New! View global litigation for patent families

US20070186580A1 - Portable Thermal Treatment and Storage Units for Containing Readily Accessible Food or Beverage Items and Methods for Thermally Treating Food or Beverage Items - Google Patents

Portable Thermal Treatment and Storage Units for Containing Readily Accessible Food or Beverage Items and Methods for Thermally Treating Food or Beverage Items Download PDF

Info

Publication number
US20070186580A1
US20070186580A1 US11671713 US67171307A US2007186580A1 US 20070186580 A1 US20070186580 A1 US 20070186580A1 US 11671713 US11671713 US 11671713 US 67171307 A US67171307 A US 67171307A US 2007186580 A1 US2007186580 A1 US 2007186580A1
Authority
US
Grant status
Application
Patent type
Prior art keywords
unit
beverage
housing
product
frozen
Prior art date
Legal status (The legal status is an assumption and is not a legal conclusion. Google has not performed a legal analysis and makes no representation as to the accuracy of the status listed.)
Abandoned
Application number
US11671713
Inventor
Thomas Kaplan
Original Assignee
Kaplan Thomas G
Priority date (The priority date is an assumption and is not a legal conclusion. Google has not performed a legal analysis and makes no representation as to the accuracy of the date listed.)
Filing date
Publication date

Links

Images

Classifications

    • AHUMAN NECESSITIES
    • A23FOODS OR FOODSTUFFS; THEIR TREATMENT, NOT COVERED BY OTHER CLASSES
    • A23LFOODS, FOODSTUFFS, OR NON-ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES, NOT COVERED BY SUBCLASSES A23B - A23J; THEIR PREPARATION OR TREATMENT, e.g. COOKING, MODIFICATION OF NUTRITIVE QUALITIES, PHYSICAL TREATMENT; PRESERVATION OF FOODS OR FOODSTUFFS, IN GENERAL
    • A23L3/00Preservation of foods or foodstuffs, in general, e.g. pasteurising, sterilising, specially adapted for foods or foodstuffs
    • A23L3/36Freezing; Subsequent thawing; Cooling
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65DCONTAINERS FOR STORAGE OR TRANSPORT OF ARTICLES OR MATERIALS, e.g. BAGS, BARRELS, BOTTLES, BOXES, CANS, CARTONS, CRATES, DRUMS, JARS, TANKS, HOPPERS, FORWARDING CONTAINERS; ACCESSORIES, CLOSURES, OR FITTINGS THEREFOR; PACKAGING ELEMENTS; PACKAGES
    • B65D5/00Containers of polygonal cross-section, e.g. boxes, cartons, trays, formed by folding or erecting one or more blanks made of paper
    • B65D5/42Details of containers or of foldable or erectable container blanks
    • B65D5/64Lids
    • B65D5/66Hinged lids
    • B65D5/6626Hinged lids formed by folding extensions of a side panel of a container body formed by erecting a "cross-like" blank
    • B65D5/6629Hinged lids formed by folding extensions of a side panel of a container body formed by erecting a "cross-like" blank the lid being formed by two mating halves joined to opposite edges of the container body
    • B65D5/6635Hinged lids formed by folding extensions of a side panel of a container body formed by erecting a "cross-like" blank the lid being formed by two mating halves joined to opposite edges of the container body the lid-halves being held in closed position by flaps or tabs provided at their edge opposite to their hinge
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65DCONTAINERS FOR STORAGE OR TRANSPORT OF ARTICLES OR MATERIALS, e.g. BAGS, BARRELS, BOTTLES, BOXES, CANS, CARTONS, CRATES, DRUMS, JARS, TANKS, HOPPERS, FORWARDING CONTAINERS; ACCESSORIES, CLOSURES, OR FITTINGS THEREFOR; PACKAGING ELEMENTS; PACKAGES
    • B65D81/00Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents
    • B65D81/38Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents with thermal insulation
    • B65D81/3813Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents with thermal insulation rigid container being in the form of a box, tray or like container
    • B65D81/382Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents with thermal insulation rigid container being in the form of a box, tray or like container provided with liquid material between double walls
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65DCONTAINERS FOR STORAGE OR TRANSPORT OF ARTICLES OR MATERIALS, e.g. BAGS, BARRELS, BOTTLES, BOXES, CANS, CARTONS, CRATES, DRUMS, JARS, TANKS, HOPPERS, FORWARDING CONTAINERS; ACCESSORIES, CLOSURES, OR FITTINGS THEREFOR; PACKAGING ELEMENTS; PACKAGES
    • B65D81/00Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents
    • B65D81/38Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents with thermal insulation
    • B65D81/3813Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents with thermal insulation rigid container being in the form of a box, tray or like container
    • B65D81/3823Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents with thermal insulation rigid container being in the form of a box, tray or like container formed of different materials, e.g. laminated or foam filling between walls
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65DCONTAINERS FOR STORAGE OR TRANSPORT OF ARTICLES OR MATERIALS, e.g. BAGS, BARRELS, BOTTLES, BOXES, CANS, CARTONS, CRATES, DRUMS, JARS, TANKS, HOPPERS, FORWARDING CONTAINERS; ACCESSORIES, CLOSURES, OR FITTINGS THEREFOR; PACKAGING ELEMENTS; PACKAGES
    • B65D81/00Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents
    • B65D81/38Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents with thermal insulation
    • B65D81/3848Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents with thermal insulation semi-rigid container folded up from one or more blanks
    • B65D81/3862Containers, packaging elements, or packages, for contents presenting particular transport or storage problems, or adapted to be used for non-packaging purposes after removal of contents with thermal insulation semi-rigid container folded up from one or more blanks with a foam formed container located inside a folded box
    • FMECHANICAL ENGINEERING; LIGHTING; HEATING; WEAPONS; BLASTING
    • F25REFRIGERATION OR COOLING; COMBINED HEATING AND REFRIGERATION SYSTEMS; HEAT PUMP SYSTEMS; MANUFACTURE OR STORAGE OF ICE; LIQUEFACTION SOLIDIFICATION OF GASES
    • F25DREFRIGERATORS; COLD ROOMS; ICE-BOXES; COOLING OR FREEZING APPARATUS NOT COVERED BY ANY OTHER SUBCLASS
    • F25D17/00Arrangements for circulating cooling fluids; Arrangements for circulating gas, e.g. air, within refrigerated spaces
    • F25D17/04Arrangements for circulating cooling fluids; Arrangements for circulating gas, e.g. air, within refrigerated spaces for circulating air, e.g. by convection
    • F25D17/042Air treating means within refrigerated spaces
    • F25D17/045Air flow control arrangements
    • FMECHANICAL ENGINEERING; LIGHTING; HEATING; WEAPONS; BLASTING
    • F25REFRIGERATION OR COOLING; COMBINED HEATING AND REFRIGERATION SYSTEMS; HEAT PUMP SYSTEMS; MANUFACTURE OR STORAGE OF ICE; LIQUEFACTION SOLIDIFICATION OF GASES
    • F25DREFRIGERATORS; COLD ROOMS; ICE-BOXES; COOLING OR FREEZING APPARATUS NOT COVERED BY ANY OTHER SUBCLASS
    • F25D3/00Devices using other cold materials; Devices using cold-storage bodies
    • F25D3/02Devices using other cold materials; Devices using cold-storage bodies using ice, e.g. ice-boxes
    • F25D3/06Movable containers
    • F25D3/08Movable containers portable, i.e. adapted to be carried personally
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65DCONTAINERS FOR STORAGE OR TRANSPORT OF ARTICLES OR MATERIALS, e.g. BAGS, BARRELS, BOTTLES, BOXES, CANS, CARTONS, CRATES, DRUMS, JARS, TANKS, HOPPERS, FORWARDING CONTAINERS; ACCESSORIES, CLOSURES, OR FITTINGS THEREFOR; PACKAGING ELEMENTS; PACKAGES
    • B65D2205/00Venting means
    • B65D2205/02Venting holes
    • FMECHANICAL ENGINEERING; LIGHTING; HEATING; WEAPONS; BLASTING
    • F25REFRIGERATION OR COOLING; COMBINED HEATING AND REFRIGERATION SYSTEMS; HEAT PUMP SYSTEMS; MANUFACTURE OR STORAGE OF ICE; LIQUEFACTION SOLIDIFICATION OF GASES
    • F25DREFRIGERATORS; COLD ROOMS; ICE-BOXES; COOLING OR FREEZING APPARATUS NOT COVERED BY ANY OTHER SUBCLASS
    • F25D17/00Arrangements for circulating cooling fluids; Arrangements for circulating gas, e.g. air, within refrigerated spaces
    • F25D17/04Arrangements for circulating cooling fluids; Arrangements for circulating gas, e.g. air, within refrigerated spaces for circulating air, e.g. by convection
    • F25D17/06Arrangements for circulating cooling fluids; Arrangements for circulating gas, e.g. air, within refrigerated spaces for circulating air, e.g. by convection by forced circulation
    • FMECHANICAL ENGINEERING; LIGHTING; HEATING; WEAPONS; BLASTING
    • F25REFRIGERATION OR COOLING; COMBINED HEATING AND REFRIGERATION SYSTEMS; HEAT PUMP SYSTEMS; MANUFACTURE OR STORAGE OF ICE; LIQUEFACTION SOLIDIFICATION OF GASES
    • F25DREFRIGERATORS; COLD ROOMS; ICE-BOXES; COOLING OR FREEZING APPARATUS NOT COVERED BY ANY OTHER SUBCLASS
    • F25D2303/00Details of devices using other cold materials; Details of devices using cold-storage bodies
    • F25D2303/08Devices using cold storage material, i.e. ice or other freezable liquid
    • F25D2303/083Devices using cold storage material, i.e. ice or other freezable liquid using cold storage material disposed in closed wall forming part of a container for products to be cooled
    • F25D2303/0831Devices using cold storage material, i.e. ice or other freezable liquid using cold storage material disposed in closed wall forming part of a container for products to be cooled the liquid is disposed in the space between the walls of the container
    • FMECHANICAL ENGINEERING; LIGHTING; HEATING; WEAPONS; BLASTING
    • F25REFRIGERATION OR COOLING; COMBINED HEATING AND REFRIGERATION SYSTEMS; HEAT PUMP SYSTEMS; MANUFACTURE OR STORAGE OF ICE; LIQUEFACTION SOLIDIFICATION OF GASES
    • F25DREFRIGERATORS; COLD ROOMS; ICE-BOXES; COOLING OR FREEZING APPARATUS NOT COVERED BY ANY OTHER SUBCLASS
    • F25D2331/00Details or arrangements of other cooling or freezing apparatus not provided for in other groups of this subclass
    • F25D2331/80Type of cooled receptacles
    • F25D2331/809Holders
    • FMECHANICAL ENGINEERING; LIGHTING; HEATING; WEAPONS; BLASTING
    • F25REFRIGERATION OR COOLING; COMBINED HEATING AND REFRIGERATION SYSTEMS; HEAT PUMP SYSTEMS; MANUFACTURE OR STORAGE OF ICE; LIQUEFACTION SOLIDIFICATION OF GASES
    • F25DREFRIGERATORS; COLD ROOMS; ICE-BOXES; COOLING OR FREEZING APPARATUS NOT COVERED BY ANY OTHER SUBCLASS
    • F25D2331/00Details or arrangements of other cooling or freezing apparatus not provided for in other groups of this subclass
    • F25D2331/80Type of cooled receptacles
    • F25D2331/812Trays

Abstract

A portable thermal treatment and storage unit includes a housing with a thermal treatment chamber, and ports that provide a flow path between the chamber and an environment surrounding the unit to facilitate a flow of air into the housing, through the chamber, and out of the housing. The unit is configured to selectively open and close at least one port to limit or prevent the flow of air into the housing and through the chamber such that, when the at least one port is opened, the unit facilitates heat transfer between the flowing air and the food or beverage items supported by the support member so as to change the temperature of the food or beverage items. When the at least one port is closed, the unit insulates the food or beverage items to maintain the food or beverage items within a selected temperature range for a selected time period.

