Operating a successful restaurant is more than just serving delicious food and providing exceptional service. The unsung hero behind the scenes is often the state-of-the-art equipment that ensures every dish leaves the kitchen cooked evenly and to perfection. But what happens when that trusty equipment starts to falter? Inefficient or outdated appliances and utensils can have a significant impact on your restaurant’s performance, affecting both the quality of your food and your bottom line. Restaurant owners and operators should be aware of the signs that it’s time to invest in new equipment and how to make these upgrades a reality so they can continue turning out tasty, well-cooked food, along with a profit.
Some Signs to Look For
Every chef has that story about the cast-iron skillet handed down as a family heirloom, that after a century on the job continues to turn out pancakes that taste “just like grandmas,” or the trusted 25-year old commercial refrigerator that was bought when you first opened your restaurant and are loathe to part with. When it comes to replacing, remodeling, and upgrading, an expensive, and sometimes emotional task, the old axiom tends to apply, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” On the other hand, sometimes restaurant kitchens are operating using tools that are “broke” and could use an upgrade. Here are some signs that it’s time for an upgrade.
Are you calling the repairman every month or so? As appliances age, they become less reliable, and tend to break down more often. Not only is this annoying, and can disrupt the flow of service, but it’s also costly. Shelling out $3,000 for a brand-new restaurant range is expensive, but in the long term it’s cheaper than paying for the repairman to come fix it again and again. And, newer appliances typically tend to be more energy efficient than older appliances, thanks to new techniques and regulations, so you will be saving on energy costs when you make the change.
On that note, rising energy costs are another sign that an upgrade is due. Appliances become less efficient as they age. If you are planning to replace appliances, look for new ones that are Energy Star rated. They will be more efficient, cost less to run, and are better for the environment.
Restaurant owners should also perform regular physical inspections of their appliances to note any issues that could create safety or sanitary concerns or could impact the function of the device. Rust, cracks, and missing parts are all signs that it’s time to make a change.
These signs may differ for different types of equipment, so this appliance-by-appliance breakdown can help restaurateurs spot when a breakdown has occurred for specific key appliances:
- Commercial refrigerator: A new commercial refrigerator should last at between 10 – 12 years and perhaps even longer, but when it nears the end of its first ten years in service, restaurant owners should start inspecting their commercial refrigerator for signs that it’s no longer working the way it first used to. Inspect the gaskets, hinges, and liners because if these are leaking air, spoilage can occur, pests can enter the refrigerator, and energy costs may shoot way up. Commercial refrigeration repairs can cost up to $1,000 plus parts, so depending on the state of the appliance, you may want to consider a new commercial refrigerator instead. After all, a modern restaurant literally cannot function without a working refrigerator.
- HVAC: Appliance upgrades don’t only apply to those involved directly in food preparation. Every restaurant needs a solid HVAC system, both to keep customers cool and happy and to keep kitchens safely ventilated. A commercial HVAC system costs around $12,000, but as the system ages, you may also opt to have your repairman replace it piecemeal over time.
- Commercial dishwasher: The dishwasher is another appliance to keep a close eye on. First of all, because a non-functional dishwasher poses a real health concern. Your restaurant can get shut down if your dishes aren’t sanitary and clean. Secondly, a small break in a dishwasher can lead to catastrophic flooding if not repaired. According to the National Flood Insurance Program, homeowners and commercial businesses can run up tens of thousands of dollars in damages from dishwashers that have flooded. Dishwasher issues are most commonly caused by problems with the drain, pump, hose, rubber seal, or filter. Some of these are easily remedied – for example a clogged drain or filter can be cleaned. But, if your dishwasher is on the older side, it may be time to replace your outdated one with a more efficient commercial dishwasher that cleans better and needs less attention. After all, you don’t want to walk into your kitchen in the morning just to find out that it flooded overnight.
- Ice machine: Ice makers don’t necessarily break as catastrophically as dishwashers do, but when they break, repairs are typically expensive, especially if you have an older model that has less readily available parts. Ice machine repairs are expensive because they contain several costly components. For example, the evaporator is the component that produces ice in a designated shape and drops it into the dispenser. The evaporator plate can become warped, separated, or stripped over time, especially if the machine isn’t maintained routinely or if certain abrasive cleaners are used on the ice maker. The compressor, which moves the refrigerant through the system, is another costly issue, and it’s a component that tends to naturally break down over time due to regular usage. If you hear sucking, rattling, or screeching from your ice machine, it may be a compressor issue. The condensers are the ice machine’s coils. Humidity, dust, and physical damage can force the condensers to work overtime. If your machine starts taking longer to produce ice, it may be a condenser issue. All of these components cost thousands of dollars to replace, plus the cost of a repairman, so if you start noticing ice machine issues, buying a new ice machine is often cheaper than repairing the old one.
