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25 Dec 2014 / mttlg

2014: A Toaster Oven Odyssey

The toaster oven.  It’s one of the greatest achievements in kitchen appliances.  Slightly bigger than a toaster, much smaller than a conventional oven, the toaster oven is a versatile tool that can handle most small tasks of cooking and reheating.  Except for time spent on travel and a brief cereal phase a few years ago, I’ve used a toaster oven just about every morning since I was a small child.  So when mine stopped working one morning, it was a serious problem that required quick resolution.

Background

But first, some backstory.  My toaster oven was a cheap Black & Decker model that never quite worked right.  I prefer my toast to be a medium brown, but the Black & Decker couldn’t quite get there even at full power.  Two times at the maximum setting was a bit too much, so I had to run things through twice at just past halfway on the darkness dial.  That’s not a very effective toaster.  The one thing it had going for it was longevity; it lasted about a decade before it finally gave out.

For ten years, I put up with this mediocrity, cursing fate for bringing it into my life.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  Many years ago, back when I got my first apartment, my mother made her first visit with a truckload of supplies, including one Hamilton Beach toaster oven.  It wasn’t anything special, but it got the job done.  And then, a few months later, my brother gave me another one for Christmas.  The Black & Decker.

My brother always had a knack for odd and confusing presents, but this one was one of the most baffling.  What was I supposed to do with another toaster oven?  And so I kept it stored away for the next few years until a move forced me to get rid of a few unnecessary things.  One toaster oven had to go, so I gave away the old Hamilton Beach and kept the still new Black & Decker, beginning a decade of suffering.

But all of that was over now.  Now I was left with cold bread and an empty space on the countertop.  What was I going to do?  Ordering one online was out of the question.  I needed toast tonight, not 3-5 days from now.  That meant choosing from what was available at retail and hoping for an acceptable replacement.  This might not be so easy.

Requirements

I didn’t need much from a replacement toaster oven, but I still had a few basic requirements.

Price – Approximately $60, give or take.  Not bargain basement, not top of the line.
Size – About the same as my old Black & Decker (15″ x 9″ x 8″).
Toasting – Able to toast a variety of bread and bread type substances of a variety of shapes and sizes to a dark brown.
Reheating – Able to reheat two slices of standard size pizza.

And that’s about it.  Additional features wouldn’t be unwelcome, as long as they didn’t make the device less capable of meeting the previously stated requirements.

The Search

It was going to take a lot of reconnaissance to properly evaluate all of the available options.  There was no guarantee that any of these options would even be suitable.  With the way consumer goods tend to go, cheap and disposable usually wins out over quality.  So our first stop would be the one that claims to be the best.

Best Buy

I did not have high hopes for Best Buy.  But, when it isn’t being used as extra space for Black Friday checkout lines, there is an appliance section in there.  And, according to the web site, they do carry toaster ovens.  They just aren’t easy to find.  And there aren’t many of them.  At the time, they had only two models in stock: one that was way too big and an Oster model that met the size and price requirements but had terrible reviews online.  On to the next stop.

Wal-Mart

It’s not my first choice for, well, anything, but they have toaster ovens.  Quite a few it turns out.  But when you eliminate everything too big, too expensive, or too Black & Decker, you’re left with just a $40 Oster model.  Which wasn’t in stock.  But maybe I could find it at another store.  If I could find the model number.  It wasn’t on the shelf tag or the front of the display model.  Or the back.  Or the sides for that matter.  No, the model number could only be found on the bottom.  Luckily, the display base was clear.  With that found, it was possible to find out more about this model.

Which wasn’t in stock anywhere near me.  It did have good reviews though.  But the only reviews were on Wal-Mart’s web site.  No other retailer sold this model, a major red flag.  The lack of alternate resellers indicated that this could be a Wal-Mart special model.  What tends to happen is that Wal-Mart decides what price a product will sell for and leaves it up to the manufacturer to figure out how to make that price point profitable.  If existing models won’t work, the manufacturer will make a special model for Wal-Mart that will.  This usually involves removing features, using cheaper parts, or, in more extreme cases, moving production overseas.  In any case, the model sold at Wal-Mart may be cheaper, but it is usually inferior to comparable models from the same manufacturer.  And in this case, the comparable models had poor reviews.  Scratch one more from the list.

Target

As you would expect, the options here were almost the exactly the same as those at Target.  The only difference was that the out-of-stock Oster model was $50 instead of $40.  With the usual bad reviews.  This was getting me nowhere.

Lowe’s

Home improvement stores carry appliances too, so why not see what they had at Lowe’s?  After scouring the aisles and aisles of microwaves and coffee makers, I came up empty.  Lowe’s does carry toaster ovens, but only through their web site.  If you want to get one in a store, you have to wait a week.  I was not going to wait a week to be able to toast again.  A quick check of Home Depot yielded the same result.

