Whether it is for a scheduled maintenance visit or an emergency repair, service calls can be costly and time consuming. However, foodservice operators can take several steps to ensure that they get the most out of a service technician's visit while keeping the costs of these calls to a minimum. 

According to Mark LeBerte, president of Nashville, Tenn.-based service agency Atech, most of the steps operators can take to limit service costs come on emergency calls. Operators can take the first and perhaps the most effective step before making contact with the service agency. The operator should gather all the basic information on the troubled equipment and be ready to offer it when the agency asks.

It's not unusual, LeBerte said, for operators to call for service on a piece of foodservice equipment that is still within its warranty period. If a non-factory-authorized service agent makes the repairs, troubles with everything from payment to warranty validity can result. With access to the serial number, though, a service agency should be able to at least make an educated guess on warranty status.

Even when a unit exits its warranty period, knowing the manufacturer and model number is extremely valuable. With that information, the service agency should be able load parts for the broken equipment on its truck for the first visit, greatly increasing the chances for a first-call fix.

"It's always a challenge to get that sort of information. You're dealing with a line cook or a kitchen manager and they're in a hurry, but once they understand that part of the puzzle, they're willing to work with us. They want that sort of service experience, so they'll take the time to find the model number," LeBerte said.

In addition to name, rank and serial number, information about how the foodservice operator uses the equipment can help speed repair times and reduce costs. If the operator knows exactly what the unit was being used for when it went down, for instance, relaying that information to a technician can help him hone in on the problem.

In a different vein, knowing how the unit is used on a day-to-day basis can impact scheduling and may lead to a quicker fix. Pieces on the main cook line are nearly impossible to service during lunch and dinner periods, so the service agency will try to work around those hours, LeBerte said. Operators, then, should be sure to communicate if they use the malfunctioning equipment for away from the line tasks like prep work. In such a situation, they may be able to move the time of their visit up.

After scheduling a call, operators can take (and avoid) some equipment-specific steps to reduce repair times and costs. One of the most common mistakes, said Leberte, is unplugging a malfunctioning unit. Unless doing so presents a health or safety risk, leave it as it is. "Many times we come to a piece of equipment that's having a failure and they already turned it off or unplugged it. Then, when we plug it back in, it works just fine. It's been reset because a lot of the controls now are digital and computerized. Unplugging it and plugging it back in will reset the problem...We need to see the error code," said LeBerte.

For reach-in refrigerators, moving the food to another unit can speed up the fix. While time-consuming for kitchen staff, not doing this could force the technician to handle the job at a much higher per-hour rate to complete this task.

Another move that will make the best use of the technician's time is to have the service agent look at other problems, even the seemingly minor ones while still on-site. The fixes the service agent recommends, said LeBerte, can prevent a full-on failure. What's more, this allows operators to make the most out of an expensive truck roll. "The cost to bring mobile service to their location is expensive. That cost has already been absorbed by that one piece of equipment. If they can consolidate repairs and have us look at something else while we're there, it avoids additional expenses from another service call."

Most of the above applies primarily to emergency service calls. The calculus changes significantly for scheduled maintenance visits, said LeBerte. In those cases, it is the service agency's job to track and manage equipment. There are, though, a few steps operators can take to make these calls go smoothly.

One involves cook-and-hold ovens. These units can take two-plus hours to reach their holding temperature, the level at which most are calibrated. Many service agencies recommend warming up these units well before the technician arrives. (Operators, though, should check with their own service agency to see if this is their policy.)

Operators, also, should take a few minutes to make a list of potential problems to give to the technician on a scheduled maintenance visit. This list can help direct the tech to specific problems or concerns. While in most cases the technician would likely find the issue without direction, having this extra checklist can only help prevent problems.

"Ultimately we both want the same thing and that's for the equipment not to fail," said LeBerte. "That's what they're paying us for. We're trying to minimize downtime for our customers."