2010 February: A Necessary Duty

At 23 Round Table Pizza restaurants in northern California, regular equipment maintenance remains central to the organization’s culture. Managers and employees complete routine tasks daily to stave off future fiascos.

Round Table GM John Boyle says the company is “pretty ritualistic about maintaining equipment. If our equipment is down, then we can’t serve the customer, then we’re not going to serve our best product. Those are issues we don’t want to face.”

Though the pizzeria world holds more electrifying duties than scrubbing an oven or cleaning refrigeration coils, few tasks save so much cash, support customer satisfaction, appease the health department and protect product integrity.

“Maintenance is a non-glamorous issue. Most operators would rather bag the next school contract than clean their oven,” says Jim Kovacik of Northern Pizza Equipment in Dexter, Michigan. “But smart operators know the benefit of a strong maintenance plan.”

That’s because equipment maintenance impacts the bottom line. Preventative maintenance curbs the cost of extensive repairs and stimulates an efficient operation; it also lightens energy consumption. Randy Thompson, owner of Pizza Primo in Temperance, Michigan, reports savings of $50 to $100 on electrical bills immediately after his bi-annual oven cleaning.

“That’s money in my pocket,” he says.

While some operators are mechanically gifted and attack equipment maintenance, others plod forward knowing the value but dodging the work. For many, intimidation interferes; equipment can be complex and demand time. For others, it’s the cost, particularly at independent operations faced with manpower struggles or the uneasy expense of outsourcing the work.

“Penny wise and dollar foolish,” Middleby Marshall’s Lester Nowosad says. “So many operators know preventative maintenance will extend the life of their equipment, but take it for granted.” In the pizzeria world, maintenance work revolves around one word: cleaning.

At Boyle’s Round Table locations, ovens, the heart of any pizzeria’s kitchen, receive a comprehensive cleaning each week. The oven is disassembled, parts are soaked in water, and the unit is scrubbed. The weekly process, Boyle says, has preserved the performance of his ovens and the integrity of his brand.

“We have 25-year-old ovens in our system that look brand new,” he boasts. For the oven, Nowosad advises daily maintenance that includes an exterior wipe down as well as the cleaning of crumb trays, cooling fans, and grills. Each month, the fingers and belt assembly should be removed for a thorough interior cleaning. Every 90 days, take a Shop-Vac, a handy tool in one’s maintenance arsenal, to the blower motor and surrounding compartments. Every six months, lubricate the bearings.

“All of this adds up to catching problems before it turns into downtime and lost revenue,” Nowosad says. Particularly with the moving parts of conveyor ovens, which tend to be more temperamental, cool electronic components are vital. Routine inspection of the unit’s cooling fan, which often needs to be replaced every 1 to 2 years, can be accomplished by placing a piece of paper over the fan to make sure it sucks in air.

“Much of what destroys electronics is a nasty relationship with heat, so controlling temperature is half the battle” Kovacik says, reminding that the conveyor belt should be brushed daily and its tension examined regularly.

Though sometimes “out of sight, out of mind,” proper ventilation and exhaust contribute to a pizzeria’s efficiency by promoting air fl ow. Hood vents should be cleaned regularly as should filters inside the hood canopy. Each month, operators should also check the fan belt, replacing brittle or cracked belts immediately — and having a second belt on reserve for emergencies.

While modern refrigeration systems maintain a reliable record, keeping the units cool and clean helps preserve their life and ensure working order. Dust and flour, particularly if the pounding table is adjacent, can easily get sucked into the unit and stir trouble. Tim Costello, a consultant to Avanti Restaurant Solutions, recommends taking a thin comb to the radiator coils or blowing out the coils with compressed air on a regular basis.

In walk-in coolers, ineffective door gaskets and strip curtains can lead to increased energy use. Once a week, enter the cooler and turn off the lights; if outside light seeps in, there’s a problem. At Pizza Primo, Thompson checks the cooler temperature twice daily, both ensuring the unit’s proper functioning and placating the health department.

“If the refrigeration’s working too hard, we’ll see it in the pocketbook,” Thompson says.

Pizza prep tables, wear-and-tear targets from hefty use, should have filters changed weekly and coils cleaned on a regular basis.

“This can be a (health department) citation in waiting,” says Jerry Kraushaar of Burkett Restaurant Equipment. Though rugged and reliable, mixer oil levels should be checked every three months. At the same time, clean and lubricate the bowl lifts while tightening bowl locks. Once a year, change the gear oil.

Too often, equipment doesn’t receive attention until it falters; by that time, damage can be well beyond the original issue, thereby accelerating repair costs. While mechanical sputterings are a certainty, a thoughtful maintenance plan can do much to repel drastic consequences.

“Good operators make a point of understanding the equipment and its maintenance needs,” Costello says. “They recognize that maintenance will help the bottom line.” ?

Equipment Maintenance:
An Inside or Outside Job?

Much of the preventative maintenance work on equipment, namely clean and checks, can be performed by in-house staff.

Operators can create a checklist of the top 10 items in their kitchen that warrant attention. Each week, at the same day and time, staff can complete the necessary maintenance tasks, such as cleaning refrigeration coils or examining the exhaust’s hood, fan, and belts.

“Develop habits and a fixed routine,” Kovacik urges, suggesting higher volume restaurants be more aggressive with their efforts. “Pay attention to the items and be methodical, which is the surest path to protecting the equipment and saving money.”

Still, some issues are better left to the pros. Major operations, such as electrical troubleshooting, changing gas components, and replacing the motor blower might be better outsourced to licensed professionals. Most markets have contractors available for preventative maintenance (PM) programs.

“Ultimately, each operator has to determine his own level of confidence,” Kovacik reminds.

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.

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