One positive result of this part of the search was that several of the toaster ovens on the home improvement store web sites looked like they could meet all of my requirements.  The most promising were models from Hamilton Beach and Cuisinart.  If I could only find one in stock somewhere…  It was getting late and I was running out of options.  There was only one store left.

Sears

There was a time when Sears was the go-to place for just about every kind of product.  Those days are over, but Sears still does a few things well, including appliances.  According to their web site, they did carry Hamilton Beach and Cuisinart toaster ovens, among others.  They were even stock at my local store.  Which was closing in just over an hour.  That didn’t leave much time for a decision, but at least a suitable resolution was in sight.

The Decision

With some viable options before me, I could finally get down to the matter of assessing compliance with my requirements and deciding on which model to purchase.  One of the biggest problems I encountered in my examination of toaster ovens up until this point was the complexity of the controls.  With only two functions on my list of requirements, the necessary controls should be simple.  One button to start toasting, a darkness selector, a function selector, and a temperature selector.  In other words, the controls that were standard on a toaster oven for decades.  But not anymore.

Today’s toaster ovens are a mess of complicated dials and/or digital displays.  Just about all of the cheaper models use a multifuction timer for the toast function, making it more difficult to maintain a consistent toasting level.  The models with digital displays are even more troubling.  It might make sense in a high-end model, but a digital display on a cheap model is almost certain to be a poor-performing knock-off rather that a useful feature.  Sometimes a manufacturer will do anything to make a product look expensive except spend the money to do things right.

And that’s how I settled on Cuisinart.  Just about every other toaster oven I saw came up short in the controls, but both of the Cuisinart models in stock had exactly what I was looking for.  With the standard dials set properly, all you have to do to toast is push a simple button.  The smaller model, the TOB-80, was under $60 but was a bit too small for my needs.  The TOB-40 was $67.99, just over my desired price range, and was slightly bigger than my previous toaster oven (1″ wider, 1″ taller, and 5″ deeper).  The reviews were generally good, though some complaints were troubling.  Still, it was the best option I had found and it was less than an hour until closing time.  Time to make a purchase.

The Purchase

Not so fast.  You know that $67.99 price?  Well, that was the web price, marked down from $89.99.  It was on sale in the store as well, but for $82.99.  That was a problem.  I would have asked an associate for assistance, but it seemed like everyone was leaving early.  Or maybe nobody wants to have anything to do with the small appliance section when there are bigger commissions to be earned elsewhere.  Whatever the reason, there wasn’t a store employee anywhere in sight and I was running out of time.  I was here and the toaster oven was here, but the price was online.  So I placed an online order for in-store pickup and waited for a confirmation.

And waited.  And waited.  After 20 minutes, I went up to merchandise pickup to see if I could get the process moving.  But the order wasn’t in the system yet.  Finally, nearly half an hour after I placed the order, I received an e-mail saying that my order was delayed.  Delayed?  I could go downstairs and take care of this myself in less than 5 minutes, but it was too late to even send the order notification to the store electronically?  I could see not guaranteeing that something would be available for pickup that day, but the Sears system won’t even let the store try if it is closing in less than an hour.  They intentionally built inefficiency into the system while making the local employees look lazy and unreliable in the process.  That is simply unacceptable.

Luckily, the employees at merchandise pickup were anything but lazy and unreliable.  When one saw me having trouble, he offered assistance and brought me inside to have a supervisor find out what was going on with my order.  When they couldn’t get anywhere with the web order, they sent someone down to get the toaster oven I wanted, matched the web site price, processed the transaction, and then called to cancel the web order.  They could have just told me what to do and cut me loose, but instead they went through every step of the process and didn’t stop until everything was resolved.  This is the kind of service you used to expect from retail shopping.  Unfortunately, it can be hard to find these days outside of that one back room at Sears.

The Product

Finally, I was able to toast again.  This new toaster oven, the Cuisinart TOB-40, takes up slightly more space than my old Black & Decker but is significantly larger inside due to the additional depth.  It has enough power to toast properly on the first attempt and it couldn’t be easier to use.  As far as I’m concerned, it does everything I need it to do perfectly well.  But plenty of other people have complaints.  And so I set out to resolve every minor deficiency to see just how close to perfect I could get it.

Problem: The included rack has a bar preventing items from being slid in and out

This is actually more significant than it sounds.  When you’re trying to remove something very hot from the inside of an oven, it helps to be able to slide it out on the metal bars of the toasting rack.  For some reason, Cuisinart decided to put the large bars at the front and back of the rack on top of the smaller bars, preventing anything from being able to slide out.  This could be a major issue, except…

Solution: Flip rack over

You can simply flip the rack over and slide it into the lower rack position to get around this problem.  You lose the feature of the rack being pulled out slightly when the door is opened, but that feature never really worked right anyway.  The upper rack position is also made unusable (the rack now sits slightly above the rail slot instead of below it), but no real utility is lost.