- Cookware: It isn’t just electronics that require regular inspection. Cookware that is corroded or rusted can pose health issues. But, even outside of health concerns, rusting, peeling and staining can impact the taste of your food. Cookware, including frying pans, sauce pans, and other pots and pans that are used on a daily basis should be replaced at least every two to four years so your chef can continue to keep food cooking evenly and tasting great.
- POS: When restaurant owners are considering upgrades, they should not just look at the cookware, but also the restaurant management systems. The POS systems are the components that you need to take payments, file paperwork, take orders, and ensure smooth business operations. Some examples of POS systems include payment tablets, kiosks, Kitchen Display Systems (this lets your kitchen staff know what order to fill and the order to cook them in), printers, scanners, and cash registers. Even if your system is working just fine, newer cloud-in-technology based systems provide seamless integration between systems and help your staff and bookkeepers work more efficiently.
- Decor and design: In addition to upgrading systems and appliances, it’s advisable for restaurant owners to keep track of trends and design ideas so they can ensure that their restaurant looks current and that their aesthetic appeals to their target clientele. This can sometimes be accomplished quickly and cheaply just by adding some pops of color or nature to your design scheme. Or, you can give your tabletop decor an upgrade. Trendy, fine-dining establishments are switching from tablecloths to charger placemats. And it’s just as important to keep servingware looking great. So if your china is chipped or scratched, consider investing in new, long-lasting china dinnerware that is microwave, oven and dishwasher safe as well as new non-tarnished restaurant flatware. It’s also important to take a good, hard look at the different aspects of your restaurant furniture. Whether you need to upgrade your tables or chairs, it’s a good idea to research the latest trends, and find options that give your restaurant the trendy, upgraded look that you want.
- Green Status: One last area of upgrades that you might want to consider is your restaurant’s “green” status. This means switching out styrofoam or plastic takeaway containers with more eco-friendly, recyclable ones, changing plastic utensils for wooden ones, and investing in reusable straws over disposable ones. Although this is an expensive switch, it may be worthwhile if you can market your establishment as eco-friendly. Modern consumers, especially young ones, are willing to pay more for Earth-friendly, sustainable dining options.
What if it Costs Too Much…
If you are thinking about upgrading, but are worried about the cost, there are a number of reasons that updating your equipment may actually be a cost-friendly option, despite the thousands of dollar price tag.
First of all, new appliances are more energy efficient. They also can enable your staff to be more efficient. If the appliances run faster, and work more reliably, your staff will spend less time babysitting the appliances and waiting for repairs, and more time taking orders, cooking, and serving guests. An updated POS system can also streamline purchases and paperwork saving on purchasing and hiring decisions.
Lastly, a restaurant with upgraded equipment can stay competitive and market itself to a larger audience, bringing in more revenue. When it comes to the potential benefits of upgrading your equipment, suddenly the $300 price tag on a new commercial fryer doesn’t seem so expensive.
How Long Should Your Equipment Last?
On the other hand, if you are spending thousands to replace your commercial oven, you will want the new model to last for many years. Unfortunately there is no one answer to how long your equipment should last. That’s because appliance lifespan is contingent on many factors. For example, how often the appliance is used. A commercial refrigerator that is opened hundreds of times daily will last much less time than one that is only opened occasionally. Another factor, but one that you can control, is how well machines are cleaned and maintained. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of replacement, and this means that it is wise to set up a planned equipment maintenance policy to ensure that your equipment is routinely inspected so that it continues to function well, rather than wait for a break-down to occur. Daily, weekly, and monthly cleaning of certain types of equipment is also essential in maintaining the lifespan of your equipment.
One factor that you cannot control, however, is weather. If you live in a more humid area, for example, expect appliances to rust more quickly. Refrigerators and HVACs in warm areas may have to work harder to compensate for the surrounding temperature, and if you have outdoor equipment such as awnings, outdoor furniture, space heaters, planters, grills and so on, rain, wind, and snow can significantly impact their longevity.
If you plan on investing in new, expensive appliances, ask the supplier about their warranty options. This will help you avoid the hassle and expense of having to deal with repairs and maintenance for years to come.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Longevity isn’t the only consideration when it comes to making big, expensive purchases, or even small upgrades.
You also want to think about the long-term impact of your appliances. For example, if you are a new restaurant owner, with dreams of expanding, a small capacity commercial refrigerator may meet your current needs. But, will that same appliance still be enough if your business grows? If you aren’t sure, or your setup is only temporary, you may want to consider a short term lease. These can be expensive, but they allow you to defer purchasing decisions until the future.
Another thing to keep in mind is how new equipment fits into your existing infrastructure. For example, some appliances require specific types of ventilation systems, and different parts of a POS system work together in different ways. New plates may be needed, but if they don’t match your table decor, you will need to find a different color or replace more than just the plates. You will want to view your restaurant as a holistic system when choosing any major repair or upgrade.
Remember, upgrading your restaurant equipment is a strategic investment that can boost your restaurant’s performance and customer satisfaction. Make informed decisions, and your restaurant, and customers, will reap the rewards.