How can you strike fear into the heart of any foodservice operator? Simply by uttering the phrase, “The machine’s down!” But as convenience stores offer increasingly sophisticated foodservice programs, nonworking machines are no laughing matter. Knowing the best practices for equipment maintenance, repair and staffing—and having strategies to put those practices into effect—can help prevent costly breakdowns, dissatisfied customers and lost revenue.
The one thing virtually all the half-dozen experts interviewed agree on when it comes to maintaining food equipment is paying close attention to the manufacturer’s recommendations for servicing and cleaning.
“When equipment comes in, there’s generally a user’s manual and installation guide. In one or the other or both of those documents, it’s going to say, ‘This is the recommended maintenance schedule,’ ” says Ed Norman, FCSI, president of MVP Services Group, Dubuque, Iowa. Adhering to that recommended schedule is essential for keeping the machine working properly.
Even when machines are working properly, regular preventive maintenance is still critical, particularly with more sophisticated equipment. Steve Every, vice president of managed service and international for The ICEE Co., Ontario, Calif., likens buying equipment without preventive maintenance to “buying a car with the ‘check engine’ light on. You wouldn’t do that. You’d take it in, you’d get the oil changed, get all sorts of stuff done.” Too many operators, Every says, tend to overlook preventive maintenance to save costs. Instead, they use and abuse equipment “without taking into consideration that when it does go down, the repair costs are probably higher,” he says.
Taking a close look at the store environment is an important factor in establishing the equipment maintenance schedule, says Scott Bingham, CFSP, product marketing manager for Follett Corp, Easton, Pa. For example, “if you’re in a location where there’s bread being baked on premises and there’s a lot of yeast in the air, that can cause different problems than at a location that doesn’t have that airborne particulate,” he says.
Likewise, follow the manufacturers’ installation instructions for appliance location, says Gary Kramer, CFSP, manager of the parts and service team for Hatco Corp., Milwaukee. Hot-holding units, for example, “located near an A/C vent or in areas where there is a lot of air movement may cause the operator to believe there is a food-warming temperature issue [or] malfunction with the unit, when it actually may be environmental factors causing the concern.”
When performing a repair, Kramer recommends using original equipment manufacturer (OEM) replacement parts. “Some aftermarket or generic parts do not have the characteristics that will allow them to operate safely in the equipment,” potentially causing hazardous electrical voltage, resulting in electrical shock or burn, he says.
Although daily cleaning and maintenance functions may be assigned to one staff member, close oversight is still necessary, says Matt Swift, vice president of sales for Zink Foodservice Group, Columbus, Ohio. With the traditional clipboard-and-spreadsheet system of record keeping, he says, “somebody’s just going up to the board and filling it out, whether it’s being done or not.” Swift suggests assigning cleaning or maintenance jobs to a particular time so employees “know ... this is part of their daily regimen, and they have to stick to it.”
With the myriad details a c-store operator has to manage, keeping track of the planned maintenance of equipment can sometimes take a back seat to other priorities. While some manufacturers offer preventive-maintenance programs, many operators have turned to outsourcing, using third-party companies or agents for regular servicing.
A few c-stores “get bogged down in 24-hour operation. They get focused on other things,” making outside service a smart idea, says Garamy Whitmore, CFSP, vice president of sales, ACT and strategic accounts for Manitowoc Foodservice, New Port Richey, Fla. To Whitmore, an effective third-party maintenance program begins shortly after the equipment purchase. The sooner that an operator has “a conversation with the local authorized servicer, the better the expectations that can be laid out for both parties. And they’re going to be a lot more successful,” he says.
CONTINUED: Clean and Sanitize
Clean and Sanitize
Every machine needs slightly different maintenance, so we asked the experts to discuss ways to keep some of the most common machines in peak condition.
Heated merchandisers are one of the relatively easier pieces of equipment to maintain but all too often are overlooked. Because a good visual impression is important in making sales, “you want your customers to visually judge your food quality by your safe and sanitary environment,” says Jeff Mote, vice president of national accounts, retail, for Alto-Shaam, Menomonee Falls, Wis., adding that “the merchandisers should be cleaned with a food-safe cleanser.” Norman of MVP Services Group agrees that heated merchandisers require “good general cleaning,” and he recommends using a quat sanitizer for cleaning the cabinet’s interior. Also, regular monitoring of the merchandiser’s heat controller is critical to ensure that the cabinet is holding food above the food safety “danger zone” of 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Kramer of Hatco advises operators know the power supply requirements for hot-food merchandisers and equipment in general.
“Some appliances are designed in a way that allows them to work on either 208- or 240-volt, while others are voltage-specific,” he says. “A unit that is intended to only be used on 208-volt and is then connected to a 240-volt power supply will cause the unit to malfunction and void the product warranty.”
He recommends working with a qualified electrician or service agent to assist with power-supply verification and requirements. On hot-holding units that require water be added to produce humidity—and really any equipment that uses water—it is critical that the “guidelines be followed regarding the water conditions, along with cleaning, de-liming and maintaining a water reservoir,” Kramer says.
Ovens require a more rigorous cleaning, and each type has its own idiosyncrasies. How frequently and how deeply the oven needs to be cleaned will depend partly on the food that’s being cooked in it. For example, the sugar in cinnamon rolls “tends to burn on to the bottom of the oven and [makes] a blanket of carbon build-up,” says Norman. “That reduces your heat efficiency in the oven which ultimately will affect how it cooks.”
For convection ovens, keeping the inside of the oven and the outer door cleaned should be sufficient. However, “a conveyor oven may need to be broken down once every 30 days,” says Whitmore of Manitowoc. The crumb trays on the conveyor oven should be removed and swept out daily, with other parts getting a weekly cleaning.
Norman calls combi ovens “more maintenance-heavy” and points out that it’s important to have “really good water going into the machine” for effective operation. Some mini-combi ovens have a self-cleaning function, Whitmore says, and staff “can engage the cleaning system and let the oven essentially clean itself.”
Dust and Dirt
On the cold side, icemakers require a deep cleaning at least twice a year, says Bingham of Follett. The icemaker’s condenser, which can easily get blocked by dust and dirt, should be cleaned more frequently. As the condenser “gets blocked, it starves the machine of air,” he says. “Over time, it makes it less efficient.”
Air filters also need to be checked and cleaned on a regular basis to avoid dust buildup. Removing scale from the icemaker is important, because built-up scale causes ice to stick to evaporator plates and can impede heat transfer, reducing the machine’s output.
Beverage dispensers require clean, filtered water. “Water filtration is equally as important as water softening,” says Swift of Zink Foodservice Group. Every of The ICEE Co. concurs: “A lot of people don’t even think about [water filtration]. Your water may be hard or have chlorine, and that does start to affect the taste of the beverage.”
He also suggests frequent checking of the syrup-to-water ratio in the machine and recalibrating—but only as necessary. “I’ve seen it go to crazy extremes where some people do it weekly,” Every says. “The proper technology is more stable than that. Testing and adjusting weekly just starts to wear out the calibration ability of the machine.”
One last tip from the experts: When it comes time to replace a piece of equipment or buy a new machine, always remember to factor in the cost of preventive maintenance and service plans. It’s an important investment, one that pays off in longer equipment life and consistent performance.