Maintenance Matters: Avoiding Costs with Prevention and Replacements

A dealer, service agent and two chain operators offer their take on the importance of good preventative maintenance for foodservice equipment. We'll also take a look at how to know when it's time to swap out the old with the new.

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So many foodservice professionals use the car example when talking about kitchen equipment. Change your oil regularly, go for scheduled tune-ups, replace brake pads, tires, air filters and other small parts if needed, and the car will have a much longer service life.

Commercial kitchen equipment is no different. In fact, service agents not only encourage, but stress, and stress some more, that operators create a preventative maintenance plan for their major pieces of foodservice equipment. Not only does such a plan extend the life of equipment, which is especially important for keeping costs low, but it also makes working with service agents much smoother and easier. Scheduling regular checkups on a monthly, quarterly, or yearly basis, helps prevent foodservice operators from placing those frantic phone calls to their service agents saying "my-refrigerator went down and customer service-starts-now" or "I walked in this morning to find my cooler down and all the food spoiled." Regular preventative maintenance, or PM, as the term goes, prevents throwing a wrench in both the service agent's schedule, and in that of the operator.

While high-powered chains may be able to afford replacing equipment every five years, other foodservice operators that run on stricter budgets may elect to focus on maintenance to extend the life of their equipment over the long haul. Of course, knowing when to replace a piece of equipment represents only the beginning of the process.

FE&S caught up with three different industry members to get their perspectives on preventative maintenance, and when it's about that time to replace equipment. We spoke with an equipment and supplies dealer, a service agent, and a couple of operators. Read on to find out what they had to say.

THE DEALER: BUYING SMART

For some foodservice operators, replacing their kitchen equipment is not a high priority. Many of them would rather put in the time, effort, and nominal costs to maintain their equipment to last them a decade if need be. Such is the case with the foodservice operators that make up the client list for Cris Gross, FE&S' 2009 DSR of the Year and Northern Michigan rep for Stafford-Smith. "Many of my customers don't have the budget, the population, or the financial support to replace equipment often," he said.

As a result, reasonable preventative maintenance is critical for most pieces of equipment Gross sells. "For complete kitchen build-outs, we supply our customers with complete set of owners' manuals for every piece of equipment," Gross says. "Then we highlight the guidelines for maintenance within those."

These days, preventative maintenance is especially important when budgets have become tighter and dollars harder to come-by. "My replacement equipment business is way down right now," Gross says. "Let's a foodservice operator has a single-door refrigerator that went down. That may cost them $2,300 to replace that piece of equipment, or $900 for the service agent to repair a dead compressor. A few years ago, if that customer already had the fridge for five or six years, they would have ordered a replacement. Now, they have a tendency to spend that $900 on service. Focusing on preventative maintenance and cleaning the condenser coils every day may have prevented the whole unit from going down in the first place."

Pre-Purchase Points

Even before preventative maintenance comes into the picture, though, Gross says his job his to help his customers make the right purchases that will stretch their dollar throughout the life of the equipment. Choosing the right equipment for a particular operation also helps prevent unnecessary replacements.

"If we're working with a new facility, or will be replacing several pieces, we always start with the menu," he says.

Gross offers fryers as an example: pot-style fryers work better with fries and small product with a lot of surface area, while tube-style fryers are better for fish and larger product. Determining the right fit for the right menu item is one thing, but energy-efficiency and supply considerations are another.

"If you buy a pot-style fryer versus a tube-style fryer, it can be more expensive upfront, but it burns oil less quickly and fryer oil is the single-most expensive food product that restaurants purchase," Gross says. "Its easy to save customers money in the long-run by getting them a better fryer that burns oil more efficiently, but they may have to spend two- to three-times the price of the low-end model upfront. All I can do is lay that fact out and show a return-on-investment analysis between btu differences. Burning less oil means you'll recover the costs of a $3,000 fryer in 2 ½ years."

At the same time, though, some operators just know they'll replace their fryer every three to five years, and are fine with that. "They may want to just spend $900 every time and get something fast and cheap, rather than do the research and consider the savings in utilities." In short, it all comes down to operator-preference, and their willingness to determine total-cost-of-ownership for different pieces of equipment.

For existing facilities, Gross' team will look at any menu changes that might be in the works, or have happened recently, requiring different equipment models, sizes, or layouts. "Once you've determined the right fit in that regard, then you have to look at other special considerations, such as the kitchen space, and gas and electrical capabilities," he says. "You don't want to buy a 12-piece food equipment line and then have your restaurant explode because you don't have enough gas capability."

Then, it comes down to equipment characteristics. Most of Gross' clients, he says, go for the high-quality models that are more durable to last longer and require less-frequent repairs or parts-replacements. "Your typical medium-duty range for an independent restaurant may last 10 to 15 years, but if they spend more on the heavy-duty equipment, it's reasonable to say it will last 20 to 25 years, provided the equipment has been kept in shape," he says. Schools and universities, healthcare facilities, country club customers, and other non-commercial operators as well as some chains typically make these big purchases all-at-once, and then go for years without replacements, in Gross' experience.

