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The Bottom Line on Equipment Training

Foodservice operators benefit from proper equipment training.

The-Bottomline-On-Equipment-TrainingFoodservice operators may find proper equipment training to be something they can easily put on the back burner, especially during the chaos of new construction or an extensive rebuild. Despite the fact that the importance of training is often minimized, however, this factor can literally make or break an operation.

Consider this: The lack of an equipment training program can result in the loss of thousands of dollars by shortening a unit's service life. In addition, by not utilizing equipment to its full potential, operators are not getting what they paid for. With improper training, the resulting safety hazards and loss of productivity can have dire consequences in the kitchen.

"Problems occur when kitchen employees are not properly trained," says Nicole O'Rourke, senior food service program advisor at the Los Angeles-based Southern California Gas Co. "Operators either don't achieve product consistency, or they are not able to accomplish a dish they seek to produce. Training employees to use equipment is a vital link in any successful foodservice operation."

Why Train?

Operations without effective training programs place staff in a sink-or-swim situation. Operators in the industry may not be aware when they purchase most major pieces of foodservice equipment that demonstrations are part of the deal; consequently, they do not always take advantage of this support.

"This extra assistance may not be needed for more simple units like a six-burner range, but with equipment like combis, speed ovens, fryers, kettles and skillets, many operators don't request demos when they should," says Tim Scherer, CFSP, CPMR, vice president and principal at Mirkovich and Associates, a Lombard, Ill.-based manufacturer's rep firm.

Depending on the technology they leverage and their level of sophistication, some units require steeper learning curves than others. In addition, learning how to properly harness more sophisticated technology impacts an operator's ability to execute a menu, thus shaping the operator's perspective of the equipment item.

"For example, with a combi oven, a product and flavor can be compromised if the unit is not used properly," O'Rourke says. "People tend to shy away from more complicated equipment, but with proper training these units can reduce labor and provide consistency."

Those in the kitchen may operate under the assumption that if they experiment with the equipment long enough, they will figure it out — but that is not typically how it works.

"The user is not getting the full use out of the equipment if they are not properly trained," says David Maxwell, a dealer sales rep at Thompson & Little, headquartered in Fayetteville, N.C. "Combi ovens have become very popular in the last five years, but someone who is not trained in using the units will more than half the time just utilize the steamer mode and not take advantage of the combi cooking."

Steve Dibble, culinary instructor at Scotland High School in Laurinburg, N.C., agrees and probably understands better than most, given that he teaches a foodservice program while running a restaurant with his students that is open three days a week. "We have more than $300,000 worth of equipment in our kitchen, and there are newer units that even the most experienced chefs are not familiar with," he says. "Every operation should have uniform training guidelines. I'd like to see equipment manufacturers send reps out to work with operators more when introducing new units or to bring new ideas for using existing equipment."

In situations where equipment modifications take place before installation, training is even more crucial. "When equipment is changed and the reps are not informed, operators face working with different equipment on the job sites," says Scott Murphy, a manufacturer's rep at Burel and Associates, located in Hillsborough, N.C. "In this case, it's important that the rep is updated on changes [so training is not compromised]."

Lack of proper maintenance can also compromise equipment performance. And the time to establish proper maintenance habits is during training, as the operator gets to know the equipment. "If it hasn't been conveyed to the user that a filter needs to be cleaned and checked every 30 days, it can get clogged and shut down the unit's compressor, resulting in a $500 service bill," Murphy says. "It's a simple maintenance task that may take five minutes, but if the operator is unaware of this, there can be a pricey fix as well as a warranty issue."

For equipment dealers, offering a training program helps build credibility and trust with operators. "If I convince a customer that a combi oven is the way to go and take the opportunity to train their staff to use it, that customer will have the confidence to come back to me for additional equipment purchases," Maxwell says. "Training can help in getting recommendations, especially in segments like school foodservice. If I don't follow up, my customer won't recommend me to others. Training helps build my credibility. Once I started taking on this responsibility, my sales began increasing."