Description

    CROSS REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS
  • [0001]
    This application is a continuation-in-part of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 11/476,898, entitled “Portable Thermal Treatment and Storage Units for Containing Readily Accessible Food or Beverage Items and Methods for Thermally Treating Food or Beverage Items,” and filed Jun. 29, 2006, which claims priority from U.S. patent application Ser. No. 11/430,198, entitled “Portable Thermal Treatment and Storage Units for Containing Readily Accessible Food or Beverage Items and Methods for Thermally Treating Food or Beverage Items,” and filed May 9, 2006, which claims priority from the following U.S. Provisional Patent Application Serial Nos. 60/697,984, entitled “Refrigeration Unit for Food Service Portion Cups and Process Thereof”, and filed Jul. 12, 2005; Ser. No. 60/697,985, entitled “Refrigeration Unit for Making Slush Beverages Without a Slush Machine, and Process Thereof”, and filed Jul. 12, 2005; Ser. No. 60/697,986, entitled “Portable Refrigeration Unit With Ready Access”, and filed Jul. 12, 2005; and Ser. No. 60/702,298, entitled “Portable Insulation Unit for Partially Frozen Beverages With Ready Access”, and filed Jul. 26, 2005. The disclosures of these patent applications are incorporated herein by reference in their entireties.
  • BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
  • [0002]
    1. Field of the Invention
  • [0003]
    The present invention pertains to a portable unit for thermally treating and/or maintaining food or beverage items at desired temperatures for select periods of time. The present invention further pertains to methods for thermally treating food or beverage items to achieve a desired temperature and partially frozen state for such items.
  • [0004]
    2. Description of the Related Art
  • [0005]
    Many foodservice operations offer beverages dispensed from machines that have converted the beverage from a liquid to a partially frozen state that is appealing to consumers. Such beverages are frequently referred to within the beverage industry as “frozen uncarbonated beverages,” “frozen carbonated beverages” or milkshakes, and are commonly referred to by consumers as a “slushy,” a “smoothie,” a “slurpee” (“Slurpee” is a registered trademark of the 7-11 Corporation), an “Icee,” (“Icee” is a registered trademark of the J & J Snack Foods Corporation), a “shake,” a “frappe,” or a “cabinet shake.” These types of beverages and all similar beverages are collectively referred to herein as “slush beverages” or “slush beverage product” (if the product does not include milk or other dairy component) or a “dairy product” (if the product includes milk or other dairy components, e.g., a milkshake). Beverage products can also be used herein which include combinations of slush beverage products and dairy products. The machines used to convert such beverages from a liquid to a partially frozen state are commonly known as “slush machines,” “granita machines,” “milkshake machines,” or “soft-serve machines.” These types of machines and all machines performing a similar function are collectively referred to herein as “slush machines” or “milkshake machines.”
  • [0006]
    There are numerous drawbacks to the currently available refrigeration devices that are used for converting such liquid beverage items to a partially frozen state or for maintaining such food or beverage items, whether prepackaged or not, in the desired state and at the desired temperatures for point-of-sale use. In particular, refrigeration for display to consumers is typically expensive, and requires a lot of counter space or floor space as well as routine maintenance. For example, the slush or granita machines, as described above, typically require a source of electricity, a compressor for freezing a surface in contact with the initially liquid beverage, and an augur or other device for agitating the beverage as it freezes and preventing the formation of objectionably large ice crystals. In addition, such machines are expensive, require periodic maintenance, require the replacement of parts that wear with use, and require periodic disassembly and reassembly for cleaning, as well as continual labor for dispensing.
  • [0007]
    In addition, many foodservice operations offering food items such as slush beverages must serve relatively high numbers of customers in relatively short periods of time. For example, because of the popularity of slush beverages, particularly with children, foodservice operations, such as school cafeterias, must be capable of dispensing a high volume of slush beverage product in a short period of time. Dispensing high volumes of such products from such machines requires a significant expenditure of labor. Further, many of the models of slush machines in current use are limited in capacity to the amount of beverage product initially poured into the product reservoirs of the machine plus the small additional amount that can practicably be added to the machine and frozen to the desired consistency during the serving period. As a result, such high-volume foodservice operations may be unable to prepare and dispense from a single machine a sufficient amount of slush beverage in the allotted serving time. Thus, multiple machines would be required to achieve the desired volume of slush beverage, which leads to increased equipment and maintenance costs for a particular foodservice operation.
  • [0008]
    Some foodservice operations attempt to overcome this problem by dispensing cups of slush beverage from the machine prior to the first period of service to customers, thereby creating capacity within the reservoirs of the machine for additional liquid beverage to be added with the result that it may freeze into the desired state in time for the first period of service to customers. However, this approach is not very effective. Slush beverages are typically dispensed at a temperature in the range of about 23° F. (−5° C.) to about 29° F. (−1.7° C.), and it is important to maintain the beverage at a temperature close to the temperature at which it was dispensed. If stored at too cold a temperature, additional ice forms within the beverage, which renders it too viscous to be easily consumed. In contrast, if the slush beverages are stored at too warm a temperature, the beverage will melt, which renders it less appealing to consumers.
  • [0009]
    It is not desirable to store dispensed slush beverage in the freezer of a typical foodservice operation, because such freezers generally maintain an interior temperature of 10° F. (−12° C.) or colder, at which temperature additional ice would form within the slush beverage and it would eventually freeze solid. Nor is it desirable to store dispensed slush beverage in the cooler or refrigerator of a typical foodservice operation, because such coolers and refrigerators generally maintain an interior temperature between about 35° F. (1.67° C.) and about 41° F. (5° C.), at which temperature the slush beverage, having been dispensed in the range of about 23° F. (−5° C.) to about 29° F. (−1.7° C.), would begin to melt unless protected in some fashion by insulation or packaging designed to slow heat transfer into the slush beverage. Finally, it is least desirable to place dispensed slush beverage on a serving line exposed to ambient air within the foodservice operation, because such air, typically in the range of about 72° F. (22° C.) to about 85° F. (29° C.) or warmer, would cause the slush beverage rapidly to melt.
  • [0010]
    In addition, many foodservice operations with multiple serving lines or points of service outside the main cafeteria, lack the ability to transport cups of slush beverage or milkshake from the slush machine or milkshake machine to such locations without risk of melting the beverage, and thereby lose the opportunity for additional sales away from the slush machine or milkshake machine.
  • [0011]
    One currently available approach to providing a partially frozen slush beverage product or a milkshake product at a desirable and aesthetically pleasing consistency is to partially thaw or temper a hard frozen product prior to serving. For example, a plurality of articles of a frozen beverage contained within a single case may be tempered to a consistency suitable for consumption by placing the case into a refrigerator or walk-in cooler for a sufficient amount of time, and then making it available for consumption before the proportion of ice in the product declines to the point at which the product lacks the desirably cold mouth-feel.
  • [0012]
    This approach is practical, however, only within significant limitations on the number of articles of the frozen beverage contained within a single case, the rate of heat transfer provided by the case between the ambient air and the product within the case so as to achieve optimal product appeal within a practical amount of time, and the freezing point of the beverage product within the case. In particular, a case pack containing too great a number of frozen articles would take an inconveniently long time to temper under refrigeration. Further, a case that does not permit sufficient heat transfer from the ambient air in the cooler to the beverage product, or that permits too rapid a heat transfer, will result in a beverage respectively too firm or too melted to be appealing to consumers. In addition, the amount of time needed to temper to a desirable consistency will depend on the freezing point of the beverage, which in turn will depend upon the amount of solids (i.e., non-aqueous compounds) in the composition of the beverage. For example, milkshakes typically include solids on the order of 22% by weight of the product, while slush beverage products typically include on the order of 17% solids by weight of the product. With such compositions, the necessary time to temper within the typical case pack and with the typical case design may typically exceed 24 hours—an inconveniently long timeframe for planning and preparation at many high volume foodservice operations. While the tempering time can be reduced by altering the composition of the product to increase solids so as to depress the melting point, such an approach is generally undesirable for the consumer or the manufacturer. Increases in solids often involve adding sugars which increase calories to undesirable levels, or increases in other solids such as nonfat milk solids which increase the cost of the product to undesirable levels.
  • [0013]
    Thus, the approach of partially thawing or tempering a hard frozen product prior to serving, using conventional thermal treatment techniques, is often undesirable and impractical, particularly for high-volume foodservice operations and their suppliers.
  • [0014]
    The problems posed by the inherent limitations of conventional food service preparation and/or cold storage devices such as slush machines and milkshake machines can occur in a wide range of high-volume foodservice operations, including cafeterias (as noted above) and other foodservice sites operated within schools, colleges, office buildings, government buildings, convention centers, military feeding sites, stadiums, movie theaters, cruise ships, passenger trains, casinos, amusement parks, catered events, buffets, county fairs, and the like.
  • [0015]
    In particular, the above-noted problems associated with providing slush and/or milkshake beverages to children in school cafeterias based upon the use of conventional foodservice devices often results in the decision by schools to abandon the serving of slush beverages or milkshake products to students, despite the popularity of such beverages to students.
  • SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
  • [0016]
    The present invention provides a relatively inexpensive, portable thermal treatment and storage device or unit for food or beverage items for point-of-sale use in foodservice locations, of any type, which find it impractical to purchase or operate a slush machine or milkshake machine, for any of the following reasons: the expense of the machine; labor necessary for filling, sanitizing, and cleaning the machine; the electrical expense associated with providing for and operating the machine; the space requirements of the machine; the ongoing parts and labor expense for maintenance of the machine; and the limitation on points-of-service imposed by the need for proximity to the machine. The portable thermal treatment and storage unit is useful both in low-volume foodservice operations where the food or beverage items are to be produced or provided at a single point-of sale, and in high-volume foodservice operations in which the food or beverage items are to be produced or provided at multiple points-of-sale, where multiple slush or milkshake machines would otherwise be required. In addition, the portable thermal treatment and storage unit maintains the food or beverage items in a desired state and at a desired temperature for extended periods of time.
  • [0017]
    The present invention is not limited to the above features and/or uses, and it is further not intended that the present invention be construed as requiring any one or more of the above features and/or uses unless expressly required by the claims attached hereto.
  • [0018]
    In accordance with an exemplary embodiment of the present invention, a portable thermal treatment and storage unit comprises a housing including a thermal treatment chamber. Ports are disposed on at least one of the housing and support member. The ports provide a flow path between the chamber and an environment surrounding the unit to facilitate a flow of air into the housing, through the chamber, and out of the housing. The unit is further configured to selectively open and close at least one port to limit or prevent the flow of air into the housing and through the chamber such that, when the at least one port is opened, the unit facilitates heat transfer between the flowing air and the food or beverage items supported by the support member so as to change the temperature of the food or beverage items. When the at least one port is closed, the unit insulates the food or beverage items to maintain the food or beverage items within a selected temperature range for a selected time period.
  • [0019]
    The units and corresponding methods of the present invention enhance point-of-sale foodservice operations by thermally treating food or beverage items while minimizing costs and labor associated with such foodservice operations. Most significantly, the unit is configured to convert a frozen product into a slush or milkshake beverage product, thereby eliminating altogether the need for a slush or milkshake beverage machine in foodservice operations. Further, when utilizing the unit of the invention for providing slush and/or dairy (e.g., milkshake) beverages, the unit eliminates the need for multiple slush or milkshake beverage machines disposed at different locations in order to ensure that the requisite volume of such beverages is available for consumption over a select time period, and further to ensure that such beverages may be made available to the consumer from all desirable locations within the foodservice setting. The unit of the present invention further requires no electrical energy or mechanical devices such as compressors to ensure effective refrigeration of food and beverage items.
  • [0020]
    The above and still further objects, features and advantages of the present invention will become apparent upon consideration of the following detailed description of specific embodiments thereof.
  • BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
  • [0021]
    FIG. 1 is an exploded view in perspective of a portable unit for insulating and refrigerating food or beverage items for point-of-sale consumption in accordance with the present invention.
  • [0022]
    FIG. 2 is a cross-sectional side view in elevation of the cartridge of the unit of FIG. 1.
  • [0023]
    FIG. 3 is a top view in plan of the cartridge top section of the unit of FIG. 1.
  • [0024]
    FIG. 4 is a view in perspective showing a bottom surface of the cartridge bottom section of the unit of FIG. 1.
  • [0025]
    FIG. 5 is a cross-sectional side view in elevation of the outer insulating case of the unit of FIG. 1.
  • [0026]
    FIG. 6 is a view in perspective of a plurality of stacked units having the same configuration as the unit of FIG. 1.
  • [0027]
    FIG. 7 is an exploded view in perspective of a portable thermal treatment unit for thermally treating and storing food or beverage items for point-of-sale consumption in accordance with the present invention.
  • [0028]
    FIGS. 8A and 8B are top views of the housing for the unit of FIG. 7 showing a movable member disposed within the housing at two different positions.
  • [0029]
    FIGS. 9A and 9B are views in perspective for the unit of FIG. 7 in which the movable member is disposed within the housing at the two different positions as depicted in FIGS. 8A and 8B.
  • [0030]
    FIG. 10 is a top view of the unit of FIG. 7.
  • [0031]
    FIG. 11 is a cross-sectional side view of the unit of FIG. 7.
  • [0032]
    FIG. 12 is an exploded view in perspective of a portable thermal treatment unit for thermally treating and storing food or beverage items for point-of-sale consumption in accordance with another embodiment of the present invention.
  • [0033]
    FIG. 13 is a view in perspective of the unit of FIG. 12 during thawing of food or beverage items within the unit.
  • [0034]
    FIG. 14 is another view in perspective of the unit of FIG. 12 during display and point-of-sale implementation of the unit.
  • [0035]
    FIG. 15 is a view in perspective of a portable thermal treatment unit for thermally treating and storing food or beverage items for point-of-sale consumption in accordance with still another embodiment of the present invention.
  • [0036]
    FIGS. 16-19 are views in perspective of the unit of FIG. 15, showing the manner in which flaps of the unit housing are movable to different positions during operation of the unit in accordance with the invention.
  • [0037]
    FIG. 20 is a perspective view of the unit of FIG. 15, with the orientation of the unit being reversed to show the bottom wall section of the unit housing.
  • [0038]
    FIG. 21 is a perspective view of a modified embodiment of the unit of FIG. 15, with the orientation of the unit being reversed to show the bottom of the unit, bottom wall flaps being moved to expose the housing interior, and an insulation member being removed from the unit housing.
  • [0039]
    FIG. 22 is a perspective view of the unit of FIG. 21, with the orientation of the unit being in an upright position and with flaps of the top wall section of the unit housing being moved away from the top of the unit housing to expose the housing interior.
  • DETAILED DESCRIPTION
  • [0040]
    In accordance with the present invention, a portable thermal treatment and storage device or unit is provided that is capable of converting frozen or non-frozen food or beverage items into a partially frozen state and/or maintaining food or beverage items in a partially frozen or any other desired state and within a desired temperature range for a selected time period without the requirement of electrical energy.
  • [0041]
    In one embodiment of the invention, a portable refrigeration and insulation unit includes a cartridge that effectively insulates and/or refrigerates food items stored in the cartridge at desired temperatures. The cartridge includes an insulating material and/or a heat transfer material that provides effective heat transfer between portions of the cartridge and the food items stored within the cartridge so as to maintain the food items at the desired temperatures. In addition, the unit includes an outer frame or case that is configured to receive the cartridge to provide further insulating features for the unit as well as minimize or prevent exposure of the food items to the ambient air in which the device is located. The outer frame is further configured to be stacked with other outer frames to facilitate more effective storage of a high volume or quantity of food items while minimizing floor space at a point-of-sale foodservice location. The unit is particularly useful for maintaining a slush beverage product at a desired temperature and at a desired partially frozen state for a selected time period, and for preparing slush beverage products by thermally treating a beverage product in a liquid state so as to form a slush beverage product in a partially frozen state within the unit, and then thermally maintaining the slush beverage product at a desired temperature and at the desired partially frozen state for a selected time period.
  • [0042]
    In another embodiment of the invention, a thermal treatment and insulation unit includes a thermal treatment feature in which an airflow path through the unit is selectively provided during operation of the unit. This unit design is particularly useful for thermally treating frozen or partially frozen food or beverage products, where the products are loaded into the unit at a temperature that is lower than the ambient air temperature surrounding the unit, and an airflow pathway is facilitated by selectively opening one or more ports within the unit so as to heat the products in a desired manner and for a selected period of time. The unit is further configured such that the one or more ports in the unit can be closed to substantially limit or prevent airflow through the unit, while the unit effectively insulates the food or beverage products loaded within the unit so as to maintain such products at a desired temperature for a selected time period.
  • [0043]
    An exemplary embodiment of a portable refrigeration and insulation unit of the present invention is described below and depicted in FIGS. 1-5. The portable refrigeration and insulation unit is described herein in relation to producing and/or storing slush beverage products as described below while maintaining the slush beverages in a partially frozen and aesthetically pleasing state. However, it is noted that the unit of the present invention is not limited to use with slush beverage products. Rather, the unit can be used with any one or more types of different packaged or unpackaged food or beverage items including, without limitation, cups of hard-frozen or soft ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, jellos, puddings, fruit cups, partially frozen, frozen or liquid juices, a fruit-flavored confections commonly referred to as “Italian Ice,” and popsicles.
  • [0044]
    Referring to FIGS. 1-5, a portable refrigeration and insulation unit 2 includes a cartridge 4, an outer insulating case 30 with an open cavity or compartment to receive the cartridge, and a cover 50 configured to be placed upon the outer case to close the outer compartment of the outer case with the cartridge received therein so as to minimize or prevent exposure as well as any potential heat transfer between the cartridge and the ambient air surrounding the device. Each of the outer insulating case, cartridge and cover can be constructed of any one or more suitable materials including, without limitation, plastics and/or metal or metal alloy materials. Preferably, each of these components of the unit is constructed of a lightweight and high impact resistant thermoplastic material such as polyethylene.
  • [0045]
    Cartridge 4 and outer insulating case 30 have a generally square configuration. The compartment of the outer insulating case is also generally square and slightly larger in dimensions than the outer dimensions of the cartridge so as to receive and securely retain the cartridge when the cartridge is assembled within the outer case in the manner described below. The cover 50 further has a generally square configuration so as to fit snugly along a lip of the outer case as described below. However, it is noted that the cartridge, outer insulating case and cover may include different geometric configurations including, without limitation, rectangular, circular, and oval configurations. The cartridge, outer case and cover may further include any suitable dimensions as may be required for a particular application.
  • [0046]
    Cartridge 4 includes a top section 6 and a bottom section 20 with an open cavity or compartment suitably dimensioned to receive the top section. The top section 6 includes a top surface plate 8 including a series of cavities or wells 10 defined in the top surface plate and extending a selected distance from the top surface plate. As described below, the wells 10 are configured to receive cups of slush beverage product. However, the cavities or wells can be configured to receive any packaged or unpackaged food item for a particular foodservice application. In addition, the top surface plate 8 includes a raised lip portion 7 that extends around the periphery of the top surface plate and is configured to engage with and slightly extend over a corresponding lip portion 21 extending around the periphery of the bottom section 20. The cartridge top and bottom sections can be separately formed in any suitable manner, such as an injection molding or extrusion process.
  • [0047]
    Each of the cup wells 10 includes a closed terminal end that is distanced from the top surface plate 8. The depth dimensions of the wells and depth of the bottom section compartment are preferably dimensioned such that, upon insertion of the cup wells 10 within the compartment of the bottom section 20, the enclosed terminal ends engage with a bottom wall 22 of the bottom section when the raised lip portion 7 of the top surface plate 8 engages with and rests upon the lip portion 21 of the bottom section 20.
  • [0048]
    The cup wells 10 are suitably dimensioned to accommodate slush beverage cups with any desirable sizes and geometric configurations. For example, the cup wells may be suitably dimensioned to receive cups in a variety of different sizes including, without limitation, 3 ounce cups, 4-5 ounce cups, 6 ounce cups, 8 ounce cups, 10 ounce cups, 11 ounce cups and 12 ounce cups. Further, the inner contoured surfaces of the wells are configured to substantially complement the outer surface geometries of the cups to be inserted within the wells so as to ensure substantial contact is made between the cups and the inner surface walls of the wells. This ensures effective heat exchange between heat transfer material disposed within the cartridge and the slush beverage product as described below.
  • [0049]
    As can be seen from the embodiment of FIGS. 1-5 (in particular, in FIG. 2), cup wells 10 are designed with a slightly tapered cylindrical or frustum-like configuration, in which there is a slight decrease in cup well diameter as the wells extend from the top plate surface 6 to their closed terminal ends. This geometry substantially corresponds with and complements the outer geometrical configuration of a typical slush beverage cup so as to facilitate a tight and snug fit between the cup and the interior cup well surface when the cup is placed within the cup well. However, it is noted that the cup wells can have any one or more other suitable geometric configurations to match any other outer surface cup (or other food or beverage item) geometries for a particular application.
  • [0050]
    The frustum-shaped cups typically used for slush beverages have on the order of 3 to 4 square inches of surface area on the curved wall of the cups for each fluid ounce of beverage that can be held within the cups. Exemplary cups of this type are 6 ounce cups which are manufactured by FabriKal Corporation (Kalamazoo, Mich.). The cartridge wells can be suitably dimensioned to receive such cups in a close fitting relationship as described above.
  • [0051]
    The cartridge can be designed and suitably dimensioned to include any selected number of cup wells. While the cartridge 4 depicted in the figures includes 34 cup wells, the cartridge can include a larger or smaller number of cup wells (e.g., 10 cup wells, 16 cup wells, 46 cup wells, 94 cup wells, etc.) depending upon a particular application and the size of the cups to be placed within the wells. Examples of cartridges that can be constructed in accordance with the present invention include, without limitation, cartridges including 16 cup wells that are configured to receive 8-12 ounce cups, and cartridges including 34 cup wells that are configured to receive 4-5 ounce cups.
  • [0052]
    The depths of the cup wells are further suitably dimensioned such that a majority of the outer wall surface portions of each cup is retained within a corresponding well in which the cup is received. For example, in the embodiment of FIGS. 1-5, the cup wells 10 are configured to receive cups that include removable lids, where a substantial portion of the cups (i.e., a majority of the volume of each cup) is received within the cup wells, such that only a small portion of each cup including the removable lid extends from each cup well when the cups are received within the cup wells. This cup well design ensures sufficient heat transfer and/or insulation of the slush beverage product within the unit for selected time periods while minimizing or preventing undesirable heat transfer between the slush beverage product and the ambient air surrounding the portable unit.
  • [0053]
    The cup wells can be aligned in any selected configuration along the top surface plate of the cartridge. Preferably, the cup wells are spaced a sufficient distance from each other and are suitably aligned along the top surface plate of the cartridge so that a generally uniform amount of heat transfer material and/or insulation material surrounds each cup well. For example, the cup wells can be spaced generally equidistant from each other to ensure substantially uniform and effective heat transfer between the food or beverage product disposed in each cup well and the heat transfer material surrounding portions of the cup wells.
  • [0054]
