With the foodservice industry's business environment slowly improving, now is the time for many operators to get back on track with their equipment maintenance programs.
With the economy retreating in recent years, many consumers cut back their spending on food produced outside of the home. To adapt to the challenging environment, many foodservice operators altered their purchasing practices and the way they maintain and run their facilities.
In fact, during the recession it became more common for foodservice operators to repair rather than replace foodservice equipment, according to FE&S' 2014 Dealer Forecast Study. Prior to the recession, the rule of thumb was that if a repair exceeded 50 percent of the equipment's purchase price, generally speaking it made more sense for the operator to replace that item. During the recession, though, that line of thought often got tossed out the window. "I have seen the repair price go as high as 70 percent or 80 percent of the purchase price. Ten years ago, there is no way they would have made the decision to repair that piece of equipment," says Dee Holt, service manager, Goodwin Tucker Group, a Des Moines, Iowa-based service agent. "Some restaurants are buying less expensive equipment and disposing of it more frequently. They know the likelihood is that they will replace it in three to five years."
And it was not uncommon for foodservice operators to suspend planned maintenance programs for their equipment almost entirely. "We started to see the service calls being the extreme examples, only for those instances that could cause a disruption in their operation," Holt says.
The good news, though, is that the business climate in today's foodservice industry continues to hold steady and even shows slight signs of improvement. In fact, 58 percent of operators say they made a capital expenditure for foodservice equipment or remodeling during the past 3 months, according to the National Restaurant Association's July Restaurant Performance Index. And 53 percent of operators plan to make a capital expenditure in the next 6 months, according to the NRA's study.
While these rates tend to fluctuate a little each month, it is encouraging to see the majority of operators looking to invest in their facilities. "It is starting to come back around where we are starting to see decisions include the overall age and life cycle expectancy," Holt says.
As a result, now may be the time for foodservice operators to revisit their maintenance plans to get back on a path that ensures they get the maximum service life out of their equipment.
Often, if a piece of equipment fails to function properly, many operators will reach for the phone to make a service call. But that might not be the proper course of action. It is important to realize that both parties have a vested interest in a service call being as effective and efficient as possible. "It does not do us any good if we have a service tech at one place where he is not needed. He could be somewhere else helping another customer," points out Chris Warren, director of operations for Joe Warren & Sons, a Norwood, Mass.-based service agency. "It comes down to trust and relationships."
Before picking up the phone, Joe Warren, president and CEO of Joe Warren & Sons, suggests making sure the unit is properly connected to its power source, checking to see if the indicator light is on, and if the unit connects to the building's hot water, and making sure the pipes are, in fact, hot. "Those are some basic things you can do to avoid the nuisance calls," Joe Warren says. "A lot of people call for service and a tech gets there only to find the unit is not plugged in and the customer gets frustrated having to pay for the visit."
Holt offers another perspective about deciding when the time is right to include a service agent. "Any time you have to take off a cover to expose control boards or gas connections, that's where you should draw the line," Holt says.
To help avoid nuisance calls, many service agents who are members of the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association (CFESA), like Warren's company, have checklists the operator can use. By answering these questions, operators not only determine whether a service call is necessary but they can also provide valuable information the technician can leverage before arriving on-site. "It is just being observant. If you are a chef used to working with a piece of equipment, and that item does not function the way it normally does, you should be able to describe what's happening and make a phone call," Joe Warren says. "Listen, smell and observe. If something seems out of the ordinary, call us and we will help you determine if a service call is necessary."
When calling to schedule service, operators should be as detailed as possible. "We are only as good as the information we are getting on the initial call. Tell us the basics, such as the manufacturer name, serial number and location on the line and what's not working," Holt says. "It's like heading to the doctor's office. You don't just say you don't feel well. You tell them exactly what hurts. Same applies here. If it stops working when you reach a certain temperature, that's important for the servicer to know."
Given that cash may be tight for operators, it could behoove them to get as much information and input as possible to help make an informed decision when replacing an existing piece of foodservice equipment or buying something new. Holt suggests finding out if there is a local authorized service agent for the equipment; learning more about the availability of parts and identifying the parts distributor; understanding the scope of the warranty for parts and labor and even asking for references of other customers who purchased the equipment.
"We are only as good as the population of the equipment," Holt adds. "If there are only four of these pieces of equipment in our area, it will be hard for us to be stocked properly and be trained well on this. Those are the questions I would ask if I were in their shoes."
For his part, Chris Warren sees value in including the dealer, rep and service agent in the process. "Having those three parties involved in the transaction is not usually the approach that's taken because these instances tend to be last minute. But operators want to maintain open and real relationships with those three parties. Having all the parties present allows us to have a discussion about installation, warranty concerns and more. We do it with new construction and if it happened more frequently with other purchases everyone would benefit," he says.
