Susan Davis Gryder 0000-00-00 00:00:00
<b>There are at least 20 QUESTIONS you should ask VENDORS— AND YOURSELF— before investing in expensive school foodservice equipment.</b> Do you remember the last time you played 20 Questions? It may have been years ago! This time-honored parlor game is akin to a detective story: You ask a series of questions, using a simple, methodical, deductive approach to narrowing down the possibilities and identifying the correct answer. This strategy isn’t just appropriate for entertainment purposes—or solving mysteries. It’s a process that might help you in, of all things, purchasing equipment for your school nutrition operation. When it comes to equipment, the stakes are high, not in the least because the price tag is high, too. There are certain pieces of equipment that are essential to the job of producing school meals. There are some that could transform your menu. There are others that could have significant implications on labor and utility costs. Buy the wrong thing at the wrong time? The purchase could have equally far-reaching implications for your budget and your staff—and even for future opportunities for change, since you could be stuck with something inappropriate for a decade or more. How can you make sure that you make the right decision? By making sure that you are doing the research through asking the right questions. <b>The More You Know</b> Here’s where applying a 20 Questions approach can help in this often-intimidating process. For some guidance from a voice of experience, School Nutrition turned to Mark McGrath, currently an equipment manufacturer’s representative specializing in school clients for PMR Distributing, based in Lawrenceville, Ga. McGrath has extensive experience in school nutrition, having directed school nutrition operations in Fort Wayne, Ind., and districts in Georgia, as well as with the Georgia State Department of Education’s School Nutrition Division. Today, he puts his years of experience in school foodservice to good use, representing a range of equipment manufacturers over a three-state region. McGrath affirms that asking the right questions of the right people—as well as of yourself!—helps ensure that you don’t waste your operation’s hard-earned money. “It’s so easy to get the wrong piece of equipment,” he asserts. “This could be because it won’t do what’s needed or it won’t work in your specific facility due to practical considerations.” For one thing, says McGrath, asking questions will help you determine a piece of equipment’s “true cost of ownership,” which takes into consideration not only how much you pay to buy the equipment, but all the costs associated with it: the labor it takes to run it, the maintenance it will require to stay in working order over time and the benefits that it will bring to the operation, such as increased participation. So, where do you start? <b>Start With the Menu</b> Before you replace any longstanding piece of equipment, take a good, hard look at your menu and give some thought to how you think it will change in the coming years (see “Which Comes First? The Apple or the Appliance?,” page 28). <b><i>Ask yourself:</i> 1 What types of foods do I currently prepare in my aging equipment; do I still plan to serve them in the near future; and will I still be serving them 10 years down the line? </b> According to McGrath, these days, you should plan on getting a solid decade of use from a major piece of kitchen equipment. Reflect on the equipment you have and the models you are considering as replacements. Is the new equipment versatile? Will it let you adjust to different types of foods if you make major menu changes? <b>2 Are there regulatory changes or new guidelines—federal, state or local—that will affect how much this piece of equipment is needed? </b> As an example, McGrath cites his previous operator experience in Georgia, when school districts were charged with phasing out the menuing of French fries. First, he removed all the fryers from the district’s elementary schools, using them to replace broken fryers used in the secondary schools. It was a good way to transition both the menu and the equipment; once the district ran out of its built-in supply of working fryers, French fries came off of all menus. <b>3 Is it more cost-effective (or nutritionally sound) to continue making a menu item in this type of equipment? Are there benefits to switching from a processed item to a scratch recipe—or switching from a scratch preparation to a processed item…and changing equipment to match your needs? </b> For example, you may find that you can buy high-quality, less-costly breads and rolls (or par-baked doughs and crusts) for less than it costs to train and pay the labor hours for in house bakers to prepare. In that case, you may not need to replace that worn-out giant floor mixer. On the other hand, maybe you have decided that there are benefits to starting an inhouse baking program. There’s a lot of marketing potential in promoting fresh-baked rolls (including the enticing smell that fills the school corridors). So, maybe it’s time to spec and buy your first giant floor mixer! Or perhaps you’ve run the numbers and