    As can best be seen in FIG. 4, the cup wells 10 are aligned in generally linear patterns or sets that are parallel with each other and extend diagonally with respect to the generally square configuration of the top surface plate 6. A series of shallow troughs or finger engaging grooves 12 are also disposed along the top surface plate 6 and extend between the linearly aligned sets of cup wells 10, where the grooves 12 further extend slightly beyond each cup well 10 disposed at the end of each linear set. Thus, each cup well 10 includes a pair of diametrically opposed groove sections 12 disposed about its periphery, and these finger engaging groove sections facilitate easy removal of a cup from a cup well by a user without unseating the cup lid. In particular, the user can insert a thumb and forefinger into each diametrically opposed groove section 12 adjacent a particular well 10 to facilitate easy removal of the cup disposed within the cup well.
  • [0055]
    The top and bottom sections further include cut-out sections disposed along the corresponding sides of both sections such that the cut-out sections are aligned with each other upon securing the top and bottom sections together in the manner described below. In particular, top section 6 includes a cut-out section 14 disposed along the peripheral lip portion 7 along one side of the top section, while bottom section 20 includes a cut-out section 24 that extends along the peripheral lip portion 21 as well as along the side wall of the bottom section. The cut-out sections of the top and bottom sections facilitate easy removal of the assembled cartridge from the outer insulating case as described below. In addition, cut-out section 24 of the bottom section is configured to serve as a gripping handle to permit carrying of the assembled cartridge by a user when the cartridge is being cleaned, thermally treated or transported prior to use.
  • [0056]
    Optionally, an insulation section 16 is provided within cartridge 4. The insulation section is suitably dimensioned and configured to fit within a lower portion of the open compartment of the bottom section 20 so as to nest snugly between the top and bottom sections when these two sections are assembled to form the cartridge. The insulation section is preferably formed of a material having suitable insulating properties. Preferably, the insulation section is formed of a closed cell foam material, most preferably a closed cell polyethylene material. As can be seen in FIGS. 1 and 2, insulation section 16 includes a series of tunnels or slots 17 that extend through the insulation section. The slots 17 are further suitably dimensioned and arranged along the insulation section so as to be aligned with and configured to receive the cup wells 10 of top section 6 when the cartridge is assembled in the manner described below. The insulation section 16 also includes a cut-out section 18 that generally corresponds with the cut-out section 24 of the bottom section 20 so as to facilitate a snug fit between the insulation section and the open compartment of the bottom section.
  • [0057]
    When assembled in the bottom section (as shown in FIG. 2), the insulation section surrounds portions of the cup wells 10 and engages the bottom wall 22 so as to fill up a selected portion of the open compartment of the bottom section, leaving a gap that defines a remaining open volume within the open compartment to be filled with the heat transfer material as described below. In an exemplary embodiment, the insulation section is a closed cell foam material (e.g., polyethylene) that is about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) in thickness.
  • [0058]
    Referring to FIG. 4, stepped portions are disposed along the bottom and side walls at two adjacent corners of the bottom section 20 so as to define two ledges 26 at these corners within the bottom section compartment. The two adjacent corner portions 19 of insulation section 16 that correspond with ledges 26 of the bottom section 20 are rounded or truncated to facilitate complete insertion of the insulation section to engage with bottom wall 22 of the bottom section. An inlet port 28 to the compartment is provided at each ledge 26 to facilitate injection or filling of the remaining open volume in the bottom section open compartment with heat transfer material after the insulation section 16 and top section 6 have been inserted within the bottom section during assembly of the cartridge. The inlet ports 28 include a valve or any other suitable sealing structure to effectively seal the ports after assembly of the cartridge in order to ensure that no heat transfer material leaks from the inlet ports during operation of the unit. The thickness of the insulation section 16 and the locations of the ledges 26 and inlet ports 28 are selected to ensure that the inlet ports communicate with the open space within the bottom section compartment after the insulation section has been installed within the bottom section.
  • [0059]
    Upon connecting the top section 6 with the bottom section 20 of the cartridge 4, a cartridge cavity exists within the cartridge that is partially or completely filled with a heat transfer material. For example, if the insulation section 16 is provided, the remaining space of the cartridge cavity is filled with heat transfer material. The cartridge cavity has a volume (also referred to as the internal cartridge volume) that is defined by the internal gap or space formed between the top and bottom sections after these two sections are joined together.
  • [0060]
    The heat transfer material that is utilized in cartridge 4 is preferably a high thermal capacity phase change material such as a refrigerant gel, liquid or other material that has a phase change temperature (i.e., the melting point temperature of the phase change material) that is no greater than the desired temperature for holding the food or beverage items at a desired temperature and in a desired state (e.g., a relatively stable partially frozen state) for a desired period of time (e.g., for a period of about 1 hour to about 6 hours or more). The phase transfer material is most preferably a gel material that is capable of absorbing significant quantities of latent heat during thawing as heat is transferred between the food or beverage item and the gel.
  • [0061]
    Preferably, the heat transfer material has a phase change temperature that is within the range of about 1° F. (0.56° C.) to about 10° F. (5.6° C.) below the desired temperature range in which the food or beverage items are to be maintained during operation of the unit. For example, typical slush beverage products include juices that have freezing points in the range of about 25° F. (−3.9° C.) to about 29° F. (−1.7° C.). Such slush beverage products are often prepared and served at these temperature ranges so as to ensure a desirable partially frozen and aesthetically pleasing state for the beverage. In accordance with the present invention, an ideal heat transfer material can be provided having a phase change temperature in the range of about 22° F. (−5.6° C.) to about 24° F. (−4.4° C.) in order to maintain such slush beverage products at a desired partially frozen state for extended periods of time (e.g., from about 1 hour to about 6 hours or more). For example, an effective heat transfer material for use in thermally treating slush beverage products with the unit of the invention can have a phase change temperature in the range of about 23.5° F. (−4.7° C.).
  • [0062]
    Preferably, the heat transfer material has a suitable composition that effectively facilitates repeated cooling, freezing and/or thawing of the material (e.g., at least one phase change transfer of the material every 24 hours) without significant degradation or decline in heat transfer performance of the heat transfer material. Most preferably, a suitable heat transfer material is provided that can easily withstand repeated cooling, freezing and/or thawing cycles for a period of about two years to about seven years or more.
  • [0063]
    The composition and volume of the phase change material, as well as the composition and thickness of the insulation section, can be modified in any suitable manner in the cartridge configuration of the invention based upon a particular application and the desired temperature range and time period in which a particular food or beverage item is to be treated by the cartridge. For example, in slush beverage foodservice operations, it is desirable to provide a selected volume or amount of phase change material within the internal cartridge volume so as to facilitate heat transfer at an upper portion of the cups disposed within the cup wells (i.e., a portion of the cups including the cup lids), while insulating the cups with the insulating section disposed in the remaining volume of the cartridge. However, in other applications, it may be desirable to provide phase change material within the entire internal volume of the cartridge, thus eliminating the insulating section altogether.
  • [0064]
    The heat transfer material is filled within the internal cartridge volume such that this material uniformly surrounds each of the cup wells along the entire surface of the cup wells or, alternatively, along selected portions (e.g., upper portions) of the cup wells. For certain food and beverage storage applications, such as slush beverage products, the amount of heat transfer material within the cartridge is preferably selected to vary from about 10% to about 50% of the internal cartridge volume, most preferably at an upper portion of the internal cartridge volume (i.e., a portion of the internal cartridge volume that extends a selected distance from the top surface plate 8 of the top section 6). For example, for cup wells that are configured to receive and retain cups with fluid capacities on the order of about 4-5 fluid ounces, a suitable heat transfer material can be provided surrounding each cup well and having a weight in the range of about 0.5 lbs (227 g). For example, the total weight of heat transfer material that would be effective for a cartridge having 36 cup wells (with each cup well receiving about 4-5 fluid ounces of beverage product) would be in the range of about 18-19 lbs (8.2-8.6 kg).
  • [0065]
    Where less heat transfer material is used, the cartridge will be lighter in weight and less costly to manufacture. However, less heat transfer material may also result in diminished heat transfer capabilities and resultant diminished storage time for the food or beverage product. When the heat transfer material content is at the low end of the range described above, the unit is preferably constructed so as to confine the heat transfer material within the cartridge in the manner described above, where the heat transfer material surrounds the uppermost portions of the cup-receiving cavities, thus ensuring maximum heat transfer from the upper portions of the cups within the cavities, so as to counter the effect of heat transfer into the upper portion of the product within the cups due to exposure to ambient air.
  • [0066]
    As noted above, the heat transfer material is preferably composed of a gel material. Most preferably, a phase change material is used that is composed of food grade materials that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. One preferable phase change material that is suitable for use in the cartridge, particularly for use with slush beverage products, is a gel material composed of a combination of a natural gum polysaccharide, such as guar gum or xantham gum, and water. In addition, the phase change material can include organic nad/or other acids (e.g., citric or ascorbic acid), and/or salts (e.g., alkaline salts such as chlorides, carbonates, silicates, etc.) which serve as freezing point depressants and/or as stabilizers for the phase change material.
  • [0067]
    An exemplary phase change material that has been found suitable for use in the cartridge (in particular, for use with slush beverage products) is an aqueous gel mixture including xantham gum in an amount of no greater than about 1-2% by weight of the total mixture, sodium chloride in an amount of no greater than about 5% by weight of the total mixture, calcium carbonate in an amount no greater than about 0.2% by weight of the total mixture, sodium benzoate in an amount no greater than about 0.2% by weight of the total mixture, and citric acid in an amount of no greater than about 0.4% by weight of the total mixture, with the balance being water.
  • [0068]
    Other heat transfer material compositions can also be used in accordance with the invention, as well as compositions including other compounds mixed with water and/or other materials. For example, other heat transfer materials that can be used in the cartridge of the invention can include glycols (e.g., propylene glycols) and/or certain paraffinic hydrocarbons with suitable melting points that facilitate desired heat transfer capabilities for a particular foodservice application.
  • [0069]
    The cartridge 4 is assembled by first placing the insulation section 16 within the compartment of the bottom section 20 such that the insulation section contacts bottom surface 22 of the bottom section. As noted above, and depending upon a particular application in which the cartridge is to be used, the cartridge can also be constructed without any insulation section (so that the internal cartridge volume is capable of receiving a greater amount of heat transfer material). The top section 6 is then inserted into the bottom surface compartment so that the cup wells 10 extend through the slots 17 of the insulation section and engage with bottom surface 22 of the bottom section and the peripheral lip 7 of the top section engages with the peripheral lip 21 of the bottom section. Lip 7 of top section 6 is secured to lip 21 of bottom section 20 via a suitable adhesive material (e.g., an epoxy resin) in order to ensure that the internal cartridge volume defined between the top and bottom sections is effectively sealed and is liquid tight. In addition, the terminal ends of the cup wells 10 can be secured to the bottom surface 22 via the adhesive material.
  • [0070]
    Once the top and bottom sections are effectively secured together, with the insulation section also secured between these two sections, the heat transfer material is then injected into the open space or internal cartridge volume via the inlet ports 28 of the bottom surface. Preferably, the entire open volume between the insulation section 16 and the top surface plate 8 is filled with heat transfer material. As noted above, the insulation section is preferably constructed of a closed cell foam material (e.g., a closed-cell polyethylene foam), which is substantially non-absorbent to the heat transfer material. As shown in FIG. 2, after filling of the cartridge in the manner described above, the heat transfer material 29 remains within the internal cartridge volume between the top plate of the top section and the insulation section during use of the cartridge.
  • [0071]
    The cartridge can be constructed of any suitable materials having a sufficient flexibility and strength to permit a slight expansion of the heat transfer material (e.g., during freezing of the heat transfer material) without rupturing. Portions of the cartridge, including the top surface plate 8 and the walls of the cup-receiving wells 10, are also preferably constructed of materials having sufficient thermal conductivities that facilitate rapid heat transfer between the food or beverage product and the heat transfer material. As noted above, the cartridge is preferably constructed of a high impact resistant, thermoplastic, easily cleanable material, most preferably polyethylene.
  • [0072]
    The cartridge is also preferably white in color so as to impart an invitingly clean appearance to the consumer. The assembled cartridge is further easily cleanable between uses, for example, by scrubbing and/or spraying with an aqueous-based cleaning solution and then drying in any suitable manner.
  • [0073]
    The outer insulating case 30 includes a top section 32 that is secured to a bottom section 34 in any suitable manner (e.g., via a suitable adhesive, welding, etc.). The top section defines a compartment that is suitably dimensioned to receive cartridge 4, with an inner ledge 33 formed along the inner peripheral side wall surfaces at an upper end of the case 30. The inner ledge 33 is suitably dimensioned to engage and support the lip portions 7 and 21 of the top and bottom sections of cartridge 4 when the cartridge is placed within the outer insulating case compartment. When the cartridge is received within the outer insulating case, the raised lip portion 7 of the cartridge is nearly flush or coplanar with the top of the case. Alternatively, it is noted that the case can be configured to receive any number of cartridges (e.g., two or more) depending upon the requirements for a particular foodservice application. In such an embodiment, the case would have a height that is extended from the configuration shown in the figures to accommodate multiple cartridges.
  • [0074]
    A removed portion 40 of the ledge 33 is defined along at least one side of the case 30 at a location that is aligned and corresponds with the cut-out portions 14, 24 of the cartridge 4. Preferably, each side wall includes such a removed portion 40, so as to facilitate placement of the cartridge within the outer insulating case in any manner while ensuring that the cartridge cut-out portions are aligned with a removed ledge portion of the case. The removed portions 40 facilitate easy removal of the cartridge from the outer insulating case by insertion of a user's hand beneath the lip portions 7 and 21 of the cartridge in order to obtain a better grip of the cartridge.
  • [0075]
    As can be seen in FIG. 5, each of the side walls of top section 32 is folded over at the upper end of the top section so as to form a double wall configuration. The double wall configuration includes an outer wall member 35 defining an outer surface of the case 30 and an inner wall member 36 that is separated a selected distance from the outer wall member and is configured to engage at least a portion of the cartridge outer wall when the cartridge is placed within the compartment of the case. The distance between the inner and outer wall members of the top section define a space or air gap between the inner compartment walls and the outer walls of the outer insulating case. The outer wall members 35 of the top section 32 taper slightly in an outward direction from the top to the bottom of the case 30, such that the cross-sectional dimensions of the case are slightly larger at its bottom than at its top. As described below, this feature facilitates the stacking of units on top of each other in a foodservice environment to maximize point-of-sale food placement while minimizing floor space.
  • [0076]
    The bottom section 34 of case 30 has a generally U-shaped cross-sectional configuration, with a top wall 38 that is secured to a bottom wall 37 of top section 32. The top wall 38 of bottom section 34 extends beyond the top section bottom wall 37 to side walls 39. The side walls 39 of the bottom section extend below top wall 38 and are secured to lower portions of the outer side walls 35, thus defining a space or air gap between the bottom section top wall and a surface which supports the outer insulating case 30. Thus, the compartment walls of the outer insulating case are separated from the outer walls of the case and the surface which supports the case such that air gaps surround the sides and bottom of the compartment.
  • [0077]
    The air gaps provide further insulation to the cartridge and food items stored within the cup wells of the cartridge from the ambient environment in which the unit is placed. The dimensions of the air gaps between inner and outer walls of the top section as well as between the bottom section top wall and support surface can be modified in any suitable manner to provide the desired insulating effect for a particular application. Preferably, the distances between the inner and outer walls of the top section and between the bottom section top wall and a support surface for the unit are in the range of about 0.5 inch (1.3 cm) to about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm). In addition, any suitable insulation material (e.g., foam, liquid, gel, etc.) can be provided in the air gaps as desired to achieve the desired level of insulation for the cartridge disposed within the outer insulating case.
  • [0078]
    The outer insulating case can have any suitable dimensions, depending upon a particular foodservice application and the number and/or types of food or beverage items that are to be thermally treated. In an exemplary embodiment, the outer insulating case can be square or rectangular and has outer length and width dimensions ranging from about 18 inches (46 cm) to about 24 inches (61 cm), and a height of about 4 inches (10 cm) to about 8 inches (20 cm), so as to facilitate receipt of a cartridge that stores cups of varying sizes (e.g., cup sizes from about 3 ounces or less to about 10 ounces or more). The cartridge and cover are dimensioned appropriately to be assembled with the outer insulating case having the dimensions noted above.
  • [0079]
    The outer insulation case can be constructed of any suitable materials, such as polyethylene as noted above. In addition, the top and bottom sections of the case can be constructed in any suitable manner (e.g., via injection molding, extrusion, etc.). Portions of the case are preferably constructed of a light-reflecting material so as to minimize radiant heat transfer within the unit due to light. In an exemplary embodiment, the outer wall surfaces of top and bottom sections of the outer insulating case are constructed of a suitable transparent plastic material, while the surfaces of the top section inner walls are coated with a reflective and/or electrostatically applied metallic substance (e.g., a reflective paint or a thin strip or sheet of metal) so as to impart a mirror-like finish to the outer surfaces. The mirror-like finish further minimizes heat gain via radiant heat within the outer insulating case compartment, and also provides a modem and aesthetically pleasing appearance to consumers. The outer walls of the outer insulating case can further include any suitable indicia that contain descriptive information of the food or beverage product within the unit and/or other aesthetic images or features that are pleasing to consumers in a foodservice environment.
  • [0080]
    The outer insulation case and/or the cartridge can further include handles or any other suitable gripping surfaces to facilitate easy lifting and transport of the unit to desired locations. For example, as noted above, the cut-out section 24 of the cartridge serves as a handle for transport of the cartridge during periods of non-use with the outer insulating case. In addition, the handles or gripping surfaces can be designed to facilitate storage of the case and/or cartridge (e.g., by suspending the case or cartridge from a hook or post on a wall surface).
  • [0081]
    The cover 50 has a generally U-shaped cross-sectional configuration and is suitably dimensioned to easily fit over the top of case 30 so as to seal and insulate the compartment including cartridge 4 from the ambient environment, thus minimizing or preventing heat transfer into the unit. As noted above, the cover can be constructed of any suitable materials, and the cover can further be constructed via an injection molding process, an extrusion process, or in any other suitable manner. The cover is preferably constructed of a suitable transparent plastic material to allow consumers to see through the cover to the food items secured within the wells 10 of the cartridge 4 disposed within the outer insulating case compartment.
  • [0082]
    While the cover depicted in FIG. 1 is a single piece, the cover can have other suitable configurations. For example, the cover can be constructed of two or more parts, where the cover includes doors that are removably secured or attached via a hinge or other connection to other portions of the cover.
  • [0083]
    In addition, as noted above, the outer wall members 35 of the top section 32 taper slightly in an outward direction from the top to the bottom of the case 30, such that the dimensions of the case are slightly larger at its bottom than at its top. This facilitates stacking of multiple cases 30 on top of each other as shown in FIG. 6. Each case 30 in FIG. 6 includes a cartridge 4 that is filled with food or beverage products (such as slush beverage products in cups) disposed within the wells 10 of the cartridges. The outer insulating case disposed at the top of the stack includes a cover 50 placed thereon to insulate and isolate the food items within this case from the ambient environment.
  • [0084]
    Each outer insulating case is preferably suitably dimensioned to provide a lower end air gap of sufficient dimensions (e.g., a distance ranging from about 0.5 inch (1.3 cm) to about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) between the top surface 38 of the outer insulating case bottom section 34 and a support surface) that renders a stable supporting engagement for each successively stacked case, thus preventing any case from being inadvertently pushed from any one or more cases that are stacked below the case. The stacking of units on top of each other in this manner maximizes point-of-sale food placement while minimizing floor space in a foodservice application. When all of the food items have been removed from the cartridge of the top unit, this unit can be removed so as to expose the next unit below, and the cover can then be placed on this next unit.
  • [0085]
    The unit of the present invention can be used to thermally treat food or beverage items in a number of different ways. For example, when thermally treating slush beverages, the unit of the present invention can be used to store and maintain the slush beverage at desired temperatures and in a desirable partially frozen state for extended time periods (e.g., time periods from about 1 hour to about 6 hours or more). In addition to storing the slush beverage product in this manner, the unit can also be used to form the slush beverage product from a liquid that is chilled but not in any frozen state by thermally treating the liquid in a manner described below. Exemplary methods of operation for the unit as depicted in the figures are described below for thermally treating slush beverage products in a school cafeteria environment.
  • [0086]
    Initially, cartridge 4 is cooled for a selected period of time and at a selected temperature in a refrigeration unit or freezer so as to achieve a sufficient temperature for the heat transfer material within the cartridge and thus render the heat transfer material as a suitable heat sink. In school cafeteria operations, unit 2 is used during lunch periods. Prior to being used each day, the cartridge 4 is cooled by storing it in a freezer on a nightly basis (e.g., for a period of about 8-12 hours) and at a suitable temperature such that the heat transfer material maintains, during its phase change to a liquid state, a temperature in the range of about 1° F. (0.56° C.) to about 10° F. (5.6° C.) below the desired temperature range in which the food or beverage items are to be maintained during operation of the unit. For slush beverage products, the heat transfer material preferably has a phase change temperature in the range of about 22° F. (−5.6° C.) to about 24° F. (−4.4° C.), and the heat transfer material is preferably a gel which is frozen in the freezer for the time periods noted above and at a suitable temperature such that the heat transfer material is in effect “charged” to its fall heat transfer capacity and is within this temperature range prior to removal of the cartridge from the freezer.
  • [0087]
    Upon removal of the cartridge 4 from the freezer, the wells 10 of the cartridge are loaded with cups containing the slush beverage cups. In one embodiment, the slush beverage is already formed with a conventional slush beverage machine (e.g., any of the types of slush beverage machines as described above) and poured into cups, and the cups are then loaded into the wells of the cartridge. In another embodiment described below, the cups containing a chilled liquid are provided in the cartridge wells, and the cartridge cools the liquid to form the slush beverage product (thus eliminating the need for a slush beverage machine).
  • [0088]
    The cartridge is then placed within the compartment of outer insulating case 30, and a cover 50 is optionally placed on top of case 30 to seal the cartridge within the case and minimize or prevent air convection and heat transfer between the cartridge and the ambient environment. The unit is lightweight and portable, facilitating movement of the unit with relative ease to a point-of-sale location for the unit, such as a school cafeteria lunch line. Optionally, a number of cooled and “charged” cartridges (i.e., cartridges with frozen gel material) can be placed in corresponding cases 30 and then stacked in the manner depicted in FIG. 6, with the uppermost case 30 being sealed with a cover 50, where the stack is formed in the school lunch line.
  • [0089]
    During use of the unit, a consumer (e.g., a student) removes cover 50 from the outer insulating case 30 and then removes a desired number of cups containing slush beverage product from the wells 10 of cartridge 4. Alternatively, the cover 50 can be removed by a foodservice employee prior to use of the unit by consumers. The grooved sections 12 allow the consumer to easily grasp a cup in a well 10 with, for example, a thumb and finger. When a cartridge 4 is emptied of cups, the case 30 can be removed by a foodservice employee for cleaning operations. If the units 2 are disposed in a stack, the top case 30 is simply removed, thus exposing the next case 30 disposed below the empty case to facilitate further selection of slush beverage cups by consumers.
  • [0090]
    The unit design facilitates heat transfer between the slush beverage product, through the walls of the wells 10, and the heat transfer material disposed within an upper portion of the cartridge, so as to maintain the slush beverage at the desired temperature and partially frozen state. Further, the insulation section 16 and outer insulating case 30 substantially minimize or prevent heat transfer between the slush beverage produce disposed within the cartridge wells and the surrounding environment. In a stacked configuration, the top portion of each unit 2 is effectively sealed from convective air flows in the surrounding environment due to another unit 2 being stacked upon the top portion of each unit or the cover 50 secured to the unit located at the top of the stack.