And from Chris Warren's perspective, operators should consider extending this all-inclusive approach beyond the purchasing process. "Knowing what I know, I would try to arrange to have all three parties there with your employees when you have some down time to review the proper functions of the machine, how the operator uses it and daily and monthly cleaning," he says.
Because equipment, if properly maintained, can last for a long time, a lot can change in a product category between the initial purchase and when it comes time to replace the item. So Joe Warren suggests a few considerations operators should weigh when purchasing a piece of equipment. "If I am buying a piece of equipment, one of the first questions I ask is: Is there a local service agent?" he says. "With European equipment coming into the market, there may not be a local service agent or a way to get parts. Also, operators should ask what they will have to do on a weekly and monthly basis to maintain this piece of equipment. Usually, 90 percent of that is laid out in owner's manual, but that usually gets lost shortly after installation."
Simplicity and appropriateness for the operation represent another consideration operators should weigh when purchasing equipment. "What am I trying to accomplish? Equipment offers lots of whistles and bells, but are they appropriate for your business?" Joe Warren asks. "Today's equipment is great but the technology behind it is pretty sophisticated. So this complexity eliminates the end user's ability to perform any service."
"If I were the manager of a restaurant, when a new piece of equipment showed up we would have a powwow around it to discuss how we will take care of it," Holt says.
And it is important for operators to develop some type of instructions, visual or written, for most steps. "It is all very equipment specific," Holt says. "Some things are more involved. With an expensive combi oven, there is only so much you should clean."
As the economy stalled, many manufacturers offered extended warranties to help entice operators to purchase new equipment. While this may add value to a specific purchase, operators need to understand what they are getting into. "Always ask what that extended warranty means," Holt says. "How much warranty am I going to get for labor? Parts? Ask a lot of questions to make sure you know what you are getting."
For example, some manufacturers request pictures of a piece of equipment before approving warranty work, according to Joe Warren. He encourages operators to know and understand the warranty inclusions and exclusions for that piece of equipment. It is important for the service agent and operator to thoroughly document a warranty claim. "Managing expectations and getting everyone on the same page right away is imperative," he says. "We are in a tough spot because when it is a new piece of equipment nobody wants to get a bill for service work."
When a warranty claim is necessary, the process may require a significant amount of paper work. "The back end paper work process can be hampering at times," Chris Warren agrees. "For our company, though, it is making us better because we have to pay greater attention to detail for the entire scope of the service call. And that, undoubtedly, carries through to non-warranty service calls."
One common maintenance-related mistake to avoid is cutting corners when it comes to installing equipment. Most service agents agree that proper installation can stave off countless service issues that arise during the first days of equipment ownership. "Everyone has a friend that they think can handle this, and what it comes down to is not following directions," Joe Warren says. "They don't understand the inner workings of a piece of equipment. But that's not their job to know that either. Installation is not done properly from day one. I wish the manufacturers would require that their equipment be installed by a qualified installer."
As an example, Joe Warren points to ice machines. Common installation mistakes include using the wrong size incoming pipe, not venting the machine correctly or not allowing for the proper drainage. All of these factors can play a role in an ice machine's performance and impact its service life.
Along those lines, operators have a tendency to skip the maintenance steps associated with their water filters. "It just amazes me that they don't pay attention to this and what it can do to an ice machine and the quality of the product over time," Holt says.
She adds that many operators will ignore their water filters unless someone brings it to their attention. It's out of sight, out of mind.
Another common mistake operators make is failing to follow directions. "The first thing we stress is following the manufacturers' guidelines," Holt adds. "It's like the car analogy. If you don't change your oil your car won't run."
While this step may seem simple, it happens all too rarely these days, most service agents agree. "How many times does someone read the owner's manual for their equipment? You have to make yourself learn the equipment," Holt says. "Now, they make it so easy with technology, you can go online to find what you need." Holt suggests keeping all of the equipment manuals in one place. "I would do that and there are probably certain key elements that you will need to point out to your staff."
Along those lines, customers should resist the temptation to be overzealous when cleaning and sanitizing equipment. Simply following the factory instructions should suffice and calling in the big guns, like caustic chemicals or power washers, when they are not warranted can do more harm than good. "Customers should wipe their equipment down and properly clean and sanitize the equipment regularly," Holt says. "And wipe the gaskets. There's always time for that."
Indeed, there should always be time for good maintenance, too.
When trying to decide if a piece of equipment requires service, Commercial Food Equipment Service Association (CFESA) suggests asking the following questions:
And, when a technician diagnoses the problem with a piece of equipment, operators should take the time to understand what caused it.
For more information visit www.cfesa.com
When caring for various items, the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association suggests avoiding the following: