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Why Maintenance Matters

Foodservice operators often view maintenance as the necessary evil of every kitchen. It’s something that should be done regularly, but all too often it’s neglected — until a piece of equipment breaks down, usually right in the middle of peak service time. Service professionals know the value of regularly
scheduled maintenance. Do you?

What it Does … and Doesn’t Do

Visual inspection is an important tool in helping prevent maintenance issues. Photo courtesy of CFESALet’s explode one myth right away: There is no such thing as preventative maintenance. Machines are full of mechanical and electronic components, all of which have limited lifespans. No amount of maintenance can prevent a machine from breaking down at some point in its lifespan. Christopher Heina, vice president of operations for Cobblestone Ovens, an Elk Grove, Ill.-based service agent, says that industry associations are behind a push to move away from the preventative maintenance nomenclature. He calls the term “very misleading” and says it does neither the manufacturer nor the service agent any good to use that label. “When you [use the term] preventative maintenance,” he says, “it puts in the customer’s mind that ‘if I have this preventative maintenance, I’m eliminating downtime.’ You’re not. Downtime is inevitable. What we’re doing is decreasing the likelihood of it happening.”

Regular maintenance can, however, optimize a machine’s performance. Bruce Hodge, president of General Parts LLC in Waukesha, Wis., uses the term “scheduled maintenance” and likens it to car repair. “You can take your car in tomorrow to get the oil changed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a flat tire tomorrow. Scheduled maintenance is just that — maintenance that needs to be done for the best opportunity to keep equipment running.”

Why Maintain?

The reasons for regularly scheduled maintenance go far beyond just keeping equipment operating. For example, maintenance has a direct and major effect on food safety. Ice machines must have regular cleaning and sanitization (usually twice a year) to prevent the growth of bacteria and germs inside the machine, which can transfer to the finished ice. While ice machines may be the most obvious example of how maintenance affects food safety, the concept applies to every piece of equipment. Heina points to the example of a bagel operation. “If the rack oven is not cleaned, and therefore not maintaining the set baking temperature, the bagels could come out not properly cooked,” he says, “which would lead not only to dissatisfied customers but there could potentially be some health risk ramifications in serving an underdone bagel as well.”

Food quality, flavor and appearance also suffer when operators fail to maintain their equipment. Inexperienced staff working on equipment that’s not maintained might not know when product is underdone, or if it’s overdone. The ice machine that’s not being cleaned regularly might produce ice that’s safe to use, but the flavor of the ice may be off. Meat slicers that aren’t properly maintained can deliver slices of uneven widths, which can negatively impact customer satisfaction and profit margins. And “if you get knives, forks or spoons coming out of the dishwasher with caked-on food, it certainly is a health issue — but it’s also a presentation issue,” says Hodge.

Following manufacturers’ maintenance guidelines also helps ensure staff safety. Improperly maintained gaskets on ovens can lead to hot air escaping. On dishmachines, especially flight- and conveyor-type models, hot water can leak out from torn or loose curtains. Both can lead to serious burns and lost work time. “Open fryers have flues that vent the gas out the back,” says Hodge. “They’ll develop a great buildup and that can catch on fire.” Grease that leaks out of a fryer or water that leaks through dishmachine curtains can spill onto the floor and might not be noticed — that is, until a crew member slips and falls.

Scheduled maintenance impacts a machine’s energy efficiency. Because leaky gaskets on coolers or ovens allow air to escape, they force the equipment to work harder to compensate, resulting in higher energy costs. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that if you leave a walk-in cooler door open and you don’t have a protective plastic screen or air screen, you’re going to waste energy,” Hodge says.

Heina, who specializes in ovens, notes that “if a burner is packed with debris, it’s going to have to work harder to maintain the oven temperature. That’s going to increase both your gas and electricity costs.”

Performing regularly scheduled maintenance may also keep warranties valid. Heina notes this is the “era of exten ded warranties,” with manufacturers offering three- to five-year warranties on certain pieces of equipment to stay competitive. However, to keep the warranty valid, the end user must show
they perform regular upkeep and/or maintenance on the unit.

Do it Yourself … or Not?

Not every maintenance job requires a call to the service agent. In fact, in-house maintenance performed on a regular basis can help extend the life of equipment and, as noted earlier, is often necessary to ensure warranty coverage remains intact. “I think properly cleaned and maintained equipment will last significantly longer than equipment that’s ignored,” Hodge adds.

A good place to start in establishing a maintenance program is the manufacturer’s recommendations provided with the equipment.

Frequent visual inspections can also help catch little problems that can become big ones down the road. For example, a visual check of blower fan screens or exhaust screens for debris can spot buildup, which, left unchecked, could accumulate over time.

Even the service experts say staff can replace a variety of parts without requiring a service call. Hodge cites door handles and knobs as two easily replaceable items on most machines. Also, many filters and air screens are easily cleaned and/or replaced, as are door gaskets on some smaller pieces of equipment. One manufacturer of a door gasket replacement tool even has an accompanying YouTube video showing how to install the replacement gaskets.

Knowing exactly which staff members are capable of doing a maintenance job is essential. Hodge notes, “A 16-year-old kid doesn’t know that the piece of equipment he’s treating nonchalantly or abusing costs $22,000.” To alleviate that possibility, some restaurant managers institute a policy that “if you have a key to the store, you do the maintenance.” In other words, employees who have a certain level of responsibility for day-to-day operations are also tasked with doing minor scheduled maintenance jobs.

But no matter who does it, scheduled maintenance is a definite requirement for keeping equipment operating at optimal levels. Bruce Hodge calls it “absolutely critical to any restaurant. It’s like cutting the grass. Whether you do it or hire a lawn service or the kid next door, it matters not, but the grass still needs to be cut. It just needs to be done.”

A Positive Effect

Is scheduled maintenance only a cost line item, or can it really contribute to a positive return on investment? Bruce Hodge of General Parts believes it can result in a positive return because “the equipment lasts longer. Equipment nowadays has almost a built-in obsolescence to it. Most equipment, I think, is written off in five to seven years, but the equipment, particularly the heavier equipment, should last 10 to 20 years if you maintain it.”Christopher Heina of Cobblestone Ovens takes a slightly different view, noting that “it’s hard to make a statement on a blanket positive ROI. A better argument is going to be the consequences if you don’t do this, and the downtime, which can negatively affect ROI.”