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Stainless steel serves up a perfect commercial recipe

Keywords: Tags  stainless steel, food service industry, appliances, restaurants, substitution

The commercial and institutional food service industry is a market "where stainless is a must," according to Markus A. Moll, managing director and senior market research analyst at Steel & Metals Market Research GmbH, Reutte, Austria. He said the properties of stainless steels are perfect for any application where there is contact with food.

"Stainless has excellent hygienic properties and it can be cleaned well," a spokesman for Allegheny Technologies Inc., Pittsburgh, said. "It is also very durable, which is important given how often the food equipment, cookware and preparation surfaces are used and how aggressively it must be cleaned."

That, he said, is what makes it attractive to the food service industry, rather than its pleasing appearance, as is the case with home appliances. "Food processing facilities (perhaps the major use of stainless steels within food service) need to be kept clean," he said.

A Specialty Steel Industry of North America (SSINA) spokesman agreed, noting that the food service industry is able to use harsh cleaning agents on stainless without yielding to rust.

That is because even if the stainless surface is scratched, either during the cleaning process or during the course of food preparation, the chromium oxide layer on the stainless will re-form, thus preventing corrosion, Moll said, who noted that there are even some stainless steel products that have an antibacterial coating. "But they really haven’t taken off that much in the food service industry as they are very expensive. They have found more use in the health-care industry, where the antibacterial properties are more important," he said. "Restaurants clean their stainless surfaces, equipment and cookware constantly, and that is sufficient."

Stainless also has advantageous heating properties, and cookware made from stainless steel allows foods to cook more uniformly, the SSINA spokesman said. The drawing and other mechanical properties also are a plus for makers of food service equipment, especially for Type 304 and other 300-series stainless steels.

However, in recent years there has been quite a bit of substitution from 300-series to lower-nickel grades of stainless, and more is in the works to protect food service companies from the volatility of nickel prices, according to Luke Folta, research analyst at Longbow Research, Cleveland.

About half of the stainless steels being used for commercial cooking equipment have already been substituted to a lower, or no, nickel-containing grade—a trend that is continuing, Moll said. He noted that about 60 percent of the stainless steels used in food service are nickel-containing grades, primarily 300 series, but that is likely to decline to about 40 to 50 percent within the next 10 years or so.

The substitution is coming from most of the major food service market players. McDonald’s Corp., for example, has tested nickel-free grades 439 and 430 stainless in several fast-food outlets in place of Type 304, with good results. A decision on whether to make the switch is pending.

"Such substitution takes time as it requires companies to design new equipment," Moll said, noting that the operational properties of 200-series stainless, which has less nickel than 300-series product, and nickel-free 400-series stainless aren’t really much different from Type 304. "They have the same cleaning properties and similar corrosion resistance. There are some differences, however, in how they can be fabricated into equipment. Generally, the ferritic grades do the job that they need to do for the food service industry."

The past several years have been challenging for the commercial and institutional food service industry, largely due to the economic downturn and the accompanying skyrocketing unemployment rates that have resulted in people eating out less often, but that is expected to change as the economy improves and unemployment rates continue to fall.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2011 Restaurant Industry Forecast, while the industry as a whole expects to log a 3.6-percent increase in sales this year, the rise will vary by segment. Caterers are expected to see the strongest growth (6.2 percent year on year), followed by hotel restaurants (5.7 percent), hospitals and nursing homes (5.5 percent) and primary and secondary schools (4.8 percent). Quick-service restaurants are expected to post gains of 3.3 percent, while full-service restaurants will likely see only about a 3.1-percent sales gain.

This should equate to about a 5- to 15-percent gain in stainless shipments to the industry, the SSINA spokesman said, noting that the improvement is likely to be even stronger in the home appliance market as more people stay in their homes and look to remodel. "But until housing starts begin to pick up again, there isn’t going to be a lot of building of restaurants, hotels, hospitals and schools," he said.

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