What to Cover in Training

Jeff Good is co-owner of BRAVO! Italian Restaurant & Bar, Broad Street Baking Co. and Sal & Mookie's New York Pizza and Ice Cream Joint, all located in Jackson, Miss. In his 18 years of running restaurants, he says the most important lesson he's learned is not to throw away equipment owner's manuals.

"These tend to get lost when everything is unboxed and hooked up," Good says. "It's important to have a place for these manuals when equipment comes in. This provides pertinent information on how to take equipment apart for cleaning and maintenance, where to buy parts and who to call when there's a problem."

Training protocol for lead chefs should include reading the manual so they can better familiarize themselves with the equipment. This information should not replace a training program, though, since even the best manuals may not be simplified enough for new employees to understand or follow. Also, it can be a challenge to constantly refer to a manual while on the job.

In addition to user's manuals, some manufacturers offer DVDs that provide basic information on equipment use and maintenance. Some online videos can help supplement training and serve as a refresher for simple use and care.

Operators also can place stickers on equipment to serve as reminders about how to start, stop and break down a unit. For some of its equipment Thompson & Little utilizes placards that provide general instructions to help reinforce training.

Foodservice managers who put together their own training manuals can save time in educating employees. "Managers who do this typically have better results, since it's easier to train new people, the process will be more consistent and they are ensuring proper maintenance protocol is followed," O'Rourke says. "Employees may have to be trained on as much as 10 pieces of equipment at one time, so it helps to have this type of manual to refer back to."

The best time to implement training is before putting the equipment to use. This ensures that the users don't get into the habit of using units incorrectly. "Primarily with new installs, it's important for operators to coordinate with the dealer and manufacturer's rep to schedule a timely demonstration for users," Murphy says.

Training time frames depend on the type of equipment and the experience of the person being trained. Fortunately, engineering updates and new designs have made some equipment easier to operate, disassemble, clean and maintain.

"It can take as little as 10 minutes to as much as an hour," Murphy says. "For example, while a dishwasher can take up to an hour to train on, a slicer can take just 15 minutes and an oven can take five to 10 minutes. Combis and other similar equipment can take longer to demonstrate."

Although training time can vary, each program features similar components. Users need to know what the equipment is used for and how it works, along with cleaning and maintenance requirements. This may include something as simple as lighting a pilot light or a more complex task such as completely breaking down equipment for cleaning and sanitizing.

In training his students, Dibble demonstrates how equipment works, starting from how to turn units off and on, and goes as far as demonstrating how to take equipment apart and put it back together. He then watches the students do these tasks themselves until they are comfortable doing so and can perform the jobs properly.

Although lead chefs in Good's restaurants don't employ formal training programs, kitchen staff members still need to see how equipment works. "We have experienced staff stand next to them, show them how to operate the unit, then have them do it themselves. It's mirror-type training," Good says. "In addition, all of our kitchen employees are taught to ask questions. Managerial presence also is important."

When implementing a training program, it's important to keep in mind that the more comfortable and familiar staff members are with the equipment, the more likely it is that they will use it correctly and to its full potential. "Operating equipment cautiously in terms of what it can accomplish is not in the best interest of the facility or the equipment," Murphy says.

While today's electronics can make training and use easier, this technology can make troubleshooting problems more difficult. Because preventative maintenance and cleaning remain vital to optimum equipment performance as well as food safety, both need to be part of any training program.

"We rep food processors, which can be difficult to clean," Murphy says. "But if operators take five minutes to train employees on how to properly perform this task, it can save cleaning time and service costs in the future. Especially for equipment of this type, it's critical to stay on top of daily cleaning."

