Soft-Serve Ice Cream Machine Buyers' Guide
A soft-serve ice cream machine, also called a frozen yogurt machine, is a great way to add revenue to your existing restaurant or convenience store, and the popularity of ice cream and frozen yogurt shops means you can even base an entire concept around the treats these machines produce.
You should first take into consideration how many flavors you plan to offer and the volume of product you expect to sell. Ice cream machines usually have one or two hoppers, but some may have three heads, which allows the middle head to swirl the two flavors together. If you plan to offer more than two flavors, you will need to take your budget and space as guides in deciding if you are able to get more than one machine.
A frozen yogurt machine's ability to handle different volumes is determined not by its capacity, but by the number of 4-ounce servings the machine can dispense per minute. Low-volume machines can dispense two to three servings per minute, medium-volume machines can dispense three to seven servings per minute, and high-volume machines will be able to dispense seven servings or more per minute per head.
Ice cream machines are available in countertop and floor models. Countertop models are generally low- to medium-volume, and can hold 13 to 28 quarts in one or two hoppers. Floor models are medium- to high-volume and have hoppers that can hold 17 to 32 quarts each, with one or two hoppers per machine. If you predict medium-volume sales and are deciding between a countertop unit and floor model, keep in mind that while output determines the unit's volume designation, a soft serve machine with a lower capacity will need to be refilled more often than a higher-capacity counterpart.
Gravity vs. Pump
There are two methods of getting the mix from the hopper into the freezing cylinder in a frozen yogurt machine. The most common method is gravity. In this method, the hopper is positioned on the top of the machine, and the mix drips down into the freezing cylinder through an air tube or carburetor, which adds air into the soft-serve mix to ensure the correct consistency of the final product. These units are less expensive and are easier to fix and maintain.
The other option is a pump machine. These have the mix stored near the base of the machine in a pressurized hopper that pumps it into the freezing cylinder when needed. These are more expensive and the more complicated design makes service more challenging. However, this design gives users very fine control over the amount of air in the soft serve or frozen yogurt mix, which can greatly impact the flavor and texture of the final product.
As with any equipment that has a refrigeration component, it is important to learn about the machine's installation requirements before you purchase one. Ice cream machines have a compressor, usually mounted near the base of the machine, and will require a certain amount of clearance away from walls and other equipment when installed. When you are considering purchasing any soft serve ice cream machine, take note of the clearance required and ensure that you have enough space to accommodate that. Another option available with some models is a remote compressor, which is installed on the roof of your building or in another room, but can be prohibitively expensive to install. Also check the compressor's horsepower rating, which can help determine how fast the mix will freeze. Mix that freezes quickly will develop smaller ice crystals, resulting in a creamier ice cream.
Environmentally-conscious owners have some extra concerns when shopping for any unit with refrigeration. Many manufacturers are switching over to CFC- and HCFC-free refrigerants, which are much more environmentally-friendly. Another factor is air-cooled versus water-cooled refrigeration. Air-cooled machines are cheaper and easier to maintain, but use more power. Water-cooled machines put out less noise and heat and use less electricity, but can use a lot of water if not used with a cooling tower system. Your region's local energy and water prices may determine which type is best for your business.
There are several special features available that can help you get more value from your frozen yogurt machine. A syrup rail gives you a place to store toppings such as chocolate or caramel, while an integral spindle mixer can save space if you plan on using your ice cream to make milkshakes.
Most models have a low-mix warning light to let you know when it is time to refill the hopper, but some units also have an audible alarm, which can be of great benefit in a busy kitchen or in a retail or buffet location where these lights might not be easily visible.
If you are considering making ice cream, gelato, or sorbet, you may want to consider a continuous-feed batch freezer. These allow you to make large batches of frozen desserts, which the machine then dispenses at a soft-serve-like texture to be placed in a blast chiller to harden.
A major concern that some owners have is cleaning. Because these machines deal with dairy products, which can harbor dangerous bacteria, it is important to clean them on a regular basis. To help with this, some manufacturers offer a faucet hookup on top of the machine to wash out the hoppers, and others have an auto-cleaning function. Auto-cleaning machines will still need to be taken apart for a thorough sanitizing occasionally, but this function can extend the intervals between cleanings.