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QSR Feature
Equipped for Savings
Caring for and repairing older equipment during the tough economy can help operators reduce expenses.
Kitchen equipment maintenance for restaurant owners.

Making the most of expensive equipment such as fryers, walk-in freezers, and H-VAC systems through careful maintenance and selection of replacement parts seems like a no-brainer, especially during cash-strapped times when quick-serves face higher costs for everything from labor to energy.

But surprisingly, the upkeep of these kitchen mainstays is often a neglected portion of the overall restaurant budget, as more regular line items such as food, nonperishables, and payroll garner closer scrutiny. A careful examination of procedures for day-to-day equipment maintenance, procurement, and training can yield hidden savings, industry experts say.

“We extend the philosophy of making it last to every piece of equipment that we own,” says Bill Sassman, assistant service supervisor for 83 White Castle hamburger outlets in the Chicago region. “We have Shake Masters that have been in the field for over 20 years.”

Sassman says that foodservice suppliers often joke when they notice the age of the equipment in White Castle kitchens. But he and his stores’ managers are having the last laugh—they have a profit-sharing program that provides strong incentives to extend the operational life of everything from griddles to soda fountains.

“The teamwork is probably the biggest asset to the company,” Sassman says, noting that White Castle has a division that designs some proprietary equipment for its stores. Everybody is involved in making sure everything works on a regular basis.

Procrastinating on service repairs can be tempting, especially when budgets are lean. But as margins tighten, it’s essential to keep parts like knobs and gaskets in good condition through regular maintenance and repair, ensuring that equipment doesn’t suffer an unexpected breakdown and cause the kitchen to close temporarily.

“You’re spending money but you prolong the life of the equipment and keep the quality of the food that’s coming out … at a high level,” says Arnold Kimmons, director of sales and marketing for Franklin Machine Products, among the largest suppliers of replacement parts to professional kitchens.

Sales of latches, hinges, and other parts have risen amid the economic downturn at Lumberton, New Jersey-based FMP. Kimmons says operators are paying closer attention to the longevity of their equipment. Owners and managers are also looking to do more simple repairs themselves, he says, rather than pay service technicians to come on site, which can cost $150 an hour or more.

“These are all things that people who are handy with a screwdriver can do,” Kimmons says. “We see a migration of the repairs that in the past have been outsourced.”

If a chain has scale, another smart way to wring savings from the equipment budget is by taking advantage of a parts catalog designed specifically for your restaurant concept. In recent years, franchisors at some of the largest U.S. chains have been developing these arrangements to simplify purchases for franchisees.

“Parts had kind of been off the radar screen and done at the franchisee level,” says Steve Snower, president of Lombard, Illinois–based Parts Town, which supplies OEM parts including pilot assemblies, burners, circuit boards, and control modules. “There’s a fairly significant trend toward quick-serves looking for parts partnerships.”

Having such an umbrella agreement can lead to volume discounts and other efficiencies that sometimes save individual franchisees in excess of 20 percent annually over the cost of buying replacement parts on their own, Snower says.

Scott Martenson, owner of a Culver’s restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, says the familiarity of dealing with a single source can lead to unexpected benefits. When he recently sought to replace panels on his fryer, Martenson discovered the Culvers’s custom catalog, which Parts Town designed, showed he only needed to replace the panels’ Mylar coverings, resulting in significant savings.

“This is an industry where you need to keep those costs low and keep your value up,” Martenson says. “You have to become a lot more intimate with your equipment on a day-to-day basis.”

Even so, training, considered essential to keeping equipment in working order, is frequently neglected. But with a labor pool dominated by young, often-inexperienced workers, it’s essential that operators emphasize how to operate and clean microwaves, grills, and other kitchen workhorses.

Mike Smalley, owner of Middletown, Maryland-based equipment service company MDS Mechanical, estimates that some 20 to 40 percent of the calls he makes to fast-food restaurants stem from abuse of equipment that could be prevented through education.

“People don’t take care of equipment,” says Smalley, noting that the most common violations he sees include broken hinges from slammed doors, compressors that break down when the doors of freezers and refrigerators are left propped open and cracked gaskets resulting from lack of cleaning. “Restaurant managers should be doing training,” he says.

Operators are often able to pinpoint exact costs for food waste and replacement of plates and other everyday items lost to breakage, but are less aware of their equipment expenses, Smalley says. He recommends itemizing the costs of standard repairs and distributing the list to the entire staff.

Getting the most out of your equipment goes beyond maintenance and repair; it often means thinking creatively when it’s time to upgrade the menu.

That’s what the Norcross, Georgia-based Steak-Out chain did when it recently sought to add a sirloin cheese-steak sandwich to its core menu. After researching off-the-shelf solutions, the company realized it would be too costly to ask operators to pony up for cast-iron griddles to prevent foods from falling through the grates of its high-powered gas grills. Instead, the company worked with a third-party manufacturer to develop an affordable, custom-made grill grate.

It was an easy sell to franchisees, says Aftan Romanczak, director of research and development for the 60-store chain. Operators saw that investing $400 in the custom add-on and accompanying small-ware could yield additional gross sales of up to $6,000 a year, he says.

“We were really pleased with the output,” says Romanczak, who is exploring other menu additions that can be made using the modified grills. “The key is to look at your concept, see what you do well, and how you can modify it.”

Deborah Cohen is a former Reuters correspondent and veteran foodservice writer.