  • [0091]
    A unit 2 that has been emptied of food or beverage items can be easily cleaned and prepared for re-use (e.g., for school lunch periods or other foodservice operations that are scheduled for the next day) by removing the cartridge 4 from case 30. The cartridge can be easily cleaned with water and/or a suitable cleaning solution, wiped dry, and then loaded into the freezer for cooling and “re-charging” of the heat transfer material within the cartridge. The cartridge is cooled at a suitable temperature within the freezer for a suitable period of time (e.g., about 8-12 hours), and the cartridge is then ready for re-use in foodservice operations.
  • [0092]
    The units 2 can further be used to convert a liquid beverage product into a partially frozen slush beverage product and further maintain the formed slush beverage product in its partially frozen state for an extended period of time. This is a very useful feature, particularly for school lunch cafeterias, since the requirement for a slush beverage machine (which produces the slush beverage product prior to loading the product within the units) is now eliminated altogether.
  • [0093]
    An exemplary method for converting a liquid beverage product into a partially frozen slush beverage product is now described. Initially, it is noted that the liquid beverage product includes a fruit juice that preferably has a freezing point within the range of about 25° F. (−3.9° C.) to about 29° F. (−1.7° C.). The slush beverage product is preferably maintained within the freezing point temperature range of the fruit juice in order to ensure that the slush beverage product has the desired partially frozen state when served to consumers. With such freezing point ranges, the heat transfer material preferably has a phase change temperature in the range of about 22° F. (−5.6° C.) to about 24° F. (−4.4° C.). However, other beverages with different freezing points, including non-juice beverages, may also be used, and the amount and phase change temperature of the heat transfer material can be adjusted based upon the freezing point of the beverage selected in order to achieve the desired partially frozen slush beverage state.
  • [0094]
    Preferably, the liquid beverage includes a suitable nucleating agent that serves to induce formation of ice crystals as the liquid reaches its freezing point, and to further minimize or prevent the potential for a phenomenon known as “supercooling” by which a liquid reaches a temperature below its freezing point without freezing. Supercooling can occur at temperatures as much as 10° F. (5.6° C.), or more, below the freezing point, and often occurs more readily when liquids are quiescently frozen (e.g., as in the method described herein). Any suitable nucleating agent that is also suitable for use as an additive in food and beverage products can be provided including, without limitation, alkaline salts such as chlorides and carbonates. Preferably, calcium carbonate is provided in the juice as the nucleating agent in an amount of between about 0.1% to about 0.2% by weight (e.g., about 0.15% by weight). The actual amount of nucleating agent will depend on the freezing point and other characteristics of the fruit juice used. The use of calcium carbonate as a nucleating agent in the amounts described above provides certain additional advantages during the formation of the partially frozen slush beverage in the cartridge, in particular to the formation of a relatively uniform dispersion of ice crystals, where the ice crystals are of a relatively small size.
  • [0095]
    In an embodiment where the beverage product is a milkshake, the milkshake preferably includes iota carageenan, which imparts an enhanced texture or “mouth feel” and also inhibits the separation of ingredients. The preferred amount of iota carageenan provided in the milkshake is from about 0.01% to about 0.05% by weight, most preferably about 0.025% by weight. The milkshake also preferably includes mono- and/or diglycerides to provide emulsification, thereby binding water and fat to prevent separation. The preferred amount of mono- and/or diglycerides provided in the milkshake is from about 0.08% to about 0.15% by weight, most preferably about 0.12% by weight. The milkshake also preferably includes polysorbate 80 to further the incorporation of air into the product, impart a dry surface appearance to the product, and improve the extrusion of the product from a batch or continuous freezer. The preferred amount of polysorbate 80 provided in the milkshake is from about 0.02% to 0.08% by weight, most preferably about 0.06% by weight. The milkshake also preferably includes microcrystalline cellulose (“cellulose gel”) to impart a fuller and more pleasing texture and “mouth feel” if the milkshake is a reduced fat, lowfat or nonfat product, and to further the retention of air cells dispersed throughout the product during tempering and holding in the unit. The preferred amount of cellulose gel in the milkshake is from about 0.1% to about 0.5% by weight, most preferably about 0.15% by weight. The milkshake also preferably includes locust bean gum (also known as “carob bean gum”) to retard melting of the product, inhibit separation of water from the other ingredients in the product, and improve extrusion from the continuous or batch freezer. The preferred amount of locust bean gum in the milkshake is from about 0.05% to 0.25% by weight, most preferably about 0.10% by weight.
  • [0096]
    The additives described above work with milkshakes sweetened only with nutritive sweeteners (e.g., sucrose, corn syrup or other nutritive sweeteners), as well as with milkshakes sweetened in whole or in part with artificially sweeteners (e.g., sucralose, aspartame, or other artificial sweeteners). In a preferred embodiment, the milkshake is sweetened with a combination of sucrose, corn syrup and sucralose.
  • [0097]
    A preferred embodiment of a fruit juice to be converted to a slush beverage product includes a blend of stabilizers, including carboxymethycellulose (“cellulose gum”) and locust bean gum. The preferable amount of the cellulose gum in the fruit juice is from about 0.1% to about 0.5% by weight, most preferably about 0.15% by weight. The preferable amount of locust bean gum in the fruit juice is from about 0.05% to about 0.25% by weight, most preferably about 0.08% by weight. Cellulose gum and locust bean gum are provided in the juice to serve as stabilizers for inhibiting the formation of objectionably large ice crystals in the slush beverage product. The locust bean gum also serves to improve extrusion from a continuous or batch freezer, to support a relatively uniform dispersion of the nucleating agent and to reduce the tendency of the nucleating agent to settle to the bottom of the beverage product. This in turn permits the nucleating agent to induce ice crystal formation relatively uniformly throughout the juice beverage rather than initially just at the bottom of the cup containing the juice beverage.
  • [0098]
    Various other proportions of pectin, xantham and locust bean gum can also be utilized in accordance with the invention. In addition, other stabilizers and polysaccharide gums can be used that are acceptable for food grade applications including, without limitation, carboxymethyl cellulose (cellulose gum), microcrystalline cellulose (cellulose gel), guar gum, carageenan, as well as other conventional food grade stabilizers and gums.
  • [0099]
    The fruit juice beverage is first poured into a selected number of cups that are suitably dimensioned and configured for placement within the cup wells 10 of unit cartridges 4. For example, the cups may be filled with fruit juice at a supplier's plant by any conventional process, and then frozen for shipment. Alternatively, the cups may be filled aseptically or by a conventional process known as “hot fill” in order to render the juice bacteriologically stable for an extended period without refrigeration.
  • [0100]
    If the fruit juice is received from a supplier in a frozen state, the cups are placed into a commercial cooler for thawing. Thawing typically requires one to two days. Once thawed, the cups remain in the cooler pre-chilled, as described below, prior to being removed for service. The supplier would typically inform the foodservice operation of the period of time by which the cups, once chilled, should be used.
  • [0101]
    If the cups are received from the supplier in a “shelf-stable” state, the cups may be stored at room temperature for a period not to exceed the “use by” date stamped on the cups (typically a period of 6 to 12 months from manufacture). Prior to use, the cups should be pre-chilled in the manner described below prior to being placed in service.
  • [0102]
    The cups containing the fruit juice beverage are preferably pre-chilled to a selected temperature range and for a suitable time period prior to being placed or loaded within the cartridge wells to initiate the partial freezing and formation of slush beverage product. The temperature at which the fruit juice is pre-chilled will depend upon the composition of the fruit juice, but the temperature is preferably above the point at which formation of ice crystals within the fruit juice is initiated. An exemplary temperature range for pre-chilling the fruit juice is from about 35° F. (1.7° C.) to about 42° F. (5.6° C.).
  • [0103]
    Upon achieving the desired temperature of the fruit juice beverage from pre-chilling the cups at the suitable temperature range, the fruit juice cups are loaded into one or more cartridges 4. Prior to loading the cartridges with cups, the cartridges have been chilled in a freezer in the manner described above so that the heat transfer material within the cartridges has achieved a desired temperature (i.e., the heat transfer material is “charged”) and is ready for effectively chilling the fruit beverage.
  • [0104]
    The unique design of the units 2 described above facilitates the transformation of the fruit juice into a slush beverage product having a desirable partially frozen state in a period of about 1-2 hours. Thus, the foodservice employee loads the cartridges 4 with the pre-chilled fruit juice cups and places the cartridges into the outer insulating cases 30, and optionally stacks the cases, in the manner described above at a suitable time period (e.g., at least about 1 hour) prior to the first lunch hour or other foodservice function. After the slush beverage product is formed within the cartridges, the units maintain the slush beverage product in the cup wells at a suitable temperature and in a desirable partially frozen state for an extended time period (e.g., for a period of up to about 4 hours or more).
  • [0105]
    As noted above, the cartridge of the unit can include an insulating section (preferably a closed cell foam material) with a heat transfer material (preferably a gel material with a selected phase change temperature). Alternatively, the cartridge may include no insulating section, such that the cartridge can be filled partially or entirely with heat transfer material. Further still, in embodiments where it is desirable to insulate a food or beverage item without the feature of providing significant heat transfer between the cartridge and the food or beverage item, the cartridge can be provided with no heat transfer material, such that the internal cartridge volume is partially or entirely filled with the insulation section.
  • [0106]
    In another embodiment of the present invention, a portable thermal treatment and storage unit includes one or more vents or ports on the unit that are selectively opened or closed to facilitate a controlled flow of air through the unit to thermally treat food or beverage products loaded within the unit. For example, this unique design for the unit facilitates tempering or controlled warming and at least partial thawing of frozen or partially frozen beverage products that have been loaded into the unit and warmed to achieve a desirable partially frozen slush beverage state by permitting selective airflow through the unit. After a selected time period, the ports of the units can be closed such that the unit insulates and maintains the slush beverage products in their partially frozen state for a selected time period. This unit is particularly useful for converting frozen food or beverage items into partially frozen products, such as slush beverage products and partially frozen dairy products (e.g., hard or soft ice cream, milk shakes, etc.). However, the unit is not limited to treating these types of items, but rather can also be used to thermally treat a wide variety of other food or beverage items including, without limitation: frozen yogurt, sherbet, ice milk, jellos, puddings and fruit cups; partially frozen, frozen or liquid juices, including juices packaged in cups and flexible pouches; fruit-flavored confections commonly referred to as “Italian Ice;” and popsicles, as well as other formed and shaped confections, including sherbet and frozen juice products packaged in tetrahedron shaped packets.
  • [0107]
    An exemplary embodiment of such a thermal treatment and storage unit is depicted in FIGS. 7-11. In particular, unit 100 includes a hollow and generally rectangular housing 102 including an open top end, first and second opposing side walls 103, 104, third and fourth opposing side walls 105, 106 and a bottom wall 107 that define a chamber 108 within the housing. The first and second opposing side walls 103, 104 have a larger lengthwise dimension than the third and fourth opposing side walls 105, 106, and the unit is designed such that the third side wall 105 forms a front end of the unit while the fourth side wall 106 forms a rear end of the unit. While the housing depicted in the figures is generally rectangular, it is noted that the invention is not limited to such a geometric configuration but rather can include any other suitable configurations including, without limitation, square, round, oval, eccentric, multi-faceted, etc.
  • [0108]
    The housing as well as other portions of the unit 100 can be constructed of any one or more types of materials that are suitable for being used and re-used in multiple applications for thermally treating food or beverage items, where the materials preferably have suitable insulating properties, are lightweight, durable, easily cleanable, and are moisture resistant or non-absorbent so as to not degrade upon contact with water or other liquids. For example, the housing and other portions of the unit can be constructed of a cardboard material that is covered or coated with a non-absorbent or moisture resistant coating (e.g., a polymethyl methacrylate coating such as the type commercially available under the trademark LEXAN, or a polyester film such as the type commercially available under the trademark MYLAR). Alternatively, the housing and other portions of the unit can be constructed of any one or more suitable polymer or plastic materials including, without limitation, polyethylene, polypropylene, and high impact styrene materials such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).
  • [0109]
    In addition, the outer surfaces of the housing side walls can be coated with a reflective and/or electrostatically applied metallic substance (e.g., a reflective paint or a thin strip or sheet of metal) so as to impart a mirror-like finish to the outer surfaces so as to minimize heat gain via radiant heat within the outer insulating case compartment. The mirror-like finish also provides a modem and aesthetically pleasing appearance to consumers. The outer side walls of the housing can further include any suitable indicia that contain descriptive information of the food or beverage product within the unit and/or other aesthetic images or features that are pleasing to consumers in a foodservice environment.
  • [0110]
    The first and second side walls 103, 104 of the housing 102 further include a series of cut-out sections that form vents or ports which provide a flow path for air between the housing chamber 108 and the surrounding environment in which the unit is placed. As described below, these ports can be selectively opened and closed to facilitate airflow through the housing. Referring to FIG. 7, each of the first and second side walls 103, 104 includes three cut-out sections or ports 110 that are generally evenly spaced from each other along a lower surface of the side wall (e.g., within about one inch or about 2.54 cm from the bottom end of each side wall). The ports have a generally rectangular configuration and they also have similar dimensions. However, it is noted that the dimensions and geometric configurations of any two or more ports can differ. Further, it is noted that the first and second side walls can include any suitable number of vents or ports (e.g., one or more), and the unit can also be designed such that any side walls (e.g., first, second third, fourth and/or bottom side walls) can include vents or ports to facilitate flow of air through the housing in the manner described below.
  • [0111]
    The unit 100 includes a cup holder 125 that is securable within the housing chamber 108 by insertion at the top end of housing 102 to seal the housing chamber and support cups at a top wall 126 of the cup holder. The cup holder 125 includes opposing first and second side walls 128, 129 and opposing third and fourth side walls 130, 131 that extend from the top surface 126. The top wall 126, and side walls 128-131 are suitably dimensioned such that, upon full insertion of the cup holder 125 within the housing chamber 108, the first and second side walls 128,129 of the cup holder correspond and engage with the first and second side walls 103, 104 of the housing, while the third and fourth side walls 130, 131 of the cup holder correspond and engage with the third and fourth side walls 105, 106 of the housing.
  • [0112]
    When the cup holder is fully inserted and assembled within the housing chamber 108, the ends of the side walls 128-131 of the cup holder engage with the bottom end 107 of the housing and the top wall 126 closes the housing chamber and is generally flush with the top end of the housing. The first and second side walls 128, 129 of the cup holder further include three cut-out sections or ports 132 that are aligned and correspond with the ports 110 of the housing when the cup holder is assembled within the housing so as to provide an airflow path between the housing chamber 108 and the surrounding environment when the cup holder is fully assembled within the housing chamber.
  • [0113]
    The side walls of the cup holder combine with the side walls of the housing to provide a double side wall configuration for the unit when the cup holder is assembled within the housing. This double side wall configuration increases the side wall material thickness and enhances the insulation for the unit to prevent or substantially minimize heat transfer between the housing chamber and the environment surrounding the unit. However, it is noted that, rather than providing side walls for the cup holder that fit within and correspond with the side walls of the housing, the cup holder can alternatively be configured as a cover with side walls that fit around the top end of the housing. Further, the cup holder can be formed as an integral or attached part of the housing (e.g., as a top wall of the housing).
  • [0114]
    The top wall 126 of the cup holder 125 includes a series of generally circular openings 134 that extend through the top wall to facilitate communication with the housing chamber 108. In addition, a generally rectangular insert 136 is secured to an underside surface of the cup holder top wall 125 (e.g., via an adhesive), and the insert includes openings 138 that extend through the insert and correspond with the openings 134 of the top wall to permit access to the housing chamber 108 when the cup holder is assembled with the housing. The insert is preferably constructed of a suitable insulation material to effectively prevent or substantially limit heat transfer through such material. For example, the insert can be constructed of a suitable closed cell foam material (e.g., a closed cell polyethylene material) and/or any other suitable lightweight insulating polymers or plastic materials. The insulating insert can have a thickness in the range of about 0.5 inch (1.27 cm) to about 1.5 inches (3.81 cm). Preferably, the insulating insert has a thickness of about 1 inch (2.54 cm).
  • [0115]
    Referring to FIGS. 10 and 11, the cup holder top wall and insert openings 134 and 138 are arranged in generally linear rows and colunms along the top wall 126. The top wall openings are further suitably dimensioned to receive and retain a food or beverage cup of any selected size (e.g., 5 or 10 ounce cups), such as a cup 150 with a slightly tapered cylindrical or frustum-like configuration as depicted in FIG. 11 (where the cup diameter decreases from the top to the bottom of the cup) and that is slightly tapered in diameter from a top surface to a bottom surface of the beverage cup. In particular, each opening 134, 138 is suitably dimensioned to receive a substantial portion of a cup 150 (i.e., a majority of the volume of the cup) within the housing chamber 108, while the cup holder top wall 126 supports the cup at an upper portion of the cup such that a cup lid 152 remains exposed outside of the housing chamber. The openings can be arranged in any selected pattern along the top wall of the cup holder. In addition, while the unit 100 of FIGS. 7-11 is depicted with twelve openings to receive and retain twelve cups of food or beverage product, it is noted that the unit can include any selected number of openings to facilitate thermal treatment of the same number of cups for a particular application.
  • [0116]
    Each of the top wall and insulating insert further includes cut-out groove sections 140, 142 that extend through the top wall and insert so as to provide an airflow path between the housing chamber 108 and the environment surrounding the unit. The groove sections 140, 142 extend in a radial direction from the openings 134, 138, with each opening including four groove sections spaced at generally equal angularly spaced distances (i.e., about 90°) from each other so as to form an “X” configuration around the opening. However, it is noted that the unit can be designed with openings including any selected number of groove sections (e.g., one or more) that are at any selected angular spaced orientations with respect to each other.
  • [0117]
    As in the previous embodiment described above and depicted in FIGS. 1-5, the groove sections 140, 142 facilitate easy removal of a cup from the unit 100 by a user without unseating the cup lid. In particular, the user can insert a thumb and forefinger into a pair of diametrically opposed groove sections 140, 142 adjacent a particular opening 134, 138 to facilitate easy removal of the cup disposed within the cup holder 125. The multiple groove sections further facilitate easy access and removal of the cup from the cup holder by the user using a left or right hand. Further, the groove sections 140, 142 provide a vent or port for facilitating airflow through the housing during use of the unit in the manner described below.
  • [0118]
    The unit 100 further includes a generally rectangular movable member 115 that is suitably dimensioned to be received within chamber housing 108 so as to engage with the bottom wall 107 of the housing. The movable member 115 has a lengthwise dimension that is smaller than the lengthwise dimension of the housing such that, upon placement of the movable member within the housing chamber 108, the movable member is movable by sliding along an interior surface of the bottom wall 107 in a lengthwise direction toward and away from each of the third side wall 105 (or front end) and the fourth side wall 106 (or rear end) of the housing. In addition, the width dimension of the movable member 115 (i.e., the dimension that is transverse its lengthwise dimension) is slightly smaller than the width dimensions of the housing and the cup holder (i.e., the dimension between first and second side walls 103, 104 of the housing and the first and second side walls 128, 129 of the cup holder) such that side wall portions of the movable member engage and slide along the corresponding interior wall surfaces of the first and second housing walls 128, 129 of the cup holder assembled within the housing during sliding movement of the movable member within the housing.
  • [0119]
    Preferably, the movable member is constructed of a suitable insulation material to effectively prevent or substantially limit heat transfer through the movable member. For example, like the insulation insert of the cup holder, the movable member can be constructed of a suitable closed cell foam material (e.g., a closed cell polyethylene material) and/or any other suitable lightweight insulating polymers or plastic materials.
  • [0120]
    The movable member has a sufficient thickness to close or cover the ports 110, 132 of the first and second side walls 103, 104, 128, 129 of both the housing and the cup holder when the movable member is disposed and oriented in a suitable manner within the housing chamber 108 as described below. For example, the movable member can have a thickness in the range of about 0.5 inch (1.27 cm) to about 1.5 inches (3.81 cm). Preferably, the movable member has a thickness of about 1 inch (2.54 cm). The ports 110 and 132 are also suitably dimensioned and disposed along lower surface portions of the first and second housing side walls such that the ports do not extend above an upper end of the movable member disposed within the housing.
  • [0121]
    The housing, movable member and cup holder are further suitably dimensioned to receive any selected number of food or beverage cups of any selected sizes and volumetric dimensions such that the cups are supported by the top wall 126 of the cup holder and are further suspended within the housing chamber a suitable distance from the movable member 115 as depicted in FIG. 11. For example, the dimensions of the housing, movable member and cup holder can be selected such that distance between the bottom of each cup secured by the cup holder is no greater than about 1 inch (2.54 cm), preferably no greater than about 0.5 inch (1.27 cm), and more preferably no greater than about 0.25 inch (0.635 cm). The distance maintained between each cup and the movable member provides an air gap within the housing chamber that permits the flow of air around each cup bottom during thermal treatment of the beverage cups in the manner described below.
  • [0122]
    The two opposing side walls of the movable member 115 that correspond and engage with the first and second side walls 128, 129 of the cup holder 125 include three cut-out sections 116. The cut-out sections 116 are suitably dimensioned and oriented along the movable member side walls so as to correspond and align with the ports 110, 132 of the housing and cup holder when the movable member is positioned within the housing chamber 108 as depicted in FIG. 8A, where a rear end 118 of the movable member is adjacent the fourth side wall 131 (i.e., at the housing rear end) of the cup holder assembled within the housing. In this position, a front end 117 of the movable member is distanced from the front end of the housing.
  • [0123]
    The rear end 118 of the movable member 115 includes a tab 120 that extends at about a central location from this rear end. Tab 120 is suitably dimensioned and aligned with openings 112, 135 disposed at a lower location along the fourth or rear end walls 106, 131 of the housing 102 and the cup holder 125 so as to extend a sufficient distance through the openings when the movable member is positioned with its rear end 118 adjacent the interior surface of the fourth side wall 131 of the cup holder. Sliding of the movable member 115 within the housing chamber 108 from its orientation as depicted in FIG. 8A to its orientation as depicted in FIG. 8B is facilitated by an operator grasping and pushing tab 120 into the housing chamber 108 such that the movable member moves toward the housing front end.
  • [0124]
    When the movable member is fully displaced within the housing chamber (as depicted in FIG. 8B) such that its front end 117 is adjacent the interior surface of the side wall 130 of the cup holder (i.e., at the housing front end), the cut-out sections 116 of the movable member are shifted out of alignment with the housing ports 110, 132. In this fully displaced configuration, the side wall surface portions of the movable member located adjacent the cut-out sections 116 are aligned with and close or seal the housing ports 110, 134 from airflow communication with the housing chamber 108. The tab 120 can also be pulled through openings 112, 135 and away from the housing front end so as to fully displace the movable member from the position depicted in FIG. 8B back to its position in FIG. 8A, where the cut-out sections 116 are once again aligned with ports 110, 132 to facilitate communication of the ports with the housing chamber 108.
  • [0125]
    The unit 100 described above is effective in thermally treating and storing food and/or beverage products at desired temperatures and in desired states for extended periods of time (e.g., about 2-4 hours or more) and without any electrical energy requirements. In addition, unlike the previous embodiment of FIGS. 1-5, this unit does not require any initial “charging” or thermal treatment prior to being used.
  • [0126]
    As in the previous embodiment, the components of the unit can be suitably dimensioned to accommodate any suitable number of cups (or other food and/or beverage containers) of any suitable shapes and sizes depending upon a particular application. For example, the unit can be suitably configured to receive cups in a variety of different sizes including, without limitation, 3 ounce cups, 4 ounce cups, 5 ounce cups, 6 ounce cups, 8 ounce cups, 10 ounce cups, 11 ounce cups, and 12 ounce cups. Exemplary units for slush beverage products or partially frozen dairy products (e.g., soft serve ice cream, milk shakes, etc.) are designed to thermally treat 5 ounce and 10 ounce cups of product.
  • [0127]