discovered that you can still offer fresh-baked rolls—but using a prepared bread dough. <b>The Dangers of Over-buying</b> As with the appliance shopping you do for your home kitchen, equipment purchase decisions for your school kitchens can have an emotional component. All that shining stainless steel… those cool digital controls…customized features…those promises of quicker, easier, more efficient food preparation…. Snap out it! It’s easy to get caught up in the appeal of beguiling bells and whistles and find yourself buying more power, functions and sophistication than you will ever put to use. McGrath advises some pragmatic soul-searching before you shop, so you’re clear on what you truly need from your equipment. While “versatility” is often touted as a plus you should seek out in new equipment purchases, it’s actually an area that can lead you astray if you are not careful. Many new types of equipment offer multiple functions, and in some cases, it’s definitely a great benefit—but only if you don’t need to apply those different functions in the preparation of a single meal. Take, for example, a tilting fry pan (also called a braising pan), which can do the job of several other pieces of equipment, such as a griddle, steamer or kettle. It’s stable, it will last a long time and most kitchen prep staff know how to use it. But it can only do one function at a time! If you don’t need the multi-functionality or if you need to do two of the functions at the same time, this equipment might not be the best choice. Combi ovens, too, are a great example of multi-functionality that many operators swear by [Editors’ Note: See “Ovens Turn up the Heat,” Tools of the Trade, December 2011]. With the capability to switch from convection to steam or to use both, they have been cited as great workhorses, especially in small kitchens. But do you need the versatility of a combi? All other factors being equal, would a different type of heating unit serve you better? Have you asked about maintenance costs? Is the versatility worth the money you may pay in overall total cost of ownership? <b><i>Ask yourself:</i> 4 What is this primary function for which I am buying this equipment? </b> Do I really need it to be capable of multiple functions? Will I and my team take advantage of these on a regular basis? Or, am I paying more for features that we will never use? It’s also important to recognize that many features of “sophisticated” equipment rely on more electronic and computer-controlled parts. McGrath points out that these pieces may not last as long in the heat and humidity of the kitchen environment as their more standard and stripped-down counterparts. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a value to those features; it just means you need to consider that the “shelf-life” of such equipment may be less than other options and that maintenance costs might be higher—both factors to add into your total cost of ownership calculations. <b>Assess the Installation Site</b> Whether you are replacing an old piece of equipment or purchasing something entirely new, you need to be sure that it will fit in the space you have designated and that you have the utilities in place to support it. Remember that newer versions of a piece of equipment might have slightly different technical requirements, so don’t neglect this step! <b><i>Ask yourself:</i> 5 What voltage is supplied to the location that I’ve identified for this piece of equipment? </b> Does it match the requirements for the new equipment? <b>6 If this equipment uses gas, is there an existing gas line to the location? </b> If not, can one be installed easily? <b>7 What are the dimensions of the space that’s available for the equipment? </b> This sounds like a “no-brainer,” but you’d be surprised how often measurements are not calculated properly or just not taken into consideration. <b>8 Does the equipment require special ventilation?</b> Is that ventilation already in place? What would be involved in trying to add ventilation? <b>9 Does the equipment require water and a drain? </b> McGrath points out that this easily overlooked step can be very expensive, because plumbing is significantly more complicated to install or change than electrical connections. “Additional plumbing often requires tearing up a floor,” he warns. “This might be a stop sign that would keep you from moving forward.” If you are making your purchase directly from a manufacturer’s rep or a dealer (or using the services of one of these professionals in writing your bid spec), then you should be able to rely on that person to help you identify and answer these critical questions. But if you are purchasing equipment online or writing a bid all on your own, you will need to conduct this research yourself. And if you don’t know a volt from an amp—well, a good place to find assistance is your district’s maintenance team; see the box on page 24 for more details. <b>Understand the True Cost</b> Now that you’re almost halfway through your 20 questions, you probably have a pretty good idea about the basic type of equipment you’re looking for to meet your operational needs and specifications. The next step is to start