Technology Improvements

Aside from wear and tear, equipment replacements will sometimes occur when newer, higher-efficiency models come out on the market. "That's been pretty typical in terms of reach-in refrigeration and ice machines," Gross says. "The technology that makes those products run is much more efficient, so it's worthwhile to some operators to replace a 15-year-old, 2-door energy-hogging refrigerator with a new one that has a better motor with much less amp draw. If they've had that reach-in for a long time, it may be better just to upgrade to more efficient technology and pay a little more money upfront, rather than put in the service dollars to replace parts on the old equipment."

Design Changes

Another factor affecting a piece of equipment's life cycle is facility design changes that the operator makes. Chains that remodel their new-construction prototypes and/or other operators that re-concept entirely will have this impact. "I've had customers go from a bar to becoming a full-service restaurant and we'll have to do a much larger change out of equipment to fit their increase in volume," Gross says.

In other instances, customers may be looking to redesign their kitchens to save space. "They may think that switching to undercounter refrigerator instead of an upright one will allow them to have room for another piece of equipment," Gross says.

THE SERVICE AGENT: PM RULES

Preventative maintenance has always been a big part of a service agent's business. But in light of the fiscal stress the economic climate has imposed on operators, even preventative maintenance became a tough sell for a while.

"From the fall of 2008 through this past May, nobody was even fixing anything," says Wayne Stoutner, president of Appliance Installation & Service Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y. That situation has improved slightly as of late, but Stoutner finds he still has to encourage customers to get regular checkups and clean their equipment thoroughly.

"Some operators with multiple pieces of the same type of equipment would rather just throw out a broken one and just stick with the other two they have," says Stoutner, who won FE&S' 2009 Top Achiever – Service Agent Award. "Many said they are not overly busy right now and don't want to spend the money to fix the equipment."

By June, business at some of these customers started picking up again though, and they couldn't wait any longer. "It would have been a good idea to do the preventative maintenance in the first place to keep equipment in peak condition and get through rougher times," Stoutner says.

Cold Equipment

Investing in preventative maintenance can be of particular significance when it comes to refrigeration equipment. "It's so important to keep condenser coils cleaned and gaskets in good condition," Stoutner says. "That's something the operator can do and most pieces of equipment have a service manual explaining how to do it. When coils get dirty, the compressor works harder and, as a result, it becomes hotter. And when it's a little hotter in the kitchen, those coils don't allow the compressor to work properly, and it starts to burn up. At that point, instead of the $75 it costs to clean the compressor, now it's more like $500 to get it repaired or replaced."

Stoutner recommends replacing fixing leaking gaskets and/or replacing them every two years if needed. He also suggests operators occasionally set their coolers on a defrost cycle, calibrate thermostats and check doors hinges and handles to make sure cold air doesn't escaping.

There's no question it's time to replace walk-in coolers when the machines are 20 years old and the operator has spent more than half its value in repairs. But even at four years old, if the repairs have outweighed the initial purchase costs due to excess use or misuse, it may be time for new equipment.

On coolers, the first parts most likely to need replacing tend to be usually thermostats and valves, which are relatively inexpensive. An operator has a larger concern to deal with when a compressor or, in the case of an ice machine, an evaporator needs replacing. "When these items need fixing, it's good to weigh your options," Stoutner says.

Hot Line Equipment

Stoutner also encourages operators to develop preventative maintenance plans for steamers, coffee brewers, and other equipment with water and boilers that are prone to suffering from major limescale buildup. Not cleaning or deliming these machines puts a huge strain on energy efficiency and causes problems with sticking valves and other parts.

While preventative maintenance is a little harder sell on the cooking equipment side of the kitchen, Stoutner says, foodservice operators should still take several steps to ensure their these items function at peak efficiency. For example, Stoutner encourages customers to clean the burners on their ranges daily or, at the very least, on a weekly basis. "A clogged burner sucks up more gas because the user has to turn the flame up higher than normal to get the desired cooking power."

Stoutner recommends removing the burners once a week or so and soaking them in soapy hot water to remove food and grease buildup. For cast iron burners with less food buildup, he suggests carefully broiling them under the salamander to burn out grease and food debris. But, he urges operators to use caution when doing that, and only in mild grease cases.

Hoods and Ventilation

Preventive maintenance on hoods is a big issue for operators. "When a hood goes down, the kitchen is out of business," Stoutner says. "If you can't exhaust, you can't cook period. At least once a year, but hopefully twice, operators should get their hoods and HVAC systems checked out."

That may involve changing belts on exhaust fans and makeup air systems as well as cleaning outdoor filters. Regular hood cleaning is also important. "International and state mechanical code requires hoods to be cleaned at least once or twice a year, but in reality do all foodservice operators do that? No," Stoutner says.

When grease filters on the hood get too clogged they leak smoke and grease into the dining room, not to mention starting fires, Stoutner says. In addition, even though they're out of site, and therefore out of mind, yearly belt changes are important. "You don't want your two-year-old belt snapping on a Friday night which will close down the restaurant."