    An exemplary method for using the unit 100 of FIGS. 7-11 is described below. In this method, a food or beverage product is initially frozen prior to being loaded within the unit, and then the food or beverage product is at least partially thawed for a selected period of time by opening the ports (by manipulating the movable member) disposed at the lower level of the housing and cup holder to facilitate the flow of air currents from the ambient environment through the housing. After a select time period in which the frozen food or beverage is converted to a partially frozen food or beverage product having a desired partially frozen consistency, the ports are closed (by manipulating the movable member) to prevent or substantially limit airflow through the housing. The unit then maintains the beverage product at a desired temperature and the desired and aesthetically pleasing partially frozen consistency for a select period of time.
  • [0128]
    The frozen food or beverage product can be any selected type of product including, without limitation, juice beverages and dairy products (e.g., hard or soft ice cream, milk shakes, etc.). The frozen product can further include alcohol and/or any other selected flavor enhancing additives. The frozen product is also preferably formed from a liquid, semi-liquid or gel product that includes one or more suitable stabilizers and/or nucleating agents such as the types noted above (e.g., any one or combination of pectin, xantham gum, locust bean gum, guar gum, cellulose gum or gel, carrageenan, and/or any other conventional food grade and/or GRAS stabilizers and gums) in any suitable weight percentage ratios depending upon a particular application, where the stabilizers and/or nucleating agents limit the formation and size of ice crystals so as to achieve a desired partially or semi-frozen consistency that provides a desirable look, feel and texture to consumers of the product.
  • [0129]
    The frozen food or beverage product can be prepared in the following manner prior to being thermally treated by the unit 100. The product is initially rapidly frozen in a continuous or batch type freezing apparatus, such as a batch or continuous freezer that is conventionally used in freezing dairy products (e.g., ice cream products). The use of such a rapid freezing process and associated batch or continuous equipment, together with the use of appropriate stabilizers and/or nucleating agents in the product, ensures the formation of small ice crystals and inhibits the growth of larger ice crystals in the frozen beverage product, while allowing the incorporation of air into the product, through rapid whipping, to whatever level of “overrun” is best suited to the product being produced. Preferably, the “fill level” of the product packaged at the factory is such that, if packaged in cups, no product is in contact with the lid of the cups. This intentional underfill (which is a departure from conventional practice but is acceptable provided the appropriate declarations as to contents are made on the package label), creates a thin gap or layer of air between the uppermost surface of the product within the cup and the underside of the lid.
  • [0130]
    This gap or layer of air provided within a sealed cup including the food or beverage product provides effective insulation, when the cup is eventually placed in the unit, against a rapid gain of heat into the product resulting from ambient air being in contact with the lid which is in turn in direct contact with the uppermost surface of the product in the cup. Such heat gain would result in an undesirable rapid melting of the uppermost surface of the product. The presence of an air gap furthers a uniform tempering of the entire product within the cup. Preferably, the air gap within each sealed cup has a thickness in the range from about 0.25 inch (0.635 cm) to about 0.5 inch (1.27 cm), most preferably about 0.375 inch (0.953 cm).
  • [0131]
    Once packaged at the factory, the product is frozen to a temperature of from about 10° F. (−12.2° C.) to about −40° F. (−40° C.). For example, for juices used to form slush beverage products, the beverage product is preferably initially frozen to a temperature of from about 10° F. (−12.2° C.) to about 0° F. (−17.8° C.), whereas dairy products (e.g., ice creams, milk shakes, etc.) that are used to form partially frozen products are preferably initially frozen to a temperature of from about −30° F. (−34.4° C.) to about −40° F. (−40° C.). The packaged frozen product (e.g., frozen product in enclosed cups with covers or lids) is distributed in the frozen state and at such frozen temperatures from a manufacture location to an on-site location for use of the product and is further maintained at such frozen state and frozen temperatures prior to loading within the unit 100. The unit 100 is easily assembled by insertion of movable member 115 within the housing chamber 108 such that tab 120 extends through opening 112. The side walls 128, 129, 130, 131 of the cup holder 125 are then inserted within the housing chamber 108, with the first and second side walls 128, 129 fitting between the first and second side walls 103, 104 of the housing 102 and the corresponding side wall sections of the movable member 115 and the opening 135 on the rear end wall 131 of the cup holder fitting over movable member tab 120.
  • [0132]
    Cups 150 of the frozen food or beverage product, which have been frozen and stored in the manner described above, are loaded into the unit by placing the cups through the openings 134, 138 of the cup holder 125 such that a top portion of the cups (including cup lids 152) are held by the top wall 136 and are further suspended a selected distance (e.g., about 0.25 inch or greater, see FIG. 11) from the movable member 115. The operator of the unit ensures that the ports 110, 132 of the unit are open by pulling tab 120 such that the movable member is completely displaced toward the housing rear end (as depicted in FIGS. 8A and 9A). In this open port position, convective air flow currents are enabled through the housing (e.g., as indicated by the arrows in FIG. 9A). In particular, air that is at a higher temperature than the frozen product in the cups flows into the housing chamber 108 (e.g., via the groove sections 140, 142 as indicated by the arrows in FIG. 9A) and around the cups 150 (including the bottom surfaces of the cups), and then out of the housing (e.g., via ports 110, 132 as indicated by the arrows in FIG. 9A). The air that flows through the housing can be at ambient or room temperature, e.g., at a temperature within the range of about 68° F. (20° C.) to about 85° F. (29° C.). However, it is noted that the temperature of the air flowing through the unit can be higher or lower than this temperature range depending upon a particular application.
  • [0133]
    The configuration and design of unit 100 facilitates an effective and controlled warming or thawing of the frozen product in a substantially uniform manner about the cups by the warmer convective air currents flowing through the housing chamber so as to convert the frozen product into a desirable partially frozen product over a selected time period. For example, a frozen juice product can be converted to a partially frozen slush beverage product utilizing unit 100, where the slush beverage product has the same partially frozen consistency as if the slush product were produced by a conventional slush machine. In addition, a frozen dairy (e.g., ice cream or frozen milkshake) product can be converted to a partially frozen product having a desirable and aesthetically pleasing semi-frozen milkshake or soft serve feel and texture using unit 100.
  • [0134]
    An exemplary time period for converting the frozen product into a desirable partially frozen product for serving to consumers is no more than about 3 hours (e.g., 2 hours or less). This partial thawing or warming time period can vary based upon a particular application and the type of food or beverage product being thermally treated. For example, at the end of the warming time period, a frozen fruit beverage product can be converted from its frozen state in the temperature range from about 10° F. (−12.2° C.) to about 0° F. (−7.8° C.) to a partially frozen slush beverage product at a temperature from about 20° F. (−6.7° C.) to about 27° F. (about −2.8° C.).
  • [0135]
    Once the frozen product has sufficiently thawed in a controlled manner to form a partially frozen product within the unit 100, the operator closes ports 110, 132 by pushing tab 120 so as to move the movable member 115 toward the housing front end until the front end 117 is adjacent the interior surface of the side wall 130 of the cup holder (as depicted in FIGS. 8B and 9B). The closure of ports 110, 132 effectively substantially limits or prevents convective air flow currents through the housing 102. In this mode of operation, the unit 100 effectively insulates and maintains the partially frozen food or beverage product at a desired temperature or within a desired temperature range. For example, for slush beverage products, the product temperature can be maintained at about 20° F. (−6.7° C.) to about 27° F. (−2.78° C.) for a period of at least about 2 hours, where the slush beverage product exhibits only a slight increase in temperature of about 1.5° F.-2° F. (0.83° C.-1.1° C.) over such time period. Thus, the slush beverage products can be maintained within a temperature range of about 20° F. to about 27° F. during the storage period of at least about two hours within the unit.
  • [0136]
    The partially frozen product is ready for consumption by a consumer after the ports have been closed. The consumer simply removes a cup 150 from a cup holder opening 134 (e.g., by inserting a thumb and forefinger into grooves 140). In certain embodiments, instructions may be provided on the cup that the user slightly displace or shake the contents in the cup prior to serving.
  • [0137]
    The insulating properties of the unit 100 effectively control the product temperature as does the cooled air that remains within the unit. In particular, when the ports are open to facilitate a convective flow of air through the housing which warms and partially thaws the frozen product, the temperature within the chamber due to heat transfer between the flowing air and the frozen product can achieve a temperature in the range of about 38° F. (3.3° C.) to about 50° F. (10° C.), and more preferably no greater than about 40° F. (4.4° C.). When the ports are closed so as to prevent or substantially limit airflow through the housing, the stagnant air that remains within the housing chamber can further cool (due to heat transfer with the partially frozen product) to about 38° F. (3.3° C.) or less, shortly after closing the ports. Thereafter, the temperature of the air within the housing chamber will gradually rise as cups are removed by consumers. This stagnant air within the housing chamber further enhances the insulating effect of the unit so as to minimize or substantially prevent heat transfer between the partially frozen product and the ambient environment surrounding the unit for a select time period (e.g., at least about 2 hours).
  • [0138]
    The unit can further be designed to include operating instructions at the housing rear end (i.e., side wall 106) to advise the operator to initially open the ports (by pulling tab 120) after loading the product into the unit and to maintain the ports in the open position for a selected period of time (e.g., about 2 hours) to achieve an effective warming and thawing of the frozen product, and after such time the product is ready for consumption (e.g., in a school cafeteria environment). After the warming period, the instructions can advise the operator to close the ports (by pushing tab 120) to switch the unit into an insulating and storage mode for maintaining the partially frozen product at a desired temperature and consistency that is desirable for consumption. In addition, the unit can include an electronic timer with a suitable audio and/or visual indicator (e.g., an LED display) to indicate when the warming time period has expired and the operator should close the ports.
  • [0139]
    When the unit is no longer being used and is taken out of service, the unit can be disassembled and the components can be cleaned. The unit can then be brought back into service and re-used for any selected number of food service operations, without any electrical energy requirements or the requirement of thermally treating any portions of the unit prior to being used.
  • [0140]
    The thermal treatment unit described in FIGS. 7-11 can be modified in any suitable manner to achieve the same warming/thawing and insulation modes of operation as described above. For example, any one or more ports can be disposed at any one or more selected locations anywhere along the housing (e.g., top, bottom and/or mid portions of the housing) to facilitate convective air flow through the housing chamber. In one exemplary embodiment, one or more ports can be disposed along the bottom wall of the housing and the unit can be raised above a supporting surface to facilitate opening of the ports for air flow through the housing. Closing of the ports can be achieved by simply placing the unit on a supporting surface so as to seal the ports from the ambient air surrounding the unit.
  • [0141]
    In addition, the unit can be designed such that the ports can be selectively opened or closed in any suitable manner. For example, rather than utilizing a tab that extends through a rear housing end wall to move the movable member as depicted in the embodiment of FIGS. 7-11, an elongated opening can be provided along the housing bottom wall, and the movable member can include a corresponding finger engaging groove to facilitate movement of the movable member toward the front and rear ends of the housing to facilitate opening and closing of the ports as in the embodiment described above.
  • [0142]
    Alternatively, rather than providing a movable member as described in the embodiment above, the ports can be provided with access doors that are movable in any suitable manner (e.g., via hinges, a sliding door or other mechanism, etc.) to selectively open and close the ports during operation of the unit. Thus, the invention encompasses any suitable mechanism or structure that facilitates selective opening of vents or ports within a thermal treatment unit to permit warming and thawing of the frozen product via convective air flow through the unit housing and also selective closing of the vents or ports to limit or prevent air flow through the unit housing while insulating and maintaining the product at a desired temperature.
  • [0143]
    The thermal treatment unit described above and depicted in FIGS. 7-11 can further be designed to be stackable in a similar manner as the unit described above and depicted in FIGS. 1-6. The stackable feature facilitates the placement of a large quantity or volume of food and beverage product at a particular point-of-sale location while minimizing floor space required for displaying such product.
  • [0144]
    In addition, the thermal treatment unit of FIGS. 7-11 can include a cover or lid of similar design to the lid described in the embodiment of FIGS. 1-6. The cover can be designed to fit over the cup holder of the unit and include one or more openings aligned and in communication with one or more of the finger engaging groove sections of the cup holder so as to facilitate flow of air through the cover and the unit when the vents or ports of the housing are open.
  • [0145]
    Another exemplary embodiment of a thermal treatment unit provided in accordance with the invention is depicted in FIGS. 12-14. In particular, a thermal treatment unit and corresponding method are provided for tempering (i.e., controlled warming) or thawing of frozen beverage products, such as slush beverage products or frozen products (e.g., milk shakes), in a controlled and uniform manner so as to form a partially frozen beverage product for consumption. The slush or dairy products can be of any suitable types and compositions, such as the compositions described above. In this embodiment, the thawing of the frozen beverage products is achieved by placing the unit loaded with the frozen beverage products in a refrigeration unit that provides an ambient or surrounding temperature around the unit in a range from about 35° F. (1.67° C.) to about 41° F. (5° C.). The unit is designed to facilitate controlled and substantially uniform airflow to the frozen products loaded within the unit during the tempering or thawing of the beverage products. After a suitable thawing period, in which the frozen product has thawed to a suitable partially frozen state, the unit is modified to limit or substantially prevent airflow through the unit.
  • [0146]
    Referring to FIG. 12, unit 200 includes a generally rectangular housing 202 with an open top end, a bottom wall 203 closing the bottom end of the housing, opposing side walls 204 extending in a longitudinal direction of the housing, and opposing side walls 206 forming the front and rear ends of the housing. The housing bottom and side walls define an internal chamber within the housing that receives and retains the beverage product. In the embodiment depicted in FIGS. 12-14, housing 202 is suitably dimensioned to receive six cups of a suitable size (e.g., 12 fluid ounce cups) within the housing chamber. However, it is noted that the housing can have any suitable geometric configuration (e.g., square, curved, multi-faceted or multi-sided, etc.) and can be suitably dimensioned to receive any suitable number of cups of any suitable shapes and sizes (e.g., cups of the shapes and sizes described above for the previous embodiments) that contain the frozen beverage product. The housing can further be constructed of any suitable materials such as the types described above that preferably provide a suitable level of insulation for the unit by preventing or minimizing heat transfer between the housing walls during operation of the unit. Preferably, the housing and other components of the unit are constructed of a lightweight material such as cardboard.
  • [0147]
    A divider 210 is provided within the housing chamber so as to section or compartmentalize the housing chamber into sub-chambers for receiving frozen beverage cups. In the embodiment of FIGS. 12-14, divider 210 includes a first divider wall that extends in a longitudinal direction of the housing within the chamber and two divider walls that extend transverse and generally perpendicular to the first divider wall so as to section the housing into six sub-chambers that are about equal dimensions. The six sub-chambers are configured to receive a single beverage cup. It is noted, however, that the divider and housing can be designed so as to form any selected number of sub-chambers within the housing, where each sub-chamber is configured to receive any selected number of beverage cups (e.g., one, two or more).
  • [0148]
    Housing 202 includes vents or ports 208 extending through each of the longitudinally extending side walls 204 at a lower location proximate bottom wall 203 (e.g., at a location from the bottom wall that is less than about ⅓ the height or distance to the open top end of the housing). The ports are suitably spaced such that a single port 208 corresponds and communicates with a sub-chamber defined by divider 210 within the housing chamber. It is noted, however, that the housing and divider can be configured such that any suitable number of ports (e.g., one, two or more) are provided that correspond and communicate with any suitable number of sub-chambers (e.g., one, two or more) defined within the housing chamber.
  • [0149]
    Unit 200 further includes a generally rectangular lid 212 with a top wall 212 and a lip 216 formed by side walls extending from the top wall. The lid is suitably dimensioned to fit over the open top end of housing 202 so as to provide a closure for the housing chamber, with the side walls of lip 216 engaging with corresponding side walls of the housing and extending a suitable distance along the housing (e.g., at least about ⅓ the height or distance between the top and bottom ends of the housing). The lid further includes a plurality of vents or ports 218 extending through top wall 214. The ports are aligned longitudinally along the lid top wall such that a single port 218 corresponds and communicates with a single sub-chamber defined by divider 210 within the housing chamber when the lid is secured to the top end of the housing. However, it is noted that the housing lid, housing and divider can be configured such that any suitable number of ports (e.g., one, two or more) are provided on the lid that correspond and communicate with any suitable number of sub-chambers (e.g., one, two or more) defined within the housing chamber.
  • [0150]
    The lid and housing are further suitably dimensioned such that the lid can be secured around the bottom wall and portions of the side walls of the housing during operation of the unit. In particular, lid 212 can be inverted in orientation from its position when secured to the housing top end (e.g., as shown in FIGS. 12 and 13) and placed under the housing, with top wall 214 of the lid engaging bottom wall 203 of the housing and lip 216 of the lid engaging the lower side wall surfaces of the housing (as depicted in FIG. 14). In this configuration, the lip 216 extends over and closes ports 208 of housing side walls 204.
  • [0151]
    Operation of the unit is now described with reference to FIGS. 12-14. Initially, it is noted that the frozen beverage product can be prepared in the same manner as noted for the embodiment described above and depicted in FIGS. 7-11. Once prepared, cups of frozen product sealed with lids (with a suitable air gap or layer being provided between the product and lid at the top of each cup, as described above in the embodiment of FIGS. 7-11) are loaded into a selected number of units 200. Prior to loading, the units are prepared by inserting a divider 210 into the housing 202 of each unit 200, such that individual cups 220 can be placed within each sub-chamber of each unit housing (as depicted in FIG. 14). Upon loading of a unit housing 202 with six cups 220, a lid 212 is secured over the open top end of the housing (as depicted in FIG. 13). Units 200 that are loaded with frozen beverage product can be shipped in this configuration, where the units are preferably maintained at a suitable temperature range (e.g., in a temperature range from about 10° F. (−12.2° C.) to about −40° F. (−40° C.)) to ensure the beverage product remains frozen during transport and prior to tempering or thawing of the product.
  • [0152]
    Prior to placing each unit 200 in service for consumption of the beverage product, the frozen beverage product must first be tempered or thawed to achieve a partially frozen beverage product. This thawing process is achieved by placing each unit 200 in a refrigeration unit such that each unit is subjected to thermal treatment at a temperature of about 35° F. (1.67° C.) to about 41° F. (5° C.). The units are preferably thermally treated in this manner for a time period ranging from about 12 hours to about 24 hours or greater. During this thawing period, air is permitted to flow or circulate within and through each unit 200 and into the sub-chambers via ports 208 and 218 disposed on the housing 202 and lid 212 of each unit. The compartmentalization of the unit housings in combination with individual air flow ports being provided for each sub-chamber provides a controlled and substantially uniform airflow through each sub-chamber, which in turn provides a substantially uniform heat transfer between the air flowing through the unit housings and individual beverage cups disposed within the housing sub-chambers. This controlled and uniform thawing of each beverage cup results in the formation of a partially frozen beverage product having a desired texture and consistency that is ready for consumption.
  • [0153]
    After sufficient thawing of the beverage products within the units, an operator (e.g., a cafeteria employee) can select a suitable number of units for removal from the refrigeration unit and placement in a food service environment (e.g., a lunch line). Upon removal of a unit 200 from refrigeration, the operator removes lid 212 from the top end of housing 202 and secures the lid to the bottom of the housing in the manner described above and depicted in FIG. 14. The unit is then placed into service, allowing consumers to freely select one or more beverage cups from the unit. Securing of the lid at the bottom of the housing effectively seals housing side wall ports 208, thus minimizing or substantially preventing airflow through such ports and through the unit. In this configuration of the unit, cooled or chilled air can be maintained within each sub-chamber which, in combination with the compartmentalization of the unit and the insulating properties of the divider and housing side walls, serves to effectively insulate the beverage cups and minimize heat exchange between the cups and the ambient air surrounding the unit. The beverage cups can be maintained at suitable temperatures for periods up to about 1 hour or greater in ambient temperature surroundings that range from about 68° F. (20° C.) to about 85° F. (29° C.).
  • [0154]
    The unit design facilitates selective placement of a selected number of cups into service at any given time, and additional units can be transferred from the refrigeration unit to the foodservice point-of-use location as necessary for a particular food service operation. In addition, the unit design facilitates shipment of the frozen product directly within the units and also easy operation that allows an operator to simply remove the unit from a freezer and place it into a refrigeration unit (rather than having to first load the unit with beverage cups) to initiate thawing of the frozen product. As noted above, the units can be designed to receive and thermally treat any selected number of cups of one or more different sizes. The units can further be designed for a single use (e.g., in an embodiment in which the units are constructed of cardboard) or, alternatively for multiple uses. When designed for a single food service operation, the units can be discarded and/or recycled after usage. Units designed for multiple operations are cleaned prior to re-use. The units can further include operating instructions and/or other suitable indicia on any of the housing side walls or lid.
  • [0155]
    The unit of FIGS. 12-14 can further be modified in any suitable manner to facilitate selective opening and closing of one or more ports of the unit so as to control airflow through the unit. For example, the unit can be designed with flaps connected at the top end of the housing rather than a removable lid. In this embodiment, the flaps can include one or more vents or ports. The flaps can further be suitably dimensioned so as to fold over or overlap each other to close the opening at the housing top end during transport and thawing of frozen product within the unit. In addition, the flaps can be configured to fold against the housing side walls so as close the ports at the bottom of the housing side walls while opening the housing top end during use of the unit at a point-of-sale location.
  • [0156]
    In another example of a unit including flaps connected at the top end instead of a removable lid, the unit can be further modified by providing housing side wall ports at an upper location on the housing (i.e., near the housing top end) rather than the housing bottom end. Further, additional ports can be disposed along the housing bottom wall rather than along the flaps at the housing top end. In operation of this unit, the frozen product disposed within the unit is thawed by inverting or turning the unit upside down such that the housing bottom wall faces upward and the bottom wall ports are exposed to the ambient air surrounding the unit. The flaps remain overlapped so as to maintain closure of the housing at the housing top end (which faces downward toward and rests upon a support surface after the unit is inverted). Thus, airflow is facilitated within the housing via the exposed housing bottom wall ports and the housing side wall ports. After sufficient thawing, the unit is then inverted to its original position (with the housing top end facing upward) and the flaps are folded over against the housing side walls so as to close the side wall ports. The bottom wall ports of the housing are also effectively closed due to the bottom wall resting on a support surface. Thus, this unit design also provides a selective opening and closing feature for ports and thus facilitates control of airflow and thermal treatment of beverage cups within the unit.
  • [0157]
    A further exemplary embodiment of a thermal treatment unit provided in accordance with the invention is depicted in FIGS. 15-19. In this embodiment, a thermal treatment unit and corresponding method are provided for tempering (i.e., controlled warming) or thawing of frozen beverage products, such as slush beverage products, dairy products (e.g., milk shakes) and/or other frozen products, in a controlled and uniform manner so as to form a partially frozen beverage product for consumption. As in the previous embodiments, the slush or dairy products can be of any suitable types and compositions, such as the compositions described above. The thermal treatment unit of this embodiment tempers or thaws frozen beverage products at ambient or room temperature (e.g., at a temperature within the range of about 68° F. (20° C.) to about 85° F. (29° C.)), where the unit is designed to facilitate controlled and substantially uniform airflow to the frozen products loaded within the unit during the tempering or thawing of the beverage products. After a suitable thawing period, in which the frozen product has thawed to a suitable partially frozen state, the unit is modified to limit or substantially prevent airflow through the unit by moving flaps of the unit to close or shut airflow ports disposed on the unit in the manner described below. In this modified configuration, the unit maintains the thawed and partially frozen beverage products at a desired temperature and consistency for a selected time period at room temperature.
  • [0158]
