Mr Maintenance: Meet the man keeping Britain’s kitchens up and running

Steve Elliott, managing director

Catering equipment maintenance is essential for any operator that has designs on making sure the heartbeat of their operation is working to its potential and won’t let it down when the pressure is on. FEJ meets a man who is well-versed in what operators are doing right — and wrong — when it comes to looking after the equipment that powers their kitchens and their profits.

Catering equipment service companies often have more of an insight into what the short-term future of their business is going to look like than any other organisation. That’s because the behaviour of those further up the supply chain gives a pretty good indicator of how their pipeline of work is likely to shape up in the months ahead.

“Service tends to lag a few months behind equipment and projects, so when manufacturers and dealers selling equipment are busy, the service aspect tends to follow a few months afterward,” acknowledges Steve Elliott, managing director of Serviceline, one of the largest kitchen services providers in the UK with 120 engineers.

“Equally, when recession hits, it impacts the manufacturers first and new orders stop, and then slowly people end up reducing their service and maintenance costs.”

Automated coffee machines, juicers, rotary toasters, pop-up toasters — these are exactly the things that need not just a PAT test but an electrical safety check”

The nature of the economy has meant that the Stevenage-based outfit has witnessed both scenarios in all their glory during the last few years.

Like any business, the credit crisis forced the company to scrutinise its operation and cost base, but with new restaurants opening again and investment returning to the foodservice sector, its services are firmly in demand.

“Statistically, we are busier now than at any time since 2008 and we have got a number of customers who have expanded their horizons and are taking us with them. These are customers that we have long-term relationships with and as they grow, it helps to pull our growth along, too. Serviceline is not trying to target the mass market, we would rather do more work with the same customers. We have customers who are doing that organically and those that are doing it through purchasing others, and then they are asking us to go in and take over new areas. This is true of contract caterers, facility management businesses, owner-managed businesses and retailers.”

The diversity of Serviceline’s customer base and offering has served it well over the years. Its business encompasses everything from manufacturers’ warranty and installation to whole kitchen service contracts, nationwide reactive breakdown and call-outs. Like most of his counterparts in the kitchen service industry, Elliott argues that many operators still don’t take maintenance seriously enough, either because they only do the bare minimum or have no PPM at all.

At the very least, operators should be making sure that all gas- and water-based equipment is maintained because of compliance reasons. “Beyond that, you are then into high-use and high value equipment needing maintenance, such as dry cooking ovens, convection ovens and electric convection ovens,” says Elliott. “They need maintenance because if stuff isn’t looked at by a service engineer and they only wait until it breaks down then they are always going to be behind the curve, chasing their tails. We see a lot of high-street chains, a lot of retailers, who are just not there with maintenance regimes yet.”

One of the more intriguing changes in the catering equipment maintenance world over recent years has been the penchant for manufacturers to offer extended warranties. On the one hand this gives customers greater assurance, but if products are being guaranteed for five years or more could it potentially leave the service companies short of work?

They used to dispose of combination ovens after four or five years, now it is seven, eight, even 10 years, because they have been properly maintained”

“It’s certainly a big issue in America, where extended warranty has hurt the small service companies, but in Britain extended warranties are generally seen as beneficial all round,” says Elliott.

“For example, Gram has a five-year warranty on its refrigeration equipment and to maintain that the equipment has to be looked after. If the customer doesn’t look after the equipment they won’t get the warranty or they may not get the warranty. So there is an added pressure on the customer through extended warranty to look after the equipment better.”

Elliott insists that Serviceline won’t try to sell maintenance if the equipment doesn’t warrant it. If all that’s needed is an electrical safety check, it can provide that — adding that the service it offers is more comprehensive than the standard portable appliance testing (PAT).

“A PAT test only checks the supply cable — the plug, the cable and the inlet to the machine,” he says. “What our electrical safety check includes is a PAT test as well as things like checks on the controls and the earth leakage, and insulator resistance of the appliance. Those are legally binding readings that are taken from some very accurate calibrated test equipment that we buy, which costs nearly £500 a time, so there is big investment here.”

Elliott insists that electrical safety is a pertinent topic that operators have a duty to pay due care to, even more so since a lot of catering equipment now ends up front of house. “Automated coffee machines, juicers, rotary toaster, pop-up toasters — these are exactly the things that need not just a PAT test but an electrical safety check. In fact, a PAT test on a rotary toaster every two years is virtually useless because it will just check the mains cable. A rotary toaster is often taken out and put away every single day. Unplugged, moved, used by customers. In that environment, our advice is to do it twice a year, never mind doing it once every two years.”

The same goes for smaller appliances, such as soup pots and pasta boilers — operators often think these don’t need to be checked when in fact they can turn into major hazards due to the extent to which they are used and moved around.

One of the big challenges for foodservice operators is measuring the value of maintenance. Is it more cost-effective to wait for kit to break down and repair it, or pay to have it assessed on a rolling basis? Elliott insists there is conclusive proof that those taking the latter route will see a greater long-term benefit.

“There is no doubt that the five-year maintenance contracts we have delivered in the Prison Service, for example, has extended the life of their equipment by 50%. They used to dispose of combination ovens after four or five years, now it is seven, eight, even 10 years, because they have been properly maintained. So there is certainly proof of the benefit in that environment where the equipment has been properly installed and maintained from day one, not just from two years after the warranty has expired. It has to be linked to the training that operators give to their staff as well.”

VAN CROPPEDAnother example of the virtues of maintainance comes from a kitchen that Serviceline recently closed, but which it had looked after for 22 years without hardly replacing anything. “That is the proof: if people are interested in the long-term investment in their equipment they should maintain it from day one.”

With the market experiencing growth again and kitchens becoming stretched, demand for maintenance expertise is surely only set to increase. As Elliott himself testifies, when business is on the up, kitchen owners simply can’t afford to ignore the issue. “Operators want things fixed quickly, they don’t have spare capacity anymore, and that has led to a drive towards better service and more maintenance because they want their kitchens working better all the time.”

Maintenance minded

The argument for maintaining catering equipment is the same as any other type of equipment: it will fail less frequently, last for longer and perform in the way that it is designed to.

According to Steve Elliott, managing director of Serviceline, customers that have maintenance strategies in place throughout their business tend to be the ones that look after their catering and refrigeration equipment most effectively, too.

“It is one of the reasons why contract caterers are probably among the best, because they are truly serious about their investment on behalf of their clients. And staff catering, believe it or not, has always had an ethic about regular maintenance where other sectors of the market haven’t. What they do best is make sure that their staff are trained in it, have an expectation of it being done and rely on it. I would genuinely say that in well-maintained kitchens, staff feel more protected and looked after by their employer than those who work in kitchens where maintenance is not regular.”

Equally, says Elliott, kitchens with high staff turnover often face more difficulties when it comes to maintenance.

“I’ll give you an example. The best prison kitchens from a servicing point of view are those where the prisoners are in there for life. The worst ones are those where the prisoners are in there for two or three months because the high turnover means that the catering manager doesn’t have enough time to train the prisoners properly in his kitchen. Equipment in school kitchens is wonderfully maintained because there is a personal link between the school and the staff.”

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