In more than three decades of supplying clients with commercial-grade foodservice equipment, Clint Robbins has seen a dramatic shift in how his customers evaluate products for their business.
Robbins, president of Griffin Marketing Group, an independent manufacturer’s representative for 55 manufacturers throughout the Carolinas, said the variety and complexity of products makes it a necessity to get his customers together with products in a testing environment. That’s why he takes advantage of the Piedmont Natural Gas Technology & Design Center.
At 21,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, the center offers clients a try-before-you-buy-or-build natural gas performance testing facility and equipment showcase. It features 16 natural gas applications and nearly 80 indoor and outdoor appliances from more than 15 manufacturers.
“The number of foodservice manufacturers has increased dramatically over the past few decades,” said Robbins. “With imports and new lines of products such as convection ovens, what was once easy to walk customers through benefits and features of a product on paper, the sheer volume of products and manufacturers and the innovations of late necessitate a deeper, hands-on evaluation. I’m very pleased to have access to the center and all the resources offered here.”
"Helping Piedmont Natural Gas customers make the best energy decisions is the focus behind the center," said Carl Peterson, Piedmont’s director of sales operations, products and services.
Peterson heads up the operations at the center.
“Our customers represent a broad variety of industry players: from builders and developers to restaurant groups, industrial foodservice operators, broad-liners (food and equipment distributors) and industry organizations,” he said. “The center is a facility where they can bring in their products and ideas and use our facilities, experience, advice and capabilities to find equipment and design solutions that are best for their business and maximize energy cost efficiencies.”
For Giacomo Paccione, Americas regional category manager for Electrolux Professional, a manufacturer of kitchen, laundry and beverage equipment, having a relationship with the center plays an important role in educating their clients.
“We saw the tech center as a great vehicle to showcase many of our natural gas products where our customers and end users could come in, see and learn about our equipment in a live use situation,” Paccione said. “One of the biggest benefits is in the support they provide in educating users about how to execute better and more sustainable way of operating their kitchens and incorporating technologies for low gas consumption.”
Paccione pointed to the technology allowing the kitchen stalwart combi oven installed over a blast chiller to talk to each other, increasing kitchen efficiency through cooking and chilling.
Beyond hands-on testing capabilities, support with menu development and side-by-side product evaluations, the center is a platform for meetings, events, workshops, training seminars and receptions.
“On average, we have anywhere from 250 to 350 people in our facility per month since opening,” said Garrett Hibiske, the center’s food service technology program manager.
The event space is designed to explore natural gas applications in commercial and residential environments. A large multi-purpose training/demonstration room with a kitchen is easily configured to accommodate groups as small as six to close to 100. The outdoor plaza is equipped with natural gas fire pits, kitchens and entertainment systems.
Before the Summerbird fast-casual chicken restaurant opened in Charlotte, the center connected staff with vendors to review equipment, said Craig Coyne, director of operations. “This allowed our team to become familiar with equipment and processes before we opened, which was invaluable.”
The center is a way for Piedmont Natural Gas to support its customers.
“We are all about fostering strong relationships and bringing value to our partners and their customers,” Peterson said. “If our customers are successful, we are successful.”