    Referring to FIGS. 15 and 16, a thermal treatment unit 300 includes a generally rectangular housing including a top wall section, opposing side walls 302 extending in a longitudinal direction of the housing, opposing side walls 304 that form the front and rear ends of the housing, and a bottom wall section 306. The housing is preferably constructed of a suitable sturdy and lightweight material, most preferably corrugated cardboard. As in the previous embodiments, the cardboard material can optionally be covered or coated with a non-absorbent or moisture resistant coating (e.g., a polymethyl methacrylate coating such as the type commercially available under the trademark LEXAN, or a polyester film such as the type commercially available under the trademark MYLAR). Any one or more walls of the unit can further include any suitable indicia (e.g., user instructions, advertising indicia, etc.). Alternatively, it is noted that the unit housing can be constructed of any one or more suitable polymer or plastic materials including, without limitation, polyethylene, polypropylene, and high impact styrene materials such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).
  • [0159]
    Each side wall 302 of the housing includes a plurality of generally rectangular vents or ports 308 that extend through the side walls and are disposed at a lower location proximate bottom wall section 306 (e.g., at a location from the bottom wall section that is less than ⅓ the height to the top wall section of the housing), where the ports function to permit airflow through the housing when the ports are open as described below. In the embodiment of FIG. 15, the rectangular ports have dimensions of about 1.5 inches (3.81 cm) by about 0.5 inch (1.27 cm). As can be seen from FIGS. 15 and 16, each side wall 302 includes five ports 308 that are uniformly spaced from each other along the side wall. The ports are further suitably spaced so as to be at least partially disposed at locations between beverage cups that are disposed within the housing. Thus, when the housing is fully loaded with cups, no cup completely covers the area defined by a port 308. However, it is noted that the number of ports, shape of the ports, dimensions of the ports and/or the spacing between ports can be modified in any suitable manner depending upon the dimensions of the housing and/or the dimensions and number of cups to be placed in the housing for a particular application.
  • [0160]
    The top wall section of the housing includes a first pair of opposing flaps 310 that extend the entire longitudinal dimension or length of the housing between front and rear end walls 304. The flaps 310 further extend from opposing side walls 302 toward each other and are spaced a selected distance from each other, thus leaving an exposed central portion of the top wall section that extends the length of the housing. Each of the flaps 310 is only connected to the housing at an upper edge of its respective longitudinal side wall 302 to facilitate pivotal or hinged movement of the flap along this edge. Each flap 310 further includes a pair of tabs 311 extending from the free edge of the flap that faces toward the other flap. The tabs 311 are suitably dimensioned and aligned along the free edge of each flap 310 so as to permit insertion of each tab in a corresponding port 308 along side wall 306 when the flap is pivoted away from the top wall section toward and to engage with the side wall in the manner described below.
  • [0161]
    The first pair of flaps 310 of the top wall section partially cover a second pair of opposing flaps 312 that are oriented in a direction transverse the orientation of flaps 310. In particular, the second pair of flaps 312, which underlie the first pair of flaps 310, extend from the opposing front and rear end walls 304 toward each other, where the flaps 312 meet and engage with each other at a generally central location of the top wall section. Each of the second pair of flaps 312 further fully extends between opposing sidewalls 302 such that the flaps completely cover the area defining the top wall section of the housing. Each flap 312 is only connected to the housing at an upper edge of its respective front or rear end wall 304 to facilitate pivotal or hinged movement of the flap along this edge. Each flap 312 can optionally include a perforation disposed at or near the pivotal edge of the end wall to which the flap is secured. This perforation permits the flap to be removed from the housing during operation of the unit in the manner described below.
  • [0162]
    Each of the second pair of flaps 312 includes a plurality of vents or ports 314 extending through the flaps and located along the exposed central portion of the top wall section when the first pair of flaps 310 are folded over to partially cover the underlying second pair of flaps 312 (as shown in FIG. 15). Accordingly, ports 314 are exposed on the top wall section and thus remain open to permit the flow of air through the ports when the flaps of the first pair are secured against the second pair of flaps. The ports 314 are arranged in pairs along the exposed central portion in the longitudinal direction of the top wall section, with each flap 312 including five ports, where the ports of each pair are oriented in a staggered manner with respect to each other.
  • [0163]
    The ports of each pair are further separated a sufficient distance from each other to ensure that partitioned compartments within the housing interior (described below) communicate with at least one port of the top wall section. The ports have a generally circular configuration, preferably having a diameter of about 0.5 inch (1.27 cm). The ports are arranged in this manner and have such dimensions so as to be positioned at locations along the top wall section that do not completely overlie or cover beverage cups that are placed within the housing. Thus, the ports 314 are aligned to freely permit air to flow into the housing and around beverage cups via the ports without any port being blocked by the top portion or lid of a cup. However, it is noted that the size, number, shapes and/or locations of the top wall section ports can be modified in any suitable manner, depending upon the dimensions of the housing, cup sizes and/or number of cups to be accommodated within the unit housing. Preferably, the combined open area defined by the ports located on the top wall section of the housing is no greater than the combined open area defined by the ports located on the longitudinally oriented side walls of the housing.
  • [0164]
    As can best be seen in FIG. 19, a thin wall divider 316 is provided within housing to partition the housing into different sections or compartments. The divider 316 extends longitudinally within the housing between the front and rear end walls 304 so as to separate the interior of the housing into two partitioned compartments of similar or about equal volume. As described in further detail below, the divider can be formed from folded sections of flaps that define the bottom wall section, where the folded sections of the bottom wall flaps extend upward from the bottom wall section into the housing interior. Alternatively, the divider can be a single wall insert that is provided within the housing interior.
  • [0165]
    The divider extends between the top and bottom wall sections and includes a slot 317 at about a central location of the divider that is configured to receive folded sections 318 that are disposed at the free ends of flaps 312. Thus, when the flaps 312 are in a closed position (as shown in FIGS. 15-17), the folded sections 318 of the flaps abut each other, extend downward from the top wall section into the housing interior and are fit within the slot 317 of the divider 316. Preferably, the folded sections 318 of the flaps 312 have a suitable dimension and extend a sufficient distance within the housing so as to further partition the housing interior into four separate sections or compartments of similar or about equal volume. Most preferably, the folded sections of the flaps extend to within about one inch (2.54 cm) or less from the bottom wall section to facilitate partitioning of the housing interior into the four separate compartments. The partitioned compartments are further configured such that each compartment communicates with ports 314 and 308 disposed at the top wall section and the side walls of the housing. The partitioning of the housing interior into separate compartments by the divider and folded sections of the second pair of flaps effectively limits or prevents heat transfer between the separate compartments during use of the unit. The partitioning of the compartments into about equal dimensions further ensures that heat transfer between cups within the compartments is substantially uniform.
  • [0166]
    The housing is suitably dimensioned so as to accommodate any selected number of beverage cups of selected dimensions. In the embodiment depicted in FIGS. 15-19, the housing is configured to receive and retain 24 beverage cups 350 having a volume of about 6 ounces (with a 5.5 ounce fill of beverage product), where each partitioned section or compartment within the housing interior stores 6 cups in a snug fitting manner (i.e., with very little spacing between adjacent cups). The cups have a similar tapered and fluted configuration as the cups described above and depicted in the previous embodiments. However, as noted above, the housing can be dimensioned in any suitable manner to accommodate cups of varying volumes, shapes and dimensions depending upon a particular application (e.g., 12 ounce cups, each being provided with a 10 ounce fill of beverage product).
  • [0167]
    Operation of the unit is now described with reference to FIGS. 15-19. Cups 350 of beverage products are initially loaded within the unit when the both pairs of flaps 310, 312 are opened. The cups are preferably loaded such that six cups are received within each of the four compartments that are formed within the housing interior when the flaps are pivoted to close the top wall section of the housing. Any suitable beverage product having a suitable composition, including the types of products and compositions described above, can be utilized with this unit. Similar to the previous embodiment described above, each beverage cup is sealed with a cover and, preferably, an air gap is provided within each sealed cup that has a thickness in the range from about 0.25 inch (0.635 cm) to about 0.5 inch (1.27 cm), most preferably about 0.375 inch (0.953 cm). Thus, e.g., a 6 ounce cup will include a fill of about 5.5 ounces of beverage product (as noted above), such that a suitable air gap is provided at a top portion of the cup between the beverage product and the lid of the cup.
  • [0168]
    The beverage products can be loaded into the unit in a frozen, partially or semi-frozen or unfrozen state. Flaps 312 are then closed by pivoting the flaps toward the housing interior and inserting folded sections 318 within slot 317 of divider 316. Flaps 310 are then pivoted and folded over to partially cover flaps 312, thus forming the configuration depicted in FIG. 15. The flaps 310 can be secured to flaps 312, for example, with an adhesive (e.g., tape, heated glue, etc.) at selected areas along each flap 310 so as to secure the flaps together while permitting easy removal of the flaps from each other during use of the unit.
  • [0169]
    Once the unit is loaded with cups, the beverage cups can be thermally treated (if necessary) by placing the unit within a freezer for a sufficient time period to ensure the beverage in the cups is sufficiently frozen and is at a desired temperature (e.g., at a frozen temperature of from about 10° F. (−12.2° C.) to about −40° F. (−40° C.)). The units are transported to the point-of-use location (e.g., school lunch cafeterias, office lunch rooms, etc.) and maintained at their frozen temperatures in a freezer or other thermal treatment unit located on-site until a selected time period prior to anticipated consumption of the beverage product within the cups.
  • [0170]
    An operator (e.g., a cafeteria employee) removes one or more units from the freezer unit about 2-4 hours (e.g., about 3 hours) prior to the estimated time at which the beverage cups will be available for consumption. The units are placed in an environment (e.g., a school or other cafeteria kitchen or lunch line) that is at ambient or room temperature (e.g., at a temperature within the range of about 68° F. (20° C.) to about 9020 F. (32° C.), e.g., about 72° F. (22° C.)). Convective flow of ambient air through the housing interior is facilitated via ports 314 and 308 disposed along top wall section flaps 312 and side walls 302. For example, the direction of air flow might be through ports 314 (which serve as inlets), through the housing interior and out through ports 308 (which serve as outlets). The flow of air at ambient temperature through the unit housing in turn facilitates heat transfer between the frozen beverage cups and the air so as to thaw or temper the beverage product, thus forming an at least partially frozen beverage product within the cups. The alignment and similar or about equal dimensions of the compartments and also the orientation of the same number of cups within each compartment results in a generally uniform heat transfer and thawing of the beverage within each cup.
  • [0171]
    After a thawing or tempering period of about 2-4 hours (e.g., about 3 hours to about 4 hours), the beverage product in the cups achieves a partially frozen state with a desired slush-like texture and consistency, and the cups are ready for consumption. At this time, flaps 310 are pivoted away from the top wall section and moved to engage with side walls 302, as shown in FIG. 16. The tabs 311 of flaps 310 are inserted into corresponding ports 308 on side walls 302 so as to lock the flaps against their corresponding sidewalls and effectively cover and close ports 308, as shown in FIG. 17, thus minimizing or substantially preventing airflow through such ports and through the unit. In this configuration, cooled or chilled air can be maintained within each partitioned chamber within the unit which, in combination with the compartmentalization of the unit and the insulating properties of the divider 316, folder sections 318 of flaps 312, and the housing side and end walls, serves to effectively insulate the beverage cups and minimize heat exchange between the cups and the ambient air surrounding the unit.
  • [0172]
    The thawed beverage products can be maintained within the unit at ambient temperatures for a period of about 1-3 hours while maintaining a desired partially frozen and slush-like texture and consistency. Alternatively, units that have been tempered or thawed but are going to be used later in the day can be placed within a refrigerator or freezer for periods of up to about 3-6 hours and then removed for immediate use and consumption while maintaining the desired partially frozen state. Units that may not be used after such time period can be maintained within or placed back into a freezer and re-used the next day or at a later date. However, it is noted that units placed back into the freezer for re-use no earlier than the next day will initially need to undergo another tempering or thawing prior to re-use.
  • [0173]
    To render the beverage cups available for removal from the unit housing, one of flaps 312 is pivoted away from the top wall section of the unit as shown in FIG. 18. As can be seen in FIG. 18, the flap 312 that remains secured in its closed position, with folded section 318 extending into the housing interior, maintains insulation of the beverage cups disposed within the two compartments located under this flap. Upon opening one of the flaps 312 as shown in FIG. 18, the beverage cups disposed within the open compartments of the housing interior can remain at a desired temperature and a partially frozen state for a period of about 30 minutes to about 1.5 hours at ambient or room temperature, while the beverage cups within the closed compartments can remain at the desired temperature and partially frozen state for a period of about 1 hour to about 2.5 hours at ambient or room temperature.
  • [0174]
    As noted above, upon opening of compartments by pivoting a flap 312 away from the top wall section of the housing, this flap can further be removed from the housing by tearing it away at the perforated section disposed at or near the pivotal edge of the flap. As shown in FIG. 19, one of the flaps 312 has been removed from the housing, and the other flap 312 has been opened to expose the remaining cups in the compartments disposed below this flap.
  • [0175]
    While the present invention is in no way limited by any particular underlying theory regarding the thermal treatment that occurs during use of the embodiment described above and depicted in 15-19, it is believed that the effectiveness of this embodiment is based upon certain underlying principles as described below.
  • [0176]
    The thermal treatment unit is designed to take advantage of the fact that ice has a greater thermal conductivity than water, but a lower specific heat capacity. Specifically, the apparatus limits the airflow into the housing, and in turn the rate of heat transfer from the ambient air within the housing through the cup walls and into the frozen product within the cups. The rate of heat transfer in general stays below the point at which undesirable quantities of the ice on or adjacent to the surface or peripheries of the cups would gain sufficient heat to undergo a phase change from ice to water. By avoiding phase change in undesirable quantities, the heat gained on the surface and peripheries is more likely to permeate toward the core of the product within each cup, due to the thermal conductivity of the ice. By allowing heat to conduct inward in a more uniform fashion than would be possible if the heat gain on the surfaces and peripheries were at a higher rate, melting and the creation of undesirable pools of free water on the surface and peripheries is inhibited, and such conduction of heat within the housing is more conducive to an eventual nearly uniform phase change throughout the product, achieving a desirable slushy consistency. Were the heat transfer within the housing not so moderated, a more aggressive rate of heat transfer would more rapidly overcome the bonds necessary to crystal formation and retention, resulting in local pools of free water on the surface and peripheries; those pools of free water would, in turn, given the low thermal conductivity of water relative to ice, retard the conduction of heat toward the core, permitting a greater proportion of the core to remain ice and not convert to slush; further, free water on the surface and around the peripheries, would have a greater specific heat capacity than ice, resulting in a slower temperature rise per unit mass, and in turn exacerbating the delay before heat transfer to the core results in phase change to a desirable, more nearly uniform, partially frozen state.
  • [0177]
    When the flaps of the apparatus are lowered to cover the side ports, airflow out of the side ports is retarded, and in turn airflow into the ports on the top of the housing is retarded. As a result, heat transfer into the product is slowed. Thermal conductivity toward the core is slowed, slowing phase change, and allowing the desirable partially frozen state of the product to be extended without undesirable additional melting, for a longer time than would be possible if the flaps were not lowered.
  • [0178]
    Thus, the thermal treatment unit described above and depicted in FIGS. 15-19 is a simple and effective device for storing and making slush beverage and/or other partially frozen or thermally treated food or beverage products available for consumption at point-of-use locations.
  • [0179]
    This unit can further be slightly modified to include an additional feature that enhances insulation and storage of the food or beverage product when being placed in an environment at ambient temperature. In particular, the unit can be modified to include an insulation member that is, for example, inserted within the housing interior. Referring to FIGS. 20-22, the modified unit includes a bottom wall section 306 of housing with a pair of flaps 340 that extend the entire longitudinal dimension or length of the housing between front and rear end walls 304, where the flaps 340 meet and engage with each other at a generally central location of the bottom wall section 306. In addition, each of flaps 340 includes a folded section 316 that extends away from the bottom wall section into the housing interior and includes a slot 317, where the folded sections 316 combine to form the longitudinally extending divider 316 with slot 317 within the housing interior. Each of the flaps 340 is only connected to the housing at a lower edge of its respective longitudinal side wall 302 to facilitate pivotal or hinged movement of the flap along this edge. Thus, the bottom of the housing can be opened by pivotally moving the flaps 340 away from the housing bottom as shown in FIG. 21.
  • [0180]
    A generally rectangular insulation insert 342 has dimensions that are similar to the interior dimensions of the housing so as to facilitate insertion of the insert within the housing interior via the bottom of the housing (i.e., when both flaps 340 are moved away from the housing bottom as shown in FIG. 21). Insert 342 includes cut-out sections or openings 344 that extend through the width dimension of the insert and are suitably aligned on the insert and suitably dimensioned to fit snugly around cups 350 disposed within the housing interior when the insert is placed within the housing interior. Insert 342 further includes a slot 348 disposed along a bottom surface of the insert and extending the longitudinal dimension or length of the insert. The slot 348 further has a sufficient depth and is suitably aligned on the insert to receive folded divider sections 316 of flaps 340. In addition, a slot 346 is disposed along a top surface of the insert 342 and extends in a direction transverse the length of the insert. The slot 346 further has a sufficient depth (intersecting at least partially with slot 348) and is suitably aligned on the insert to receive folded sections 318 of flaps 312 disposed at the top wall section of the housing. As can be seen in FIG. 22, the insert further includes shallow grooves 347 disposed along the top surface of the insert and extending at selected locations from peripheral portions of the openings 344. The grooves 347 facilitate easy removal of a cup from an insert opening by a user during operation of the unit.
  • [0181]
    The insert can be formed of any suitable insulating material that is preferably lightweight. For example, the insert can be formed from a closed cell foam or Styrofoam material, where the outer portion of the insert preferably includes a “skin” layer to protect and extend the usage or life of the underlying foam. Alternatively, the insert can formed as a hollow pack including a gel and/or other heat transfer material disposed within the hollow pack (e.g., heat transfer materials such as those described above) that facilitates thermal treatment or “charging” of the insert prior to insertion into the housing interior.
  • [0182]
    The unit of FIGS. 20-22 operates in a similar manner as that described above for the unit depicted in FIGS. 15-19, where the insert is placed within the unit housing after the tempering or thawing stage. In particular, upon achieving a desired thawing of the frozen beverage products within the housing, the unit can be oriented as shown in FIG. 20, with the bottom wall section facing in an upward direction. Flaps 340 are pivoted away from the bottom of the housing so as to open the housing interior. The insert 342 is then inserted into the housing interior such that the top surface of the insert faces toward the top wall surface section of the housing, slot 346 receives folded sections 318 of flaps 312, and the cups 350 fit within the corresponding openings 344 of the insert. Upon complete insertion of the insert within the housing interior, flaps 340 are folded over to close the bottom of the housing, with folded sections 316 fitting within insert slot 348 such that the folded sections 318 of flaps 312 fit within the formed divider slot 317.
  • [0183]
    When the insert has been installed within the housing interior and the housing bottom has been closed, the unit is turned over to its proper position as shown in FIG. 22. Flaps 310 can then be pivotally moved away from the top wall section, with tabs 311 inserted into respective ports 308. Alternatively, it is noted that, since the insert 342 effectively closes ports 308, the flaps 310 do not necessarily need to be folded over to engage with side walls 302. Flaps 312 are then opened and removed as necessary to facilitate removal of cups of beverage product from the housing interior. The grooves 347 disposed on the top surface of the insert facilitate easy removal of cups 350 by a user from the insert openings 344.
  • [0184]
    The use of the insulation insert with the unit described above enhances the insulation effect of the unit and can thus increase the residence time in which the unit remains in ambient or room temperature environments while maintaining food and/or beverage products at desired temperatures and desirable partially frozen states.
  • [0185]
    Alternatively, the unit of FIGS. 15-19 can be placed inside of an insulation case to enhance the insulation stage of the process. In this embodiment, an outer insulation case would have sufficient dimensions to receive and retain the unit. In addition, the insulation case could optionally include hollow side walls that include an air gap (e.g., similar to the outer insulating case described above for the embodiments of FIGS. 1-5) or that are at least partially filled with a gel or other heat transfer material (such as the types described above) to facilitate thermal treatment or “charging” of the insulation case prior to insertion of the unit within the case. The insulation case can also enhance insulation of the unit to increase residence time of the unit within an ambient or room temperature environment while maintaining a desirable product for consumption.
  • [0186]
    The unique designs and configurations of the different embodiments of portable thermal treatment and storage units and corresponding methods of the present invention facilitate effective thermal treatment of food or beverage products that are placed within such units, where the products are maintained at desired temperatures and at partially frozen states for extended periods of time (e.g., at least about 1 hour and/or up to about 6 hours or more). The thermal treatment and storage units are capable of providing such effective thermal treatment of the food or beverage products over the extended time periods without the need for electrical energy to be provided to the units. In addition, the portability and stackable features of the units renders the units easily adaptable for moving to different locations and arrangements in a point-of-sale foodservice environment, such as a school lunch cafeteria.
  • [0187]
    The unique unit designs provide the further advantages of rendering the cups of food or beverage product available to the consumer on a self-service basis, making it unnecessary for a foodservice worker to be present at the point of service for the purpose of dispensing and handing out cups of product (e.g., a slush beverage) from a machine. This feature of the present invention is particularly advantageous in the context of a high volume foodservice with a large number of consumers passing through in a short period of time, such as a school cafeteria. The self service feature makes it possible for even young school children to take the product themselves on a “grab 'n go” basis, whereas they would typically not be permitted to operate a dispensing machine (e.g., a slush machine) on a self-service basis. Thus, the present invention provides substantial labor savings in the context of school cafeteria operations.
  • [0188]
    In addition, the portable thermal treatment and storage units of the present invention facilitate the formation of a slush beverage product or other partially frozen food or beverage product from a liquid (e.g., as in the embodiment of FIGS. 1-5) or, alternatively, from a completely frozen product (e.g., as in the embodiment of FIGS. 7-11), thus eliminating the need for expensive slush machines (or other types of processing equipment) altogether.
  • [0189]
    The portable thermal treatment and storage units of the present invention can be used in a variety of different foodservice applications including, without limitation, foodservice sites operated within schools, colleges, office buildings, government buildings, convention centers, military feeding sites, stadiums, movie theaters, cruise ships, cocktail bars, casinos, amusement parks, catered events, buffets, county fairs, and the like.
  • [0190]
    While the portable thermal treatment and storage units and the methods of using such units of the present invention are very effective in overcoming problems encountered by school cafeterias and other point-of-sale foodservice operations that require high-volume availability of food items that are maintained at certain chilled temperature, the units are also effective for foodservice operations that do not experience high volume. For example, the ability to provide slush beverage products or other partially frozen food or beverage products (e.g., soft serve ice cream or milk shake products) at multiple locations, which is facilitated by the units of the present invention, can also be useful in low volume operations.
  • [0191]
    Having described preferred embodiments of portable thermal treatment and storage units for containing readily accessible food and beverage items, and corresponding methods for using such units, it is believed that other modifications, variations and changes will be suggested to those skilled in the art in view of the teachings set forth herein. It is therefore to be understood that all such variations, modifications and changes are believed to fall within the scope of the present invention as defined by the appended claims. Although specific terms are employed herein, they are used in a generic and descriptive sense only and not for purposes of limitation.

