In response to a challenging business environment, many foodservice operators may be tempted to compromise when it comes to repairing and maintaining their equipment. Here a veteran service agent offers a few precautionary examples of why it is important for operators to use their supply chain partners to make informed decisions before taking action.

As the business environment got tighter the past few years, foodservice operators continued to look for ways to lower their operating costs to help ease the burden on their cash flow. While the business environment in 2012 shows signs of improving, operators still remain leery of the economic factors, such as rising food costs, that impact their business.

For example, 58 percent of the operators participating in FE&S' 2012 Forecast Study said they would have to lower their equipment expenditures if food costs continue to rise this year. Still, that does not mean operators can function in an equipment-free environment and these items require repair and maintenance.

"While the economy is down the repair business is good because people don't want to spend money on new equipment when they can fix what they have," says Paul Toukatly of Duffy's Equipment Service Inc. in Sauquoit, N.Y.

In addition to hanging on to equipment longer, many operators are cutting corners by trying to perform the maintenance themselves. Whether this represents a good idea depends largely on the skill set of the individual doing the work. For those operators that want to travel the do-it-yourself path, Toukatly suggests first consulting "the manufacturer's manual to learn what you can do to maintain the item yourself. Then do what you are comfortable with."

"We get calls from people who have taken something apart and can't get it back together," Toukatly adds. "We will walk them through certain things and leave the decision about whether they should complete the repairs up to them. If they are not comfortable doing the repairs then we will go out to help them." In the event an operator opts to enlist outside help, Toukatly suggests working with CFESA-trained service agents because most are up to speed on the latest information from the factories they support.

Another approach operators take to save money is scavenging parts from other non-functional equipment they have on hand for use in other still working items. While these steps may be cash-flow friendly in the short-term, they can present operators with significant financial, safety and other challenges over the long-term.

"It is a really bad idea. We can move the part from one unit to the next but we can't guarantee it will work in three days. So you may have to pay us to come back again soon," Toukatly says. It's like going to a junk yard to get a used part for your car. It may work fine and you may get another two years out of it but there's no way for the service agent to tell you that. "

Even moving the part from one unit to the next can be an iffy proposition. "The piece of equipment they are tearing it out of is out of service for a reason. If it worked, they would not have moved it. So people can forget why this is sitting in the back room," Toukatly says. "Plus, old parts can get brittle and you can damage them while taking them out. That happens a lot. And we try to steer people from doing it. We have customers who ask us to do that but we won't do it when safety is an issue."

With more operators hanging on to their equipment longer, the role of the service agent continues to evolve into a dual one of technician and consultant. For example, a growing number of operators continue to ask their service agents for estimates about replacing a piece of equipment and compare that to the cost of buying new. "We tell them you might want to consider replacing it because you are running into a bit of money. But there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to this, though," Toukatly says.

Rather, a number of factors play a role in these conversations including age of the equipment, how high tech it is, the operation's service style and more. ""If we can't get safety controls or items that impact its ability to operate safely, then we recommend they replace it. We walk away from safety issues all the time," Toukatly says. "Our job is to tell them 'you have got 10 years out of this range and you need a new thermostat. So do you want to make that investment?' You have to ask if it is worth it when you can buy new for not that much more? If they decide to replace an item, then we turn them over to the people who will consult on the sale.

"In those instances, we are basically talking ourselves out of work because I am not going to get the work out of the new one as I will with the 10-year-old piece of equipment. Because we don't sell equipment we can use this to build trust," Toukatly adds. "We want to do your service work but we don't want to come into fix a piece of equipment every month."

Of course, even after making the decision to purchase a replacement piece of equipment, many operators will still look to cut corners by purchasing something at auction or online via eBay. Unfortunately, when purchasing through these channels the buyer often has to take the seller's word about how well the item actually works.

"Operators will bring what they bought via auction to us and after we go over it they find out making the equipment operational will cost more than what they paid for it," Toukatly says. "It is worth it for you to have one of our techs come in to review your equipment to see what stat it is in and then you can decide whether you want to replace it. To pay a tech to do this, it is still cheaper in the long run than to continue to trickle money into it."

At the end of the day, getting a long, productive and cost-efficient service life out of a piece of foodservice equipment is no different than accomplishing the same with a car. Simply put, there's no substitute for planned maintenance, no matter the economic conditions. "When you got to 100,000 miles on a car that used to be a cause for celebration. Now you can expect a pretty long life out of a car if you take care of it," Toukatly says. "The same applies with the planned maintenance of your foodservice equipment. You can expect a longer service life from some pieces of equipment today.