By taking care of equipment and working closely with service agencies, operators can reduce their repair costs and help keep staffers safe.
Aside from healthcare, it’s hard to think of a sector that’s felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic more than foodservice. Restaurants have been shut down, pivoted hard to all forms of off-premises service, and moved the remaining on-premises outside as much as possible. Many school foodservices, from kindergarten to college, haven’t reopened since March, while institutional kitchens, particularly in hospitals and nursing homes, have had to radically alter how they operate.
These changes alter more than what gets cooked and when. They impact food ordering, staffing needs and, of course, equipment maintenance and repair. With all the shifts operationally, now is the time to deliberate about when — and how — foodservice operators from all segments reach out to a service agency.
Costs Can Be Cut
With budgets spread thin, operators may look for ways to reduce their expenses. It’s natural to take a look at service and see if there’s any fat to cut. In fact, there are ways to limit repair and maintenance costs, just as there are times when a service agent definitely needs to be called in.
According to Scott Hester, president of Mesquite, Texas-based Refrigerated Specialists Inc., and Cooking Equipment Specialists, simply making sure staff use equipment properly can help limit service calls. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for RSI to come to a kitchen to repair a pizza table, only to find the problem is that staff overfill the cold pans, which can trigger an alarm if the temperature enters the danger zone, in this case 41 degrees F or higher.
Other basic use issues boil down to the pressures of the modern commercial kitchen, says Caroline Kirschnick, president of Baltimore-based service agency EMR. Simply put, kitchen staffers often must rush to meet ticket times. This leads to fryer baskets banged against the vat instead of letting grease drip off, doors slammed or kicked shut, etc. These acts can lead to dented equipment, broken baskets and off-kilter doors that need repair.
With many operators dealing with less traffic due to COVID-19-related circumstances, now would be a good time to remind kitchen staff of how to treat equipment as they go about their day, Kirschnick says.
Simply following instructions from the manufacturer is another simple approach to lowering the amount of service calls equipment may require. Adhering to cleaning and maintenance guidelines can help reduce equipment failures. “Read your manual,” says Paul Pumputis, field service manager for New York-based Duffy’s AIS. “Read your manual and do what it tells you to do for periodic maintenance, and you’ll keep guys like me out of your kitchen. That’s the biggest thing.”
Indeed, the typical owner’s manual contains a number of steps operators should take to keep their equipment running well. These chores can involve anything from a daily routine to quarterly tasks; completing them can prevent a breakdown.
Many of these jobs are simple and involve equipment cleaning. A sponge and some cleaning solution not only keep a kitchen looking sharp, but they can also prevent issues like clogged burners and blocked air vents, which can lead to equipment underperformance and failure.
Equipment cleaning shouldn’t be done haphazardly, however. Once again, operators should refer to the owner’s manual to find out exactly how to carry out cleaning protocols and with what supplies. “Each manufacturer likes different chemicals for cleaning, so you want to make sure you’ve got the right chemicals for the right manufacturer, so you are not causing more harm than good,” says Pumputis.
Other tasks in the owner’s manual may seem more complex than basic cleaning but are still doable. By reading the instructions carefully, operators can change their own water filters and even descale some equipment that uses water. These sorts of jobs can be a good use of time when business is otherwise slow.
There is, of course, a defining line of what operators should handle on their own and when they should call in the experts. Operators should think twice before doing anything that requires taking off a panel and getting into a machine’s guts, Pumputis says. And if the job requires working with utility hookups, they should definitely call in a service agency. Not only is such work complex, he says, it could be dangerous when performed by someone who isn’t properly trained.
For Kirschnick, the line is even more clear: If a cold unit isn’t consistently keeping food at safe temperatures, or if a piece of hot equipment isn’t consistently cooking food in the time allotted, call a service agent.
Before making that call, though, operators should make sure their problem is a real problem. The annoying questions computer help desks are famous for asking happen for a reason, and they apply to kitchen equipment.
When customers call EMR, Kirschnick says, the company first asks, “Is it plugged in, and does it have power?” She explains: “We try to ask all of the questions to allow the operators to figure out if there is something they can do on their own.”
If a problem can’t be solved over the phone, operators should be ready to provide as much information as possible about the issue. Doing so can increase the likelihood of a speedy repair. This not only reduces repair costs, but it also limits contact between a field technician and a kitchen’s staff.
According to Kirschnick, information like make, model, serial number and exact equipment behavior is always useful to a service agency. It allows the firm to predict the root cause of the issue, pack a truck with the proper parts and tools, and send a technician they know can handle the job.
Getting clear and specific information can be a challenge, though. In some cases, an off-site manager is informed of the issue and reaches out to a service agency. For other operations, such as a large chain, a third-party contractor places the call.
Operators, suggests Kirschnick, could be more flexible with their workflows to encourage quicker (and hence cheaper and safer) service calls. In short, designate a person in the kitchen to work with the service agency.
“It would be amazing if we had pictures or short video clips of what the equipment is doing, so we could really get eyes on it before we even get there. We could then come prepared with the parts and truly send the right technician,” says Kirschnick. “The more information, the better. That’s one of the biggest things customers can do to help speed up service and limit that contact.”
For a smooth service experience, communication should go beyond descriptions of equipment trouble, though.
Plenty of operations, many in the healthcare sector, have specific guidelines about where people can enter their facilities and what sort of screening they must undergo to get through the door. Operators should convey this information at the time of scheduling, says Pumputis.
“In our business, a lot of times, we don’t go in the front door,” Pumputis explains. “We go in the back next to the dumpster. Because of COVID, those days are pretty much over because every institution has some protocol where you go in the front door, answer a series of questions and get your temperature taken, and they make sure you have a mask. We do kind of ask [about protocols beforehand] just to make sure we are on top of it. We don’t want to accidentally skirt their requirements on our way in.”
This sort of consideration should run both ways, though. While service agencies should prepare for and follow the guidelines set out by their clients, operators should be considerate of the field technicians working on their equipment.
According to Hester, being flexible with scheduling can allow service agents to handle maintenance and repairs when fewer people are around. Coming in just a half hour earlier in the morning to let a repair person in can provide the type of social distance recommended during the pandemic. “The six-foot distance is important, and sometimes it’s difficult when we’re there working on the cookline and they’re operating, trying to get food out. We just try to ask for space,” he says.
Such consideration may be in vogue at the moment, says Kirschnick. One of the positive impacts of the pandemic, in her observation, is greater patience between people. Businesses understand the pain and challenges others are dealing with, making them more willing to help each other make it through the day. This sort of patience can go a long way toward a partnership that offers more than bottom line benefits.
“There just seems to be a little bit more understanding, tolerance, flexibility and mutual support. I think that is very helpful, too,” says Kirschnick. “In the beginning, it didn’t seem that way because everybody was operating from a place of fear, but as we all have gone through coming up on a year of this, it feels like there is a lot more mutual respect and flexibility and understanding among people in general.”