Claims (28)

  1. 1. A portable thermal treatment and storage unit comprising:
    a housing including a thermal treatment chamber; and
    a plurality of ports disposed on the unit, the ports providing a flow path between the chamber and an environment surrounding the unit to facilitate a flow of air into the housing, through the chamber, and out of the housing;
    wherein the unit is configured to selectively open and close at least one port to limit or prevent the flow of air into the housing and through the chamber such that, when the at least one port is opened, the unit facilitates heat transfer between the flowing air and the food or beverage items supported by the support member so as to change the temperature of the food or beverage items and, when the at least one port is closed, the unit insulates the food or beverage items to maintain the food or beverage items within a selected temperature range for a selected time period.
  2. 2. The unit of claim 1, further comprising a section that is movable away from a first side of the housing to close at least one port disposed on a second side of the housing.
  3. 3. The unit of claim 2, wherein the section comprises at least a first flap that is pivotally movable away from the first side of the housing toward the second side of the housing and engages with the second side of the housing to close the at least one port disposed on the second side of the housing.
  4. 4. The unit of claim 3, further comprising at least a second flap that partially underlies the first flap and is pivotally movable away from the first side of the housing to open the housing at the first side and facilitate removal of food or beverage items from the housing.
  5. 5. The unit of claim 4, wherein at least one port is disposed on the second flap at a location of the second flap that does not underlie the first flap.
  6. 6. The unit of claim 5, wherein the section comprises a plurality of first flaps that are pivotally movable away from an upper side of the housing toward a lower side of the housing to engage with side walls of the housing so as to close ports disposed on the housing side walls.
  7. 7. The unit of claim 6, wherein the unit includes a plurality of second flaps that partially underlie the first flaps and are pivotally movable away from the upper side of the housing to open the housing at the upper side and facilitate removal of food or beverage items from the housing.
  8. 8. The unit of claim 1, further comprising at least one divider disposed within the thermal treatment chamber, wherein the at least one divider facilitates separation of the chamber into a plurality of sub-chambers.
  9. 9. The unit of claim 8, wherein each sub-chamber corresponds with at least one port disposed on a first side of the housing and at least one port disposed on a second side of the housing.
  10. 10. The unit of claim 8, wherein each port corresponds with a single sub-chamber, and each sub-chamber corresponds with at least two ports.
  11. 11. The unit of claim 1, further comprising:
    a plurality of cups configured to be received and retained within the thermal treatment chamber, wherein each of the cups includes a food or beverage item disposed within the cups and a removable lid that encloses an opening in the cup, and the food or beverage item fills a selected portion of the cup while leaving an air gap between an upper portion of the food or beverage item disposed within the cup and an underside of the lid connected with the cup, the air gap having a thickness of between about 0.25 inch and about 0.5 inch.
  12. 12. The unit of claim 11, wherein the food or beverage item disposed within the cups comprises at least one of a slush beverage product and a dairy product.
  13. 13. The unit of claim 11, wherein the food or beverage item disposed within the cups comprises a slush beverage product including at least one fruit juice and at least one of a nucleating agent, pectin, carrageenan, cellulose gum, cellulose gel, xantham gum, locust bean gum and guar gum.
  14. 14. The unit of claim 1, further comprising:
    an insulation member that is configured to be inserted within the thermal treatment chamber so as to surround portions of and thermally insulate food or beverage items disposed within the thermal treatment unit while permitting removal of individual food or beverage items from the unit.
  15. 15. A portable thermal treatment and storage unit comprising:
    a housing including a thermal treatment chamber; and
    a means for selectively opening and closing an airflow path between the chamber and an environment surrounding the unit, wherein opening of the flow path facilitates a flow of air into the housing, through the chamber, and out of the housing and a heat transfer between flowing air and the food or beverage items suspended within the chamber so as to change the temperature of the food or beverage items suspended within the chamber;
    wherein the unit is suitably insulated such that, upon closing the airflow path after the food or beverage items are thermally treated to change the temperature of the food or beverage items, the unit maintains the food or beverage items within a selected temperature range for a selected time period.
  16. 16. A method of thermally treating food or beverage items, the method comprising:
    loading frozen food or beverage items in a unit such that each food or beverage item is disposed within a chamber of the unit;
    thermally treating the frozen food or beverage items by facilitating a flow of air from an environment surrounding the unit through the unit chamber, wherein the air is at a higher temperature than the frozen food or beverage items such that the frozen food or beverage items are warmed and at least partially thawed over a selected warming time period to form partially frozen food or beverage items at a selected temperature range that is higher than the temperature of the frozen food or beverage items; and
    upon achieving the selected temperature range for the partially frozen food or beverage items, limiting or preventing the flow of air through the unit chamber so as to maintain the partially frozen food or beverage items within the selected temperature range for a selected storage time period.
  17. 17. The method of claim 16, wherein the partially frozen food or beverage items comprise at least one of a slush beverage product and a dairy product.
  18. 18. The method of claim 16, wherein the partially frozen food or beverage items comprise a slush beverage product including at least one fruit juice and at least one of a nucleating agent, pectin, carrageenan, cellulose gum, cellulose gel, xantham gum, locust bean gum and guar gum.
  19. 19. The method of claim 13, wherein the frozen food or beverage items have a temperature within the range of about 10° F. to about −40° F.
  20. 20. The method of claim 19, wherein the air flowing from the environment surrounding the unit is at a temperature within a range of about 68° F. to about 90° F.
  21. 21. The method of claim 20, wherein the warming time period is at least about 1 hour.
  22. 22. The method of claim 20, wherein the warming time period is no greater than about 4 hours.
  23. 23. The method of claim 16, wherein the food or beverage items are disposed within a plurality of cups that are loaded within the unit such that each cup is disposed within the chamber, each cup includes a removable lid that encloses an opening in the cup, and the food or beverage item fills a selected portion of the cup while leaving an air gap between an upper portion of the food or beverage item disposed within the cup and an underside of the lid connected with the cup, the air gap having a thickness of between about 0.25 inch and about 0.5 inch.
  24. 24. The method of claim 16, wherein the unit comprises at least one first port disposed on the unit and at least one second port disposed on the unit, the ports facilitating flow of air through the unit, the unit further comprises a first flap that is pivotally movable on the unit, and the limiting or preventing of the flow of air through the unit chamber comprises:
    moving the first flap away from a first side of the unit toward a second side of the unit to engage with and close the at least one second port disposed on the unit.
  25. 25. The method of claim 24, wherein the at least one first port is disposed on a second flap of the unit, the second flap being pivotally movable on the unit and being partially covered by the first flap prior to the first flap being moved away from the first side of the unit, and the method further comprises:
    moving the second flap away from the first side of the unit to facilitate exposure and removal of food and beverage items from the unit chamber.
  26. 26. The method of claim 25, further comprising:
    removing the second flap from the unit.
  27. 27. The method of claim 16, further comprising:
    inserting an insulation member into the unit chamber after thermally treating the frozen food or beverage items by facilitating airflow through the unit chamber, wherein the insulation member surrounds portions of and thermally insulates food or beverage items disposed within the unit chamber while permitting removal of individual food or beverage items from the unit.
  28. 28. The method of claim 16, wherein the unit further comprises a divider disposed within the unit chamber, and the divider separates the unit chamber into a plurality of sub-chambers.
US11671713 2005-07-12 2007-02-06 Portable Thermal Treatment and Storage Units for Containing Readily Accessible Food or Beverage Items and Methods for Thermally Treating Food or Beverage Items Abandoned US20070186580A1 (en)