A nominal $10 for a new belt outweighs a 1-hour labor charge with possible overtime. It's sort of like insurance, but unfortunately, Stoutner says, too many operators would rather take the gamble than pay for the regular maintenance.

Regular Tune-Ups

Preventative maintenance also helps service agents. Instead of responding to random emergencies, service agents can make more routine, scheduled calls. "We don't want to have to do too many emergency repairs because we're already busy with regular ones," he says. Unfortunately, the biggest challenges service agents face is trying to get foodservice operators to understand that that preventative maintenance really benefits them and is not a way to score an extra buck. In some cases, service agents actually make more money on a random emergency call. But developing a trusting, lasting relationship through routine maintenance is the preferred method of doing business for many qualified service agents, Stoutner says.

"What I do is tell the customer, here's what PM will cost, I tell them why it's important and what the benefits are. It becomes a lot easier and more cost effective to schedule service ahead of time rather than at the last minute," he says.

THE OPERATOR: TRAINING IS KEY

FE&S talked to two very different sub sandwich operators for their input on preventative maintenance and replacing equipment. Don Fox, chief operating officer of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Firehouse Subs, discussed the importance of regular cleaning and the benefits of having a small parts inventory at each store. Brad Davis, director of equipment purchasing for the Independent Purchasing Co-op for the Subway chain, talked about streamlining preventative maintenance plans for the chain's many franchisees, and an online program in the works.

Firehouse

Across Firehouse Subs' 374 units, 344 of which are franchised, steamers represent one of the most critical pieces of equipment. Staff use the steamers to heat the meats and melt the cheese and then place the ingredients on toasted bread before delivery to customers.

"Since our individual steamers can only heat up meat for two sandwiches at a time, they get a lot of repetitive use," Fox says. That means the steamers, which were custom-built to fit the chain's needs, go through wear and tear over the years. Despite this, the steamers still can last seven to 10 years, thanks to the chain's focus on regular, daily cleaning and maintenance.

"Because of our culture of maintenance and care, it's not unusual for us to get up to 10 years out of our equipment," Fox says. "We really enforce maintenance, especially at our franchised stores, through monthly inspections."

In addition, the chain mandates a six-week training program for all staff which includes in-the-field equipment cleaning and maintenance training. Managers will also spend a week in training classes in Jacksonville that's later followed up by ongoing support from Firehouse Subs area representatives, many who are known to continue educating staff on equipment maintenance.

Throughout the years, the steamers may need door-hinge fixing, deliming, and circuit board replacements. Each store keeps a small inventory of extra steamer and toaster parts for immediate backup, but a strong connection with local service agents helps keep the individual stores operating at full capacity, Fox says. The chain also keeps a bank of up to 10 steamers at company-owned locations in case any of the steamers at the franchised stores go down during service times.

When it's time to replace the equipment, Fox says, "We try to make sure any of the new equipment we select is maintenance friendly." As part of a future equipment roll out, the chain has been looking into a conveyor steamer that uses less energy. Before adding this piece of equipment, though, Firehouse will also take into account ease of maintenance, size, durability, and ease of use.

Breaking into new geographic markets can be a challenge for Firehouse subs as it has to establish a network of distributors and service agents. "It's very important for us to do our homework when buying new equipment anywhere, though," Fox says. "Anything we put in the franchise community we've thoroughly tested at our 30 company locations first."

Slicers are another critical part of Firehouse Subs' operation. The company requires that its franchisees purchase a slicer that's at a higher price point, but the payoff in quality is worth it for everyone, Fox says. With slicers, safeguards and thorough safety training are needed. Staff also must clean the equipment on a daily basis to keep it working at optimal condition.

Subway

At Subway, the rapid-cook ovens, refrigerated prep tables, and convection ovens for bread baking are center the sandwich operation. "We constantly bake bread in our oven so we can't afford for that to go down," Davis says. In a worst-case scenario, a store manager could grab bread from another nearby store, but that happens rarely, thanks to good PM.

"We have a prepared a preventative maintenance program for our operators and a schedule that we encourage them to adopt and follow," Davis says. Equipment maintenance training is offered to managers as an online training course through the "University of Subway" electronic program.

To track maintenance, store operators can go onto Subway's Web site to download PDF versions of PM schedules for daily, quarterly and annual maintenance with detailed photos as well as tracking sheets for every piece of equipment used. The sheets are then stored in binders kept at every store. Right now, though, Davis says "we're looking to make this an electronic tracking system through our Web site."

Should a rapid-cook oven malfunction, the chain has developed a repair tool for quick-fixes on-site. When breakdowns begin to occur more regularly, "we advise our franchisees to compare the residual value of the equipment over its expected life cycle with the cost of repairs."

The rapid-cook ovens are still going strong after six years, although Subway has prepared for a potential new equipment rollout in their seventh year. In the meantime, regular cleaning to avoid excessive heat buildup keeps them functioning fully. For the bread ovens, which can last between 10 and 15 years with good maintenance, Subway trains its managers and staff to dry out the cabins after proofing as well as maintain gaskets, replace door hinges and perform other checkups.

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