, food safety and trends.

Another segment in the Solution Series operates more in a classroom atmosphere. The Solution Center allows attendees to view presentations in a teaching kitchen where equipment and supplies are actually present and demonstrated.

But the most notable segment is brand new this year, according to Cobb. The new Food Safety Showcase reflects the importance manufacturers and their agents have placed on this issue. Here, a "one-stop resource" has been designed specifically for learning about and exploring state-of-the-art food-safety tools. Educational displays reinforce key elements of best safety practices, in the form of training literature, video displays and a staff to answer questions.

However, while manufacturers have made impressive strides in developing equipment and components that protect food from pathogens, Cobb stressed that equipment can be only one part of a comprehensive food-safety plan.

"Knowledge is so important to understand food-safety processes," he said. "And, it's important for the retailer to have the processes in place with a training formula. You have to make sure that, in your food preparation and cooking, your operators understand what they can -- and cannot -- do as it relates to food safety."

Indeed, any NAFEM seminar on training can improve not only the safety quotient, but also issues affecting the bottom line. The training focus can be found in such sessions as Equipment Innovation: Labor Solutions Through Technology; Fry Station Management; and Using It Right: Teaching Equipment Basics to Employees.

The inaugural showcase, launched in conjunction with September's designation as National Food Safety Education Month, will provide a spectrum of products and services that operators can integrate to create a reliable food-service production and merchandising environment.

"It's certainly going to catch the eye of all industry segments," predicted Cobb. "It's going to be huge, because you have temperature-monitoring devices, receiving and storage tools and labeling and tracking systems. You've got sanitary kitchenware and supplies, refrigeration, hot holding, insulated food and beverage containers and worker-hygiene tools. You've [also] got safety compliance books -- all kinds of things dealing with the food-safety issue."

The structure of the Solution Series integrates the food-safety theme throughout all three components, so that something learned in one can be used and built upon in subsequent seminars and discussions, he said. The safety message is promoted through literature, videos and an expert question-and-answer staff assigned specifically to the Food Safety Showcase.

For example, the education sessions planned include Food Safety and Successful HMR; Picking the 'Best of the Best' Equipment for Food Safety; The Future of Food Safety Policy: The Conference on Food Protection and You; Blast Chillers: A Key to Food Code Compliance; Tools of HACCP: Thermometers in Retail Food Safety and Microbe Detectives: Sampling Techniques for Kitchen Contamination.

A returning highlight to this year's show is the NAFEM 99 Culinary Contest. Over the course of the show, 20 chef finalists will compete in four industry segments: business & industry, college & university, healthcare and restaurant. Additionally, this year, NAFEM has added a special student chef category.

Using the equipment and supplies also found on the exhibition floor, the finalists have four hours to prepare a total of 8 meals that must include an appetizer, salad, entree and dessert; while the students must successfully plate a menu of eight three-course meals in the same time period.

According to Cobb, a visit to the competition is valuable for retailers, because as they "try to grow their knowledge and [build] a more upscale food-service environment, the contest is going to give them access to some leading-edge techniques."