Is your cooking equipment performing as it should? Is it the right equipment for your menu items? Are your customers being served food that is safe and appealing? These questions have a big impact on your bottom line and long term success in the business. Here we’ll learn firsthand what you need to know when selecting commercial cooking equipment.

Over the past few years, we’ve reviewed numerous cook test evaluations and discussed how they were put into practical use from an operator standpoint. This month we’ll discuss the ABC’s of evaluating, upgrading and replacing your cooking equipment.

Just imagine…your restaurant is growing and you realize that you must replace or add some new equipment in the very near future. The option of not doing so could mean that your table turns decline and with that so does your potential to maintain and increase your bottom line! It can be a little like the purchase of a new automobile or boat; you’ll meet with an equipment salesperson who will have a “laundry list” of questions about your current equipment, your needs and your expectations.

In an effort to minimize potential misunderstandings of equipment requirements and performance, you must be able to address the following issues:

• Menu – this is the driving force when it comes to specifying cooking equipment. Remember, all equipment and menus are not created equal. Your cooking equipment will serve you best only if it can meet your menu requirements. What works for the restaurant across the street may not be what will work for you.

• Concept – Discuss your business concept; is it upscale or ethnic dining? Do you use disposables or do you wash dishes?

• Budget – You must be realistic here. Don’t talk about buying expensive new technologies if your resources limit you to the old standards; i.e. new gas convection ovens vs. gas combi ovens. The price differential can be more than double.

• Philosophy – How do you like to operate your business? Does the equipment supplier’s ideas mesh with yours?

• Restaurant Size – How many seats? How many turns? Meals per day – breakfast only, lunch only, dinner only or combination thereof?

• Cooking Style – Different chefs will have different ways of doing the same thing. What is your style?

• Type of Utilities Available – Natural gas, propane gas (LP), electric, wood, etc. It is important to differentiate between natural and propane gas as many products cannot easily be field converted.

Industry experts agree that the menu is the single most important factor when evaluating cooking equipment needs. Bob Boll, Director of Hospitality Education at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC says, “The cuisine rules absolutely everything when selecting the cooking equipment for any foodservice operation. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to outfitting a commercial kitchen.”

Common sense must prevail. Boll comments, “You do not need a gigantic sauté range if you have a limited number of sautéed items on your menu. Conduct a market survey on your menu to determine the popular items.” Analyzing your menu will provide the answers for the size of the cooking line and related sections for prep and storage. Here we can emphasize the three s’s: speed, sizing and service. Cooking equipment should be sized appropriately, promoting on-time production of menu items. It should be easily accessed for any maintenance that will be required. If you don’t take these things into consideration, you’re not setting things up according to good economics, performance and, importantly, ergonomics and ease of use. The bottom line is that you absolutely will not be able to serve your customers in a timely manner, and if you can’t do that, you will not have staying power in the highly competitive foodservice industry.
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More often than not, restaurant owners make their equipment buying decisions based on emotion and price instead of performance and value. This is where GFEN and local gas utilities can be beneficial resources. They can assist in the buying decision with either “in-field” equipment testing or comprehensive evaluations at actual test/demonstration facilities.

Owners may also avoid other common mistakes by taking the following actions:

• Get testimonials from other end-users.

• Interview a number of different equipment sales representatives.

• Analyze the menu in detail.

• Maximize buying power by purchasing everything from the same supplier.

• Focus on the business of serving customers and don’t spend too much time trying to be a purchasing agent by reviewing all the minute details of a piece of equipment.

We have also observed that physical space is often misused or underestimated, especially in the area of food prep. In many facilities, the “cook” is often crammed in with little consideration regarding working space for the number of production people needed to operate your facility smoothly and efficiently. A rule of thumb is to provide one prep table for every two people working per shift.

Another common mistake is that owners consistently underestimate their refrigeration requirements. Correct sizing here depends on customers served per day, frequency of food deliveries, seasonality, case sizing and the popularity of specific items on your menu.

Once you’ve evaluated and decided on your equipment requirements, how do you purchase it? Do you go through a local equipment supplier, or, if your operation is large enough, do you go factory direct? You’ll find that most consultants will advise against purchasing factory direct because of the “D” factor – DAMAGE! Shipping damage is very common today and consequently a big problem for the industry. That’s why the local suppliers have survived – they are generally better suited to work through these problems with the manufacturers. This in turn enables you to focus on your restaurant, your customers and your overall bottom line!

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