Unskilled workers may not realize the ramifications of not cleaning a steamer regularly or of using the wrong type of sponge or chemical on stainless steel. "Many people don't know how to use and clean equipment, which results in more breakdowns and higher maintenance costs," Dibble says. "This basic understanding may include simple troubleshooting to detect problems. Sometimes, these small solutions can be a big plus in terms of the bottom line."

Even with the best training, people will not retain all of the information presented to them. So in most cases follow-up training is necessary. "The biggest thing is completing the training and following up," Maxwell says. "As a DSR, it's easy to get caught up in moving on to the next sale. We have to stop and make sure end users are getting the proper training needed."

In many cases, it's not the dealer, but the rep, rep groups and service agencies that will handle training as part of their services. "If others aren't willing to step up, we will make training our responsibility," Maxwell says. "At the end of the day, I don't want to hear that someone was hurt on a piece of equipment because they weren't properly trained. The kitchen can be a dangerous place, so it's important to take responsibility." Thompson & Little works with reps to make sure they follow up after equipment is installed to ensure that staff members grasp how to use the equipment.

"Our goal is to make sure personnel feels comfortable with the equipment before we leave," Scherer adds. "Typically, we don't get into programming or menus during the first training session, because it's too overwhelming. Especially with equipment like a combi oven or speed oven, people need to get past their fears and skepticisms before we get into the nitty-gritty. Instead, we talk about how that specific oven operates and what it can do."

Investing the Time

The most common training mistake is not allocating the necessary time to educate employees about how to operate and maintain kitchen equipment. Not implementing a thorough training program or providing periodic follow-up training are also common oversights.

"People don't have a lot of time to devote to training, so many are rushing through it," Murphy says. "It's important that people can digest the information correctly."

End users may think all equipment is the same, but a lot has changed over the years. Even experienced staff may not be familiar with newer equipment and technology. For this reason, it's important to keep from overlooking or minimizing training for even veteran employees.

"Equipment technology has improved and changed over time," Scherer says. "What a kettle did 20 years ago and what it can accomplish today is totally different. What used to take 10 minutes now takes five. Some operators don't see the need for extensive training, but they need to dedicate the time."

Making assumptions is a common mistake when training experienced and new employees. "Someone can work for years in an operation that has older equipment, then come into another facility and it's assumed they know what to do. This will slow down production time," Dibble says. "We have chefs come in and find ways to use equipment improperly due to inadequate training. I've seen fryers used as pasta cookers. This not only impacts the equipment's efficiency, but can be dangerous."

The Safety Factor

One of the most important goals of training should be both operational and food safety. Although necessary to emphasize, this can be difficult to ensure.

For instance, operators should not assume that staff members will know they should unplug a slicer or grinder before cleaning it. People don't know what they are not shown. During one training exercise one of Maxwell's customers tried to reach inside a steamer. "I had to quickly grab them and explain the danger, and the importance of a heat glove. Safety needs to be emphasized and re-emphasized," he says.

Training can help take the fear out of the kitchen, which creates a safer environment for everyone. "Safety is part of our program, whether it's focusing on burn avoidance or steering clear of sharp blades," Scherer says. "We make sure to point out the safety features of the equipment and how it may shut down automatically if it's not properly used. Safety is key."

From a food safety standpoint, it comes down to paying attention to time and temperature. "This is another aspect where today's sophisticated equipment, which includes probes, makes accomplishing the task easier and takes much of the guesswork out of it," O'Rourke says.

In the interest of safety, more dangerous equipment may warrant laminated signs or prominent instructions hung nearby to warn employees about improper use. "Safety precautions are important," Dibble says. "And it's important to keep in mind that there are sometimes language barriers to overcome."

Operators need to take advantage of training opportunities offered by dealers, reps and manufacturers, in addition to implementing thorough training programs of their own. "It's important to decide what is most important in terms of training, so everyone is on the same page and there is consistency within the operation," O'Rourke says.

For the sake of safety, consistency and the overall bottom line, training should not be an afterthought, but a priority.