Priority Applications (7)

Application Number Priority Date Filing Date Title
US69798505 true 2005-07-12 2005-07-12
US69798405 true 2005-07-12 2005-07-12
US69798605 true 2005-07-12 2005-07-12
US70229805 true 2005-07-26 2005-07-26
US11430198 US20070012067A1 (en) 2005-07-12 2006-05-09 Portable thermal treatment and storage units for containing readily accessible food or beverage items and methods for thermally treating food or beverage items
US11476898 US20070012068A1 (en) 2005-07-12 2006-06-29 Portable thermal treatment and storage units for containing readily accessible food or beverage items and methods for thermally treating food or beverage items
US11671713 US20070186580A1 (en) 2005-07-12 2007-02-06 Portable Thermal Treatment and Storage Units for Containing Readily Accessible Food or Beverage Items and Methods for Thermally Treating Food or Beverage Items

Applications Claiming Priority (1)

Application Number Priority Date Filing Date Title
US11671713 US20070186580A1 (en) 2005-07-12 2007-02-06 Portable Thermal Treatment and Storage Units for Containing Readily Accessible Food or Beverage Items and Methods for Thermally Treating Food or Beverage Items

Publications (1)

Publication Number Publication Date
US20070186580A1 true true US20070186580A1 (en) 2007-08-16

Family

ID=46327237

Family Applications (1)

Application Number Title Priority Date Filing Date
US11671713 Abandoned US20070186580A1 (en) 2005-07-12 2007-02-06 Portable Thermal Treatment and Storage Units for Containing Readily Accessible Food or Beverage Items and Methods for Thermally Treating Food or Beverage Items

Country Status (1)

Country Link
US (1) US20070186580A1 (en)

Cited By (6)

* Cited by examiner, † Cited by third party
Publication number Priority date Publication date Assignee Title
US7882706B2 (en) 2008-04-10 2011-02-08 Kohler Co. Beverage cooling system
US20110315783A1 (en) * 2010-06-28 2011-12-29 Caron Products And Services, Inc. Insulated chamber with phase change material
US20130247595A1 (en) * 2012-03-26 2013-09-26 Chefn Corporation Devices and methods for instantly freezing food products
WO2016050716A3 (en) * 2014-10-02 2016-06-16 Sanofi-Aventis Deutschland Gmbh Storage and transportation tray with cooling means
US20160219922A1 (en) * 2013-09-19 2016-08-04 Santetsu Engineering Inc. Thawing method for frozen goods
US20170035227A1 (en) * 2014-04-17 2017-02-09 Timothy Teatro Cup rack

Citations (19)

* Cited by examiner, † Cited by third party
Publication number Priority date Publication date Assignee Title
US345510A (en) * 1886-07-13 Simeon
US2404065A (en) * 1943-12-31 1946-07-16 Lawrence Paper Co Controlled ventilated container
US2505697A (en) * 1946-04-15 1950-04-25 Edward E Vomacka Dispensing container
US3015431A (en) * 1959-08-24 1962-01-02 American Forest Prod Corp Shipping box
US3916639A (en) * 1974-07-12 1975-11-04 Richard K Atkinson Automobile cooler and receptacle
US4015749A (en) * 1974-04-25 1977-04-05 Jet Spray Cooler, Inc. Hot coffee dispenser
US4106597A (en) * 1977-10-14 1978-08-15 Executive Products Corporation Executive food carrying case
US4187977A (en) * 1978-07-03 1980-02-12 Champion International Corporation Two piece produce box
US4291830A (en) * 1979-12-26 1981-09-29 Georgia-Pacific Corporation Container with locking lid
US4339036A (en) * 1980-12-18 1982-07-13 Container Corporation Of America Container venting arrangement
US4600142A (en) * 1984-01-27 1986-07-15 International Paper Company Reverse elbow lock flap produce box
US4808428A (en) * 1988-03-18 1989-02-28 Thomas J. Lipton, Inc. Flavored slush snack
US4911355A (en) * 1989-06-19 1990-03-27 James Bannister Foldable carton
US5201868A (en) * 1991-01-22 1993-04-13 Rock-Tenn Company Insulated shipping container
US5899353A (en) * 1995-06-07 1999-05-04 Sabin; Jeffrey Michael Ice cream cone cake holder
US6293459B1 (en) * 1999-11-16 2001-09-25 Rts Packaging, Llc Carton ventilation system
US6367651B2 (en) * 1998-12-30 2002-04-09 Dart Industries Inc. Vented container for produce
US20040137126A1 (en) * 2002-07-31 2004-07-15 Solorio Hector A. Reduced-calorie freezable beverage
US20060213958A1 (en) * 2005-03-18 2006-09-28 Valenzuela Juan Z Container with hold-open flaps for ventilation

Patent Citations (19)

* Cited by examiner, † Cited by third party
Publication number Priority date Publication date Assignee Title
US345510A (en) * 1886-07-13 Simeon
US2404065A (en) * 1943-12-31 1946-07-16 Lawrence Paper Co Controlled ventilated container
US2505697A (en) * 1946-04-15 1950-04-25 Edward E Vomacka Dispensing container
US3015431A (en) * 1959-08-24 1962-01-02 American Forest Prod Corp Shipping box
US4015749A (en) * 1974-04-25 1977-04-05 Jet Spray Cooler, Inc. Hot coffee dispenser
US3916639A (en) * 1974-07-12 1975-11-04 Richard K Atkinson Automobile cooler and receptacle
US4106597A (en) * 1977-10-14 1978-08-15 Executive Products Corporation Executive food carrying case
US4187977A (en) * 1978-07-03 1980-02-12 Champion International Corporation Two piece produce box
US4291830A (en) * 1979-12-26 1981-09-29 Georgia-Pacific Corporation Container with locking lid
US4339036A (en) * 1980-12-18 1982-07-13 Container Corporation Of America Container venting arrangement
US4600142A (en) * 1984-01-27 1986-07-15 International Paper Company Reverse elbow lock flap produce box
US4808428A (en) * 1988-03-18 1989-02-28 Thomas J. Lipton, Inc. Flavored slush snack
US4911355A (en) * 1989-06-19 1990-03-27 James Bannister Foldable carton
US5201868A (en) * 1991-01-22 1993-04-13 Rock-Tenn Company Insulated shipping container
US5899353A (en) * 1995-06-07 1999-05-04 Sabin; Jeffrey Michael Ice cream cone cake holder
US6367651B2 (en) * 1998-12-30 2002-04-09 Dart Industries Inc. Vented container for produce
US6293459B1 (en) * 1999-11-16 2001-09-25 Rts Packaging, Llc Carton ventilation system
US20040137126A1 (en) * 2002-07-31 2004-07-15 Solorio Hector A. Reduced-calorie freezable beverage
US20060213958A1 (en) * 2005-03-18 2006-09-28 Valenzuela Juan Z Container with hold-open flaps for ventilation

Cited By (10)

* Cited by examiner, † Cited by third party
Publication number Priority date Publication date Assignee Title
US7882706B2 (en) 2008-04-10 2011-02-08 Kohler Co. Beverage cooling system
US20110315783A1 (en) * 2010-06-28 2011-12-29 Caron Products And Services, Inc. Insulated chamber with phase change material
US20150204601A1 (en) * 2010-06-28 2015-07-23 Caron Products And Services, Inc. Insulated Chamber with Phase Change Material
US9927169B2 (en) * 2010-06-28 2018-03-27 Caron Products And Services, Inc. Insulated chamber with phase change material
US20130247595A1 (en) * 2012-03-26 2013-09-26 Chefn Corporation Devices and methods for instantly freezing food products
US9497987B2 (en) * 2012-03-26 2016-11-22 Chef'n Corporation Devices and methods for instantly freezing food products
US20160219922A1 (en) * 2013-09-19 2016-08-04 Santetsu Engineering Inc. Thawing method for frozen goods
US9839229B2 (en) * 2013-09-19 2017-12-12 Santetsu Engineering Inc. Thawing method for frozen goods
US20170035227A1 (en) * 2014-04-17 2017-02-09 Timothy Teatro Cup rack
WO2016050716A3 (en) * 2014-10-02 2016-06-16 Sanofi-Aventis Deutschland Gmbh Storage and transportation tray with cooling means

Similar Documents

Publication Publication Date Title
US3262283A (en) Refrigerating jacket
US2645332A (en) Picnic box
US5406808A (en) Two-liter bottle cooler/insulator
US5524761A (en) Picnic cooler
US4802344A (en) Portable cooler for beverage kegs
US4812054A (en) Insulated beverage box carrier
US20040058038A1 (en) Lunch box capable of blastfrozen preservation
US5082115A (en) Meal container
US5095718A (en) Portable refrigeration case for the storage and dispensation of canned items
US5271244A (en) Container for producing cold foods and beverages
US4916921A (en) Ice maker with vertical cooling member
US4577474A (en) Thermally insulated holder for a single beverage can
US7207506B1 (en) Blending station apparatus and method
US4904848A (en) Portable cooling and heating device
US6067816A (en) Insulated soft-sided portable case having externally accessible receptacle
US4266407A (en) Portable cooler
US3971231A (en) Refrigerator with dry ice coolant
US5088301A (en) Nestable cooling bowl
US6295830B1 (en) Portable container for refrigerated or frozen goods
US2496296A (en) Portable refrigerated container
US3974658A (en) Contact refrigeration unit
US4336883A (en) Insulated container
US4628705A (en) Portable storage container
US4441336A (en) Cooler having freeze bottle insert
US6609392B1 (en) Apparatus and method for a temperature protected container