At this point in the pandemic recovery, most restaurants have opened their doors. And schools, corporate cafeterias and other non-commercial foodservice operators find themselves in the process of preparing for reopening. Restarting a kitchen’s hot side presents one set of challenges, while refrigeration and cleaning equipment have another.
When it comes to refrigeration, operators should first simply focus on equipment cleaning, according to Cliff Kolinger, service technician with Baltimore-based service agency EMR. Units that have sat undisturbed for more than a year could have dirt and mold inside and on the gaskets. With these units empty, now is the time to perform a deep cleaning on both reach-ins and walk-ins. “If they're empty, you can move all of the racks out of the way. It makes it really simple,” he says.
Beyond the cleaning step, a lot depends on if the cooler was turned off or left running before the kitchen closed its doors. If the piece has been running, it will almost certainly need its condenser and evaporator coils cleaned, Kolinger says. In many cases, operators can handle this job on their own, though they often prefer to have cleaning performed by a service technician, he adds.
If a refrigeration unit has been turned off, kitchen staff should pay close attention to how well, or even whether, it’s cooling. “I had a customer where four reach-in coolers were all shut down,” he says. “When they turned them back on, the coolers would no longer cool. All four were now low on charge, while they were working well prior to COVID. They all had a small leak somewhere.”
In the case of refrigerators that will not cool, operators should shut the unit down and call a service agency. Leaving a refrigerator that won’t cool running, Kolinger says, can overheat the condenser and risk damaging that component.
Ice machines can emerge as another potential trouble spot for kitchens that have been closed, Kolinger adds. De-sliming these units is best performed by a service tech. Kolinger also recommends changing the water filters on ice machines as part of the restart process, even if the replacement date on the filter is months away. “If a filter has been sitting without water flowing through it, I would change it. You've had stagnant water in that filter for a year,” he says.
A deep cleaning of warewashers is also important prior to full operations. Any food particles left in the unit at this point are now dried on, so it will take some elbow grease to remove them from the cleaning chamber and components like spray arms. Operators should also reach out to their cleaning chemical supplier. At this point, the chemical lines may be clogged with dried soap, Kolinger says. The chemical supplier should be able to help service that component.
While cleaning clearly serves as the first step for refrigeration and warewashing equipment, in many cases a service call will be necessary to get these items properly running once again. According to Kolinger, operators should not delay placing this call. In his market, non-emergency refrigeration repairs are being scheduled anywhere from one to three weeks out.
The reopening process has led to some of the longer lead times, while part of it is simply the time of year, he notes: Some refrigerators that made it through the winter and spring just aren’t keeping up with summer temperatures. Those two factors combined put pressure on service agency schedules.