Problem: The position of the dials is difficult to determine

This one is a bit of an annoyance.  The dials have a black plastic outer ring with regularly spaced ridges around the outside.  One of these ridges is larger and indicates the selected position of the dial.  Since everything is black, it is hard to see where the dial is pointing.

Solution: Silver Sharpie

For a solution, I had to look no further than my standard autograph kit for baseball games.  A few strokes with a silver Sharpie made the large ridges easy to spot.  I don’t know why Cuisinart couldn’t think to have this done in the factory, but it wasn’t a big deal for me to fix myself.

Problem: Top gets very hot

Imagine that, the top of a metal box that gets very hot inside gets hot too.  It’s almost like heat rises and metal conducts heat or something.  This really shouldn’t be a surprise, but some people just don’t get thermodynamics.  Still, this is something to be aware of as the wrong object placed on top of the oven could present a fire hazard.

Solution: Cutting board

I kept a small marble cutting board on top of my last toaster oven for this very reason.  It also fits perfectly on this one, though you need to be careful not to cover the vent slits.  The top of the oven still gets hot, but the top of the cutting board is safe to touch.

Problem: Toast comes out black at the maximum setting

The darkness selector goes from an open circle (on silver background) to a filled-in black circle.  When set to the open circle, the toast comes out white.  When set to the filled-in circle, the toast comes out black.  The darkness selector gives an accurate indication of the results.

Solution: This is not a problem

People are complaining that this toaster is too powerful?  Really?  If you want a toaster that can’t blacken toast no matter how hard it tries, you would have loved my old Black & Decker.  If you don’t want blackened toast, why would you select black on the darkness selector?  And if I do want blackened toast, why should I have to toast multiple times to get there?  Have you ever tried charred rye toast with butter?  It’s actually pretty good.  Since the darkness selector has a full range of options and not just black and white, I simply cannot comprehend what the problem is.  If the toast comes out too dark, turn the dial back a little.  Once you get it where you want it, leave it there.  You can even use a marker to mark your preferred setting.

Problem: Oven has no timer

I guess when every other toaster oven integrates a timer (often poorly), people start seeing the lack of one as a deficiency.  This toaster oven has no timer.  It cannot be set to shut off after a set period of time.  It also has no delay timer, no clock, and no automatic time-based start feature.  That’s just the way it is.

Solution: Use another timer

I have a timer on my oven, a timer on my watch, a timer on my phone…  If I really need a timer, I’ll use one of those.  You can also get a standalone kitchen timer if you need one dedicated to the device.  It won’t be integrated, but it will work as a timer.  If you need something fancier, buy something else.  Nothing I do requires any timing capability; I just want toast.

Problem: Temperature dial only works in 50-degree increments

I could see why this one could prompt a return.  People who care a lot more about such things than I do have reported that this oven is only capable of operating at 50-degree increments, e.g., 300 degrees and 350 degrees but not 325 degrees.  If you’re trying to do something more complicated than toasting bread or reheating pizza, this could be a significant limitation.

Solution: Accept the limitation

But I’m not trying to do anything that would require specific temperatures, so this limitation means nothing to me.  It should still be noted so consumers can make an informed decision.

Problem: Cuisinart warranty service is poor

Customers who have experienced problems with Cuisinart products have reported that warranty service does not include the cost of return or replacement postage.  For a product this heavy and inexpensive, that can make the cost of a warranty replacement more than half of the cost of a new replacement.  That is absolutely pathetic for such a big name in kitchen appliances.

Solution: Cross your fingers

There’s not much more you can do for this one than hope for the best.  The days of getting a decade out of a cheap toaster oven are probably over.  You’re probably lucky if it outlasts the warranty period.  If it doesn’t though, explore every possible avenue other than dealing with Cuisinart.  Try taking it back to the store, getting a replacement through your credit card, anything.  Just find a way to get a replacement without getting stuck with the shipping fees.  If their product is defective, it’s on them to replace it.  Since Cuisinart is apparently unwilling to make things right, they should be used only as a last resort.  Companies just don’t stand behind their products anymore and it’s not like there are a whole lot of alternatives out there.  This kind of shortsighted policy is why there’s no such thing as brand loyalty anymore.  I buy what works.  If you don’t stand behind your products, you get no bonus points the next time around.

Conclusion

The Cuisinart TOB-40 with fixes applied

There’s not much more to say.  I now have full toasting capabilities, something I haven’t been able to say in a decade. Hopefully it will stay that way for another decade…

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