Restaurateurs Insist Qualified Contractors Are Important Ingredients

Originally Published on The NEWS

Food service entrepreneurs rely on refrigeration for perishables, profits

With thousands of dollars of perishable product under refrigeration at any given time, restaurant owners and managers prize speed of service above all else from their refrigeration contractors. And, remote monitoring to head off equipment trouble and prevent product loss also is of great interest to these customers.

Dennis Devies, a 20-year veteran of the restaurant business, is executive chef at the Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland. On busy nights, he and his kitchen staff may be responsible for producing 500 dinners – the two-level venue seats 300 upstairs in the casual-dining concert hall and an additional 200 downstairs in the fine-dining supper club. He has about $14,000 in inventory under refrigeration at any given time.

“Speed of service is the most important thing to me when it comes to my refrigeration guy,” Devies told The NEWS. “I don’t want to lose product.”

In addition, he noted, mutual respect is an important element of a successful contractor-customer relationship.

“Speed is No. 1, but I also need the refrigeration service technician to be respectful of me and my staff when he or she walks into my kitchen,” he said.

At the other end of the restaurant size spectrum, Austin Ruesch is the owner of Helio Terra, a two-month-old Cleveland-based café that serves all-vegan dishes. Despite the establishment’s small size (20 seats), it generates plenty of take-out business as people stop in looking for a healthy lunch or dinner or visit from the adjacent gym to pick up a fruit smoothie. The focus on all-fresh ingredients and the café’s rapid growth have generated some refrigeration challenges for Ruesch, who runs the establishment with his wife, Valencia.

“We took over an existing restaurant location, and all of the refrigeration equipment needed to be serviced,” said Ruesch, “One of the coolers wasn’t holding temperature and had a small refrigerant leak, another needed new door seals, and the bills started to add up very quickly.”

Once the café was up and running, it grew so fast that Ruesch rapidly ran out of space and had to purchase additional refrigeration equipment. “At first, I was buying small quantities of produce, and now I’m buying cases. We had nowhere to put everything,” he said.

In addition, the existing drop-in freezer well was installed inside a closed cabinet, which minimized ventilation. As a result, Ruesch faced constant overheating, which threatened the business’s ability to serve smoothies.

“There’s supposed to be 10 inches of ventilation on either side of the well, but the previous owner had put it in an enclosed cabinet,” Ruesch said. “The temperature got so hot that it literally melted some internal wiring and a switch. Smoothies are about 40 percent of my business, so that was a pretty serious problem to inherit.”

Ruesch has obviously been keeping his refrigeration contractor busy.

“We use a very large company, which is beneficial because the guys can always get the parts we need, and they respond to service calls fairly quickly,” he said. “The customer service is good, but the downside is that the prices are quite high.”

However, Ruesch added he has occasionally felt as though the service to his café has suffered because of its size.

“Perhaps because we’re a smaller operation we may occasionally get ‘put on the back burner,'” he said. “For example, we had to put off our health department inspection – and, therefore, our opening – because we were waiting for parts for a couple of the refrigeration units, and I felt that if we were a larger chain restaurant, our contractor may have had the parts for us quicker.”

Ruesch, a 23-year veteran of the restaurant industry, acknowledges that remote monitoring of equipment would be a boon for any restaurant owner.

“I’m not sure if the older units I have could be retrofitted, but remote monitoring via the Internet would be a great idea for any new refrigeration equipment, especially walk-in coolers or freezers,” he said. “I’ve seen situations in which a cooler has been compromised for a day and no one noticed it was getting warm. Then, all of a sudden, you walk in and it’s 70°F in there. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of dollars of product thrown away because of cooler malfunctions.”

Archna Malhotra Becker, owner of two Bhojanic locations, which specializes in Northern Indian cuisine as well as a food truck and a catering business, agreed remote monitoring would be a wonderful feature on restaurant refrigeration equipment.

“We saw remote monitoring at the National Restaurant Association show, and I thought it would be a great idea,” Becker said. “Everybody has wireless connectivity. And I’m sure every restaurant owner fears losing a lot of product because of a system breakdown in the middle of the night.”

Becker said her company uses a large refrigeration service company as well as a few smaller mom and pop contractors. The key, to her, is availability and quick service. If one company can’t arrive in a timely fashion, the next one on the list will get the call. Using multiple contractors, however, has a downside: a lack of consistent recordkeeping.

“I think it would be nice if we had a log on the unit that provided a little more data for us,” she told The NEWS. “It would be nice to have access to records of everything that has been done to our system.”

Dave Snyder, owner of Halyard Restaurant Group; a seafood restaurant, Tramici a casual Italian restaurant; and Halyard’s Catering, Saint Simon’s Island, Georgia, said he’s happy with his refrigeration contractor because the company provides great honest service.

“Service is the name of any ballgame, and what’s great about the company is the techs usually show up within 45 minutes of something breaking down, and company reps are always here the next day if it’s not an emergency,” Snyder said. “Plus, the guys there are open, upfront, and honest. I think I pay a little more than the average customer around here, but the value in the open and honest communication is worth it. I would say the company provides the refrigeration contractor version of southern hospitality.”

Snyder, however, made a suggestion that refrigeration contractors could form more of a partnership with restaurant owners.

“One thing I would love is if our contractor would share with us how we can help ourselves by maintaining our own equipment,” he said. “We pay them a monthly maintenance fee, and I sometimes wonder if we couldn’t do some of the maintenance ourselves and save some money. I often give people my recipes so they can make them at home, but our contractor won’t tell us how to do any of our monthly maintenance. I think maybe there should be a middle ground.”

Honesty, professionalism, respect, remote monitoring, and timeliness appear to be the recipe for success with restaurant customers.

Posted by Main Commercial Cooking & Refrigeration on September 7th, 2015

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