Breaking the ice: Clear ice poses a challenge

Operators’ workarounds are standing in for a lack of equipment.

Ice machines have come a long way to meet the needs of restaurants. The most obvious case is Sonic Drive-In. When the chain wanted chewable ice for its drinks, manufacturers caught up with that need, developing
systems to spit out the soft pellets. Now, it’s fairly simple for operators to find an ice-machine supplier that has the coveted soft-ice capabilities. But once again, it’s time for suppliers to play catch-up. This time, operators are hankering for them to deliver on the demand for creative ice options stemming from the cocktail culture that reaches from fine-dining spots to mixology bars to casual chains. Otherwise, suppliers risk getting passed over. ice cubes block

Anthony Schmidt, beverage director for San Diego-based CH Projects, needs clear ice in a variety of shapes and sizes for drinks at two of the cocktail bars in his portfolio. The dense, bubbleless ice not only looks better in the glass, it melts slower than traditional ice, so it doesn’t dilute drinks as quickly. Right now, he uses three main shapes: large cubes, rods for highball glasses and smaller rocks for shaking. But he’s yet to find a single machine on the market today that can provide for his different ice needs. So instead of sacrificing creativity, he’s buying large sheets of ice and hacking them up with chainsaws and ice picks in-house.

This handcrafted ice is a large undertaking for the company—yet it seems to be one of the few solutions for those determined to have a variety of clear cocktail ice. While Schmidt used to purchase 300-pound blocks that his team would cut into sheets, then rods, then cubes, he scaled back his order to sheets (which get
delivered once a week or once every two weeks). Problem is, he says, now every cube is essentially a line item on the P&L statement.

Another challenge is minimizing waste during the cutting process. “When cutting, you lose ice,” says Schmidt—and waste equals dollars. “You want to maximize what you get from each sheet to minimize waste and increase yield.” All told, the price boils down to about 20 cents per cube, though Schmidt admits that it could be closer to 10 cents, depending on how well cut the sheet is. Though there is a labor cost involved in cutting ice in-house, Schmidt says it’s basically a wash compared to what he’d spend on a machine at this point in time.

In Charleston, S.C., Edmund’s Oast owner Scott Shor would love the freedom to have giant blocks of perfectly clear ice to cut down to size in-house, “but that requires a lot of space and equipment,” he says. That desire stems from a lack of available choices; the few machines on today’s market that do produce clear ice cannot make several cube shapes and come at a hefty price tag, running in the $4,500 to $8,000 range from one supplier. So, in addition to its separate back-of-house icemaker for seafood storage, Edmund’s Oast uses a designated machine at the bar that makes solid 1 1/4-inch cubes with filtered water. Plus, the gastropub crafts larger pieces using molds and crushes ice by hand.

If manufacturers don’t get onboard, more like Schmidt may take matters into their own hands when it comes to sourcing varieties of ice. Some California restaurants are freezing ice in portable coolers, because it simulates the slow freeze needed to make clear ice, says Schmidt. And down the line, he’s hoping to have the ability to produce the large blocks of clear ice in-house, then cut that ice to supply other bars and restaurants in town. “It’d be quite an [upfront financial] risk, but people will pay a premium for good ice,” he says. “If it’s affordable, it’d get to the point where a bar wouldn’t even need a machine.” 


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