Equipment upgrades are expensive and disruptive in any kitchen, but doing it regularly could actually boost your productivity… and your peace of mind.
There are few industries more volatile than food service, with factors such as fashion, competition, staffing issues, temperament and sheer exhaustion deciding the fate of hundreds of restaurants every year.
For many restaurateurs, the harsh reality when it comes to priorities on upgrades and refurbishment is that the front of house inevitably wins out over the kitchen.
John Frost of Cini Little, one of the country’s leading hospitality consultancies, says many restaurateurs need to update their kitchen equipment more regularly, as old equipment often means a slower, less efficient restaurant. “We sometimes come across pressure cookers and steamers that are 40 or 50 years old—equipment that was installed at the time of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics,” he says.
Frost says there’s no rule of thumb when it comes to the best time to replace equipment, as the circumstances vary for every restaurant.
“We think 10 years is tops for most major appliances in today’s commercial kitchens, but the reality is that upgrades usually only occur when the venue changes hands or there is a complete change of menu and new specialist equipment is required,” he says.
This view is echoed by Andrew Davidson, CEO of Goldstein Eswood—one of a few kitchen equipment companies still manufacturing in Australia.
“Obviously from a kitchen equipment supplier’s perspective, we have a vested interest in an ongoing program of maintenance and replacement. There really is little sense in continuing with equipment that is uneconomical to maintain and we can certainly make a case for a maintenance and replacement program. The restaurateur has to ask whether the equipment is serving its function efficiently.”
Developments in technology and food fashion also force changes in the world of kitchen equipment. Few modern kitchens are being installed these days without a wok burner, as most modern menus carry a stir-fry option. The combination convection steam oven has had an enormous impact on the industry in recent years, allowing the service of fine dining fare on a large scale—especially in hotels and convention centres where banquets often cater for thousands.
Peter Doyle of the famous Doyle’s seafood restaurants in Sydney serves between 2000 and 4000 customers a day in his restaurants.
“Our problems arise when one-off equipment like a dishwasher or a coffee-maker go down. When it comes to fryers, ovens and cook-tops we can usually work around them, but when one doesn’t have a coffee machine or dishwasher, life gets difficult. We monitor these pieces of equipment more closely than the rest, listen to their sounds and make sure their maintenance is right up to date.”
Doyle’s has long purchased its equipment from Goldstein, Eswood (dishwashers), Zanussi and Sterlec, and Peter Doyle is proud to say they are still using fryers that are 25 years old.
“The basic body of a fryer will go on forever, but the heating elements and electronic components are constantly being replaced and upgraded.”
Doyle says frustration arises from time to time when maintenance contractors arrive without the necessary spare parts. “They all know what bits tend to break first and need to carry spares at all time. It doesn’t matter how pleasant the sales person at the equipment company might be, I’m really only interested in quality equipment backed by first class service.”
One person who has crafted kitchens for decades is Don Petrov of Austmont, a fabricator who has built the kitchens for the best of the best in the cooking world and many more besides. He has encountered plenty of horror stories where kitchens and the people who run them have been ground down by a lack of resources.
He says the golden rule to maintaining a functional and economical kitchen is prevention.
“Preventive maintenance is essential and I usually find that the real professionals in the business will make sure they replace door shields, refrigerator sealers, dishwashers, glass washers and other heavy wearing items on a regular basis.
“Often kitchen manufacturers find themselves in something of a Dutch auction when tendering. This results in them basically having to ‘buy’ the business. I won’t be part of that because no-one is going to be happy with the result. It’s really important that the kitchen staff are a part of the discussions when designing a kitchen.”
Petrov says the placement of kitchen equipment is becoming more important as new kitchens become smaller, due to the drive to maximise their service area.
“Kitchens are becoming progressively more modular, with most equipment bolted in, but easy to remove, repair or replace. This helps with equipment management and maintenance. We’re also seeing more outsourcing and a consequent lessening of reliance on certain pieces of equipment. For example, many of the top hotels are no longer baking their own breads, preferring to use specialty bakers. We also see fish coming into kitchens that is pre-filleted and ready to prepare. All these changes impact on the use and the wear of most equipment.”
Montego’s of Main is a multi-award winning restaurant on the popular Tedder Avenue in Surfers Paradise. Owner Kim Chilcott says it’s “a fine line between use and abuse” when it comes to wear and tear on equipment.
He’s been operating Montego’s—an 80-seat alfresco restaurant serving Modern Australian cuisine—successfully for the past eight years and has replaced just about all of his equipment.
“Preventive maintenance is essential, as is keeping a close eye on the way staff use the equipment. I have people using their feet to close fridges, damage rollers by pulling them too hard and generally being heavy-handed. I look for equipment that has as few controls as possible and will choose a microwave oven that only has electronic controls to cut down on damage. If I don’t need a particular feature on a piece of equipment, I’ll have the button or switch deadened to reduce the chance of breakage.”
Chilcott uses the Australian-made Boema coffee machine, Hobart dishwashers and equipment from Garland and Goldstein.
“The maintenance is ongoing and with fridge doors being opened perhaps a 100 times a day or more it’s inevitable that parts and fittings are going to give way.
“I never take any chances with equipment and will replace if there’s any sign that a repair will be less than perfect.”
While restaurateurs in main city centres might grizzle about equipment issues and the cost of replacement, spare a thought for operators in remote and regional centres for whom an equipment breakdown is much more inconvenient.
The Malle Fowl in Berri, South Australia, is some 250 kilometres from Adelaide, so every visit from the equipment company comes with a big price tag, says one of the proprietors, Howard Michael.
“We’ll have to routinely cough up about 10 per cent of the value of the product, which certainly adds up over time. In addition to our equipment maintenance, we have our own power supply and have to ensure that it’s constantly in good repair.”
Michael says restaurants in regional areas really suffer from the lack of tradespeople available to maintain their equipment.
“They’re all really busy and customers like us who cost them time to visit are a very low priority. We’ve had to wait months and months to get gas plumbers and other specialists in.”
Tony Browne, a qualified chef and long-time employee of Global Foodservice Equipment (previously known as J Curtin), says the savings that can be made with more efficient technology have to be considered closely.
“If you take a fully automatic pot washer or rack conveyor that’s being used 300 days a year in the kitchen, there are obviously massive savings on labour and power to be made. Our website provides a free cost analysis of this kind of equipment that’s well worth using. A lot of today’s modern equipment is lighter on labour and electricity than was the case just a few years ago.”
At the Sydney Convention Centre, orders for five-star fare can run into the thousands, with the venue hosting more than 600 events a year. The centre employs 18 full-time chefs and has access to a further 24 people on a casual basis. It has a five-year plan in place to forecast necessary upgrades.
“We’ve recently installed two more wok burners to reflect the trend to Asian dishes,” says executive chef Detlef Haupt. He says the combination ovens need replacing most often due to the fact they’re running almost all the time.
He says the message from everyone in the business is loud and clear—preventative maintenance is essential; just about nothing in the food service industry lasts forever (especially the technology); and it’s best to replace older equipment than to try and tough it out with Clayton’s solutions.