When we’re staring into the window in front of a bakery or a deli, our mouths watering for our favorite “Dagwood” sandwich or that yummy jelly donut, we already know that our choice is going to taste great. Part of why we know that, though, is because of how tempting it looks. And that tempting presentation can many times be attributed to the work of Structural Concepts, a manufacturer of food and floral display cases for the foodservice, supermarket and convenience store markets.
The company began in 1973, according to vice president of sales and marketing Jeff Schneider, “in the traditional fashion of big business: out of a garage.” The company started with a patent for a tube and joint system for department store display systems, and has since morphed into refrigeration systems used for bakery, fresh food and floral displays. “The original technology has long since become obsolete,” Schneider says. “We no longer do anything for department stores. Now we’re all about fresh food and flowers, and refrigeration is the core of our business.”
Among its major innovations, Structural Concepts claims the Breeze Refrigeration System. This features a slide-out refrigeration system with flexible synthetic hoses replacing the traditional copper tubing, which can easily break. The system slides in and out easily, allowing for easier cleaning and maintenance. It also offers a computerized microprocessor that not only regulates defrost and temperature, but performs a series of diagnostic tests to inform technicians of any problems.
One of the most important innovations, according to Schneider, is the patent pending Clean Sweep™ system for cleaning the condenser coils of the cases. “We found that often our customers weren’t cleaning the coils of the machinery as often as necessary,” Schneider says. “In fact, close to 50 percent of our service calls had to do with dirty coils.” Hence, the invention of the Clean Sweep system, an electronically controlled brush mechanism that automatically cleans the condenser coil daily of dust and debris to ensure proper air ventilation and prevent performance issues resulting from restricted air flow.
One of the best applications of the Breeze and Clean Sweep system is in the growing category of refrigerated “grab ‘n go” air-screen cases. These cases, which dramatically increase sales by eliminating doors as a barrier between the shopper and the food, are more susceptible to temperature and performance problems because they are wide open. The preventative maintenance benefits of Breeze and Clean Sweep eliminate many of these problems.
Schneider further notes the growing demand for combination display cases, which increase display case flexibility. “For example, you could have a hot chicken display on top, with a section below for ‘grab ‘n go’ side dishes or cold bottled beverages. There are also display cases available for which the refrigeration can be turned on and off. “You can use the same display case for non-refrigerated pastries at breakfast and refrigerated sandwiches for lunch,” Schneider says. “If a store is limited in space, you want to maximize menu flexibility, both for different day parts, as well as long term menu planning” he explains.
Hot in the 1990s
All of these milestones started happening for Structural Concepts in 1989, when several of the company’s managers attended a European trade show and learned several new ideas that were novel to the United States market, according to Schneider. “Out of that trip came two new lines, and within 18 months we had the number one market share in the business,” Schneider relates. These two lines, The Contempra and Optima series, put Structural Concepts on the map, and the company hasn’t looked back since.
The company expanded from strictly supermarket bakery cases to other areas, including floral display cases in the mid 1990s, and more recently, a full line of deli merchandisers. In 2001, Structural Concepts entered the foodservice industry, including restaurants, coffee shops and a variety of institutional feeders including universities, hospitals and businesses in its customer base. Foodservice has grown quickly to 40 percent of its business, according to Schneider. Major customers include Starbucks, Safeway, Publix, Wal Mart, Albertson’s, Stop & Shop, Mrs. Fields, Barnes & Noble, Borders Books and Music, and the Sheraton and Hilton hotel chains.
Health, energy concerns
Schneider finds that one major industry trend to which Structural Concepts must respond is industry consolidation, driven by Wal Mart. “This has put price pressure on everyone, in terms of manufacturing efficiency. We need to keep costs down and quality up,” he says.
In addition, the company constantly monitors health codes and energy consumption standards. “We’re currently doing research into energy efficient systems that will reduce not only energy but noise as well,” Schneider says.
Structural Concepts employs 250 people at its manufacturing facility in Muskegon, Mich., that boasts 180,000 square feet of space. All products are designed on three-dimensional CAD software, with finished designs transmitted directly to computerized production machines. The facility houses an innovative foam-in-place production line. This is the preferred method of insulation for refrigerated cases, as it is more energy efficient and it provides more structural integrity. In addition, there are multiple UL approved refrigeration test chambers. Inside the test labs, temperature and humidity levels are controlled to simulate a variety of operating environments. Refrigeration data is collected to certify product performance. Industrial lasers are used to cut steel components. They are fully automatic and run 24 hours a day. They can page a technician in the event of a malfunction. An additional 1,200-square-foot production test room is used to test all refrigeration units on all products prior to shipping.
Right now, Structural Concepts has the number one market share in bakery display products, and hopes to leap to that height in its other segments in the near future. To do that, the company is separating itself from its competitors by offering a wide variety of value-added features. “Among our core elements, I see ease of ownership, operational simplicity and the flexibility of combination cases as our standout points,” Schneider says. “We’re a classic example of mass customization. We customize products and we use lean manufacturing to produce them at standard product prices.
“The company tagline is ‘One part passion, two parts science,’ which I think differentiates us as well,” Schneider says. “We have a passion for food, backed up with the technical expertise to present it beautifully, safely and with minimal work for the operator.”