asking more in-depth questions about how much the equipment will cost you before you commit to making this investment. Of course, the basic purchase price of the item is a critical consideration, but make sure you reflect on other factors that will play a part in the true cost of ownership of the item. Ask your rep or dealer for information to help you answer the following questions. <b><i>Ask yourself:</i> 10 How long is the equipment expected to last? </b> Discuss the kind of workload the equipment will be expected to bear. Maybe it’s equipment you will use every day—but unlike many restaurants, you won’t be using the equipment many hours per day. Try to get some feedback about how usage will impact the equipment’s expected lifespan. <b>11 How energy-efficient is the equipment? </b> Will it use more or less energy than the equipment I am currently using? Does it meet ENERGY STAR® specifications? Does it use a different energy source than what I have been using, one with a different utility cost (switching from electric to gas, for example)? <b>12 Is the equipment easy to clean? </b> Does it require special cleaning products, or can you use materials you use for other equipment in the kitchen? <b>13 Does the equipment need special supplies, such as filters? </b> What is the annual cost of these supplies? <b>14 What is the equipment’s maintenance schedule? </b> Can it be done by inhouse staff, or will it require a maintenance contract? How available and affordable are replacement parts? <b>15 What labor is required to operate the equipment? </b> Is this more or less than what I use for my existing equipment? You can summarize the answers to these questions in a spreadsheet format and use it to compare similar brands and models from different manufacturers, or simply to compare your old equipment with the one under consideration. And don’t forget to factor in the potential revenue impact of the new equipment if you are using it to make significant changes in your menu that will have participation implications. <b>Spec It Out </b> Have you narrowed down the options? Are you satisfied that you know exactly what you want? Then it’s time to go out for bid. At this point, you should make sure that your RFP is as specifi c and detailed as possible, so that you are able to compare identical offers when you assess the bids. <b><i>Ask yourself:</i> 16 Have I specified the exact model number I require? 17 Have I listed any options that I require? </b> McGrath suggests one small example that might get overlooked: The choice between casters and fixed legs can make a big difference in how you are able to use, store and clean a heavy item. <b>18 Have I asked for separate line items for shipping and installation? 19 What kind of warranty agreement do I want? </b> Asking for a longer warranty may increase the upfront cost, but it can be well worth it for certain essential equipment pieces. Your rep can help to review the procurement documents and make sure that you have everything specified. This is particularly important when you are writing more complicated specs; you might not need help with a convection oven, but if you’re writing a spec for a walk-in cooler, it’s good to get some expert advice! And when those bids come in, be sure to examine them carefully and closely, to make sure that the returned bid hasn’t altered your specs or added clauses requiring different payment terms or changed delivery times. “This doesn’t happen very often,” notes McGrath. “But you need to look out for it.” <b>Up and Running</b> There’s one other question to consider before you write that purchase order. And it’s one of the most important: <b>20 What training will my staff need to use this equipment? </b> According to McGrath, as a rep, he’s responsible for training his customers on their new equipment. “Next week, I’m meeting with a district that bought two new ovens,” he says. “I want everyone in the kitchen who might use them to be there for training, so I can show them how to use the ovens, clean and maintain them. If the district has a separate trainer, I always like [that person] to be there. And in smaller districts, I’d want the director there, also.” And he’s quick to point out that proper training isn’t just important to ensure the function and lifespan of the equipment: “It’s a safety issue, too.” <b>Make It a Process</b> The answers to many of these questions will come from a combination of experience and good recordkeeping. That’s why it’s important that as soon as you purchase your new equipment, you begin tracking details about its performance. Stay in touch with managers, staff and repair technicians to get their feedback about reliability and ease of use. Make a habit to update your records whenever you pay a bill or do other regular tracking, such as updating production records. And if there are problems, don’t hesitate to contact your dealer and rep to get resolution. You want to take advantage of both your warranty and any promised technical support. Consider setting up a spreadsheet with fields for each of these 20 questions—or your own variations. If you update it regularly, you will have the research you need at your fingertips