Quality control

What’s cooking? Your kitchen equipment could be as important  as your staff...

What’s cooking? Your kitchen equipment could be as important as your staff…

It’s time consuming and expensive, but updating kitchen equipment can save you a lot more in the long run. Nicole Azzopardi reports.

The hinge on your dishwasher door is loose and your combi oven doesn’t seem to quite have the same amount of grunt as it used to, but when do you bite the bullet and update kitchen equipment?

It usually requires a huge financial outlay, but making sure your fit-out is firing on all cylinders is possibly the most important thing you can do for your business. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re assessing your kitchen’s functionality, and how to keep the heat at bay in the heart of your business.

Have a plan

“Hotel kitchens, upmarket restaurant kitchens and places like aged care facilities tend to look at a 10-year plan when putting equipment together, while many cafés think in two-year stints and use the cheapest equipment to get through,” says Peter Ambler, managing director of Hospitality Design.

“Often, kitchens grow and bits get tacked on over time, but someone needs to look at work flows as they increase. With outdated equipment and design, you can end up using 20 per cent more staff than you need.”

According to Ambler, most businesses should expect to update their kitchen every ten years—minimum.

Replace or repair?

Replacing equipment that breaks down is often more economical than funding the running repairs.

“A combi steamer may cost $20,000 new, but the repair could be close to four grand, and there’s no guarantee another bill isn’t just around the corner,” Ambler says.

But it’s not just about the cost—lost time and the subsequent poor service can be more damaging to your business than even the most serious malfunction.

“The worst-case scenario is when equipment is totally worn out and is needed urgently,” he says.

“Some people expect to be able to pick up a piece of equipment in an afternoon, when in reality you could wait up to six weeks. So everyone sits around while you’re trying to find parts, or there are service guys hanging around in the kitchen when you’re trying to work.”

Moving modular

Modular stainless steel work benches are becoming increasingly popular, rather than purpose-built systems.

Equipment that comes straight out of the box in set lengths is easily shipped and offers design flexibility.

“This allows pieces to be more easily removed or replaced when adding an appliance like an oven. In the past, you’d have to pull a piece out of the wall and it could only be used as scrap,” Ambler explains.

Age before beauty

For general manager of Hobart Food Equipment Geoff Hunter, sourcing the right kitchen equipment and designing a good, workable layout often comes down to experience: “Cafes and hotels that have been in operation for several years are likely to update their equipment on a regular basis,” he says.

As a global leader in the development of catering equipment, Hunter says it’s often the newcomers to the industry who fall into trouble, putting too much focus on decorative aspects like linen, lighting and furnishings.

“Problems often arise when people think, ‘I’ll do all the front-of-house stuff first because the back-of-house isn’t so critical’,” he says.

“But people who have more experience in the industry know that back-of-house always comes first.”

Pop the hood

Kitchen maintenance is like taking care of a car, Hunter says, where the repairing and replacing timeline should be based on its usage.

“If your kitchen operates for long hours, seven days a week, the wear and tear is really no different to the maintenance needs of a motor vehicle,” he says.

“Brakes will soften, tyres will wear down and the electrics start to play up. In the first instance, there’s the chance to service the equipment and replace any worn parts.

“But if the body has cracks in it and the equipment is so old that parts are harder to source, it might be more
economical to replace it rather than repairing.”

What goes up…

The average shelf price of new kitchen equipment has steadily been coming down, primarily due to a flood of competition and a host of cheaper Asian imports.

The increased number of buyers in the market means that many owners are opting for cut-price products over high-quality craftsmanship.

“In the old days, taking a Band-Aid approach to repairs made sense,” Hunter says.

“But we are now at a point where increased usage, time and productivity factors mean that the shelf life of a piece of equipment is not as long.”

According to Hunter, the down-side of buying cheaper equipment is limited longevity—a piece of kitchen equipment that once lasted 15 years would now be closer to eight or 10 years.

Time management

No matter how many years your equipment lasts, timing its replacement is one of the major hurdles restaurateurs and catering managers face.

“The time to update equipment shouldn’t be when it fails,” Hunter says.

“You need to ask yourself, ‘how critical is this piece of equipment to our business and our product?’.”

“Often, it’s a visual thing—the chef will know because he’s using it every day.”

Keeping an eye on your output is also another way to keep track of where your equipment is likely to be at.

If the equipment was able to put out 120 covers an hour at its peak two years ago and today it’s putting out just 200 covers within an hour and a half, you’ll feel it.”

Hunter suggests using your intuition: “The gear just doesn’t have enough grunt, flexibility or speed, so you’ll know when its time is coming up,” he says.

Variable rates

In addition, it’s important to keep track of the varying outputs of different pieces of kitchen equipment, including its productivity, usage and the importance of its role in the kitchen.

“For example, an Italian restaurant will have the pasta cooker going non-stop but the griddle is only used for cooking steaks and accounts for 20 per cent of output.

If I’ve just got a pasta cooker but I can put in another piece of equipment like target tops, with three temperature settings on the one surface, I can do two or three other things at once.”

It’s about choosing the
appropriate equipment to suit your business as it grows, without increasing your energy consumption.

Safety first

Occupational health and safety is another key consideration in commercial kitchens—especially in older businesses that haven’t updated their equipment in line with new regulations.

Small, crowded areas, high temperatures, gas appliances, live electricity and hot surfaces are all risk factors that need to be minimised.

Assessing the running needs of a kitchen and using the most space-saving, efficient equipment in place can save on expensive injuries as well as increasing productivity flow.

Managers should also ensure their equipment is hermetically sealed, making it leak-proof and reducing the risk of spills seeping through into an electrical box.

Waste not, want not

In the past, it was commonly believed that the higher the megajoule input, the faster you could cook.

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” Hunter says. “All you get out of massive burners is a lot of wasted heat wrapping around your cooking utensils.

The alternative these days are lower megajoule burners that focus the heat more effectively and are therefore much more efficient.

Similarly, any equipment that is able to save on water and energy will obviously save money later on.

The potential savings on some commonly used items are several-fold—sanitisation systems that consume less water, use less detergent
and burn less energy will also provide lower maintenance and running costs over the life of the equipment.

Fixed operational costs in the kitchen include labour, gas, electricity and water. While labour might equate to 60 per cent of all fixed costs, the best way to save on this cost is to upgrade to more flexible equipment.

Many managers often fail to recognise the value of more efficient equiment, Hunter says: “Sometimes it can mean the difference between needing two staff instead of four.

“A combi oven is a classic example—it can bake, roast, cook meat and rice and has a built-in dishwashing system.

It’s the ultimate piece of equipment for boosting flexibility and saving on labour, all while maintaining a small energy footprint.”

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