Rapid-cook ovens are a staple in retail foodservice operations, both in supermarkets and c-stores. Their ability to quickly and accurately prepare hot food items makes them invaluable for retailers looking to provide ready-to-eat meals.

But corresponding packaging has always presented a bit of a problem. The high temperatures can do a number on whatever vessel is being used to hold the food.

Welbilt — which includes brands Manitowac, Merrychef, Merco and more — has partnered with packaging company HAVI for what it says is a solution. The line of SIX500 packaging is designed for every step from production to shipping to consumption.

“What I think makes it exciting is that it’s extremely flexible,” says Martin Huddleston, director of culinary sales for Welbilt. “Food manufacturers can package the end user’s food in it, freeze it, ship it, and then it can go right from cold storage into the oven and then into the consumer’s hands.”

What makes the packaging — which is a result of a three-year collaboration between Welbilt and HAVI — is its durability. The fiber-based bowls and platters are able to withstand 500 degrees for up to six minutes, hence the SIX500 name.

And to be specific, it is rated 21CFR by the United States Food and Drug Administration, meaning it’s actually able to withstand temperatures up to 525 degrees.

“Most food items in foodservice operations today are in the oven for probably an average of 90 seconds,” Huddleston says. “There are some that are prepared in 20 or 30 seconds and some that may spend two to three minutes, but the average is around 90 seconds. So being FDA compliant up to six minutes is plenty of time.”

Welbilt and HAVI had to overcome a handful of obstacles in the line’s development. The first, and perhaps biggest, was keeping it from delaminating at such high temperatures. It also needed a sturdy barrier, so it could withstand sauces and foods with high moisture or fat content. Finally, the packaging had to be appealing since it would eventually end up in the consumer’s hands as the food was being eaten. It couldn’t discolor as it was withstanding the high temperatures of the rapid-cook oven.

“All of that has been overcome and the product works great,” Huddleston says. “I have not yet come across a product that doesn’t perform well in the package.”

The next challenge for Welbilt? Finding a paper wrapper that can do the same things that the SIX500 line does.

“What c-store operators have been looking for and haven’t necessarily gotten, when it comes to paper wrapping for sandwiches and things like that, having a product that a fully-assembled sandwich can be wrapped in, stored in, reheated in the Merrychef oven, and then handed off to the consumer,” Huddleston says. “It’s been challenging.”

The primary issue is discoloration, which causes the foodservice operator to re-wrap the food item or to cook it in something else before wrapping it. Either way, it leads to unnecessary handling of the food.

“There is some parchment-like paper out there, but it is extremely costly. That’s been a challenge that I think over the next one, two or three years will be addressed,” Huddleston says. “We’ll see more paper products out there, not just vessels like the HAVI  products, but actual wrappers that can withstand the oven.”

High-speed, high-quality food

One of the biggest challenges in the industry today, according the MTI Products’ Bess Couture, is that people are far more concerned with the quality of their food than before. They’re willing to pay more for less-processed ingredients and they’ll wait longer for it.

“That’s where a huge advantage for MultiChef comes in, as it is one of the few high-speed ovens that does not use microwaves,” she says.

Microwaves can give food a chewy, rubbery texture, especially with items like pizza or baked goods.
“With MultiChef, you still get that top speed cook time, but without the microwave texture,” Couture says. “Instead, items come out crispy, just like they had been cooked in a conventional oven.”