the next time you need to equip your kitchen. The equipment procurement process will never be as easy as an entertaining parlor game, but this type of information collection and ongoing tracking can make it a less onerous responsibility and give you more confidence in your decisions. <b>Susan Davis Gryder</b> is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Illustrations by <b>Desuza Communications, Saul Herrera, James Lee, Gokcen Yener, Elena Kozlova</b> and <b>David Schultz/istockphoto.com. </b> <b>Side dish</b> This month’s SN examines different issues related to school nutrition equipment. We want to know: “If money—and space—were no object, what’s one piece of equipment that you would like to buy and install? Why?” Visit “Side Dish,” School Nutrition’s online community to share your thoughts. Log in to www.schoolnutrition.org/snn and click on “Discussion Forums.” <b>Who’s Who? </b> Do you need to work with a manufacturer’s representative and a dealer? Mark McGrath, an equipment manufacturer’s representative specializing in the K-12 school segment, explains some of the differences between the two and how both can help you make the right equipment purchasing decisions. <b>A Manufacturer’s Rep… </b> Doesn’t take an order. Provides factory price to the dealer. Represents one or more manufacturers who make a variety of products. Typically represents only one manufacturer of any one piece of equipment. Has a great deal of knowledge about the brands and pieces of equipment he/she represents. Has moderate knowledge about equipment from other manufacturers. May have advice as to the “fit” of a variety of products (but won’t necessarily tell you about the products he/she doesn’t represent). Can advise you on writing specs for the piece of equipment you decide to buy. Helps train your staff on the new equipment once it is installed. The manufacturer offers the warranty. <b>A Dealer… </b> Takes orders. Provides a final price on the specs that you provide. May assemble and install the equipment at your site. Doesn’t represent any single brand, but sells all brands. Has a moderate amount of knowledge about all brands. May have advice on all the products and/or brands that he/she has experience with. May have questions or comments about specs, but cannot help write them, if he/she wants to sell to you. Will provide training if it is included in the spec. Will arrange for warranty service. <b>MAINTAIN YOUR RELATIONSHIPS </b> Whether you have your own school nutrition equipment technicians on staff, use the services of another district department or work with a reliable outside vendor, the professionals who keep your current equipment in good working order can offer valuable insight. They know which pieces have been durable and reliable, which need a little babying and which have been more trouble than they are worth. Indeed, maintenance costs are important to factor into your calculations of a piece of equipment’s total cost of ownership. If you don’t have an inhouse repair crew, make sure you maintain your own up-to-date records on equipment maintenance, breakdowns and repair. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet that you use to track the frequency and cost of all maintenance/repairs on each piece of equipment. Every time you pay a bill, note it in your spreadsheet. When it’s time to buy something new, you will have some ready research about which equipment and brands have been reliable and inexpensive to own—and which have given you headaches. It’s also a good idea to check with other district directors about their experiences with equipment performance. If you belong to a co-op or participate in your state’s SNA affiliate, you will find that your peers are a great source of information! Take advantage of meetings, online discussion groups and good old-fashioned e-mail to ask for opinions and experience with particular types of equipment, brands, models and so on. And don’t forget to talk to your equipment rep! Don’t be shy or embarrassed about asking questions. After all, it’s the rep’s job to know the product inside and out, and it is in their best interest to save you money and time and do what they can to ensure that you, the customer, are happy with your purchase. According to Mark McGrath, a Georgia based equipment manufacturer’s representative specializing in school clients, a good rep will ask you lots of questions. “Invite the equipment rep to the site where you’ll use the equipment, and tell the rep about the menu you plan to serve, the number of kids you are planning to serve and in how many meal periods,” he advises. This information is important to determine what model of equipment you need — for example, will a three-pan steamer work, or will you need a 10-pan steamer? <b>SNAPSHOT</b> •It’s important to determine a piece of equipment’s “true cost of ownership,” which includes not just the purchase price, but all associated costs. • Beware the dangers of “overbuying.” Will you and your team use all the bells and whistles offered? • To get exactly what you want and need, ensure that bid requests are as specific and detailed as possible.
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