In addition to offering grocery and snack items for on-the-go customers, c-stores are competing with quick-service restaurants for fresh meals and hot and cold beverages. That means knowing how to operate and maintain commercial kitchen equipment.
Here’s how to keep your money-making machines running smoothly so you can ring up sales instead of repair people.
Slush machine product sales bring in big bucks—especially during hot summer months.
“Next to a car wash, a machine that serves a frozen beverage drink is the most profitable item in a c-store, and the more you love your machine, the more the machine will love you back,” says Michael Cheung, VP of business development, sales and marketing at TFI Food Equipment.
Keep the exterior of the unit sparkling clean, suggests Cheung.
“Those are the customer-facing components, and we want to attract as many guests as we can to draw off those colourful slushy beverages,” he says.
Operators should follow the supplier’s regular maintenance schedule, which includes changing the tune-up kits and blades every three months, plus making sure the syrup lines are cleaned and connected properly each time the syrup bags are changed.
“These machines use a bag-in-box technology; the plastic bag with the flavoured syrup is connected directly into the CO2 system, which then drives syrup through our machine, so it’s important to always check the CO2 system to make sure the tanks are at the proper levels,” adds Cheung.
“If the CO2 connections are loose and leaking, it's a huge safety hazard for store clerks and customers. Making sure connections are tight and fastened is also important because without CO2, you won’t get any product dispensed.”
Ice cream machines
Following manufacturer’s recommendations to keep your unit in good shape, but make sure it’s thoroughly washed, rinsed and sanitized at least once a week.
“If there's still product in the machine, you don't necessarily want to throw it away; it’s fine to save it. But never re-introduce frozen product back into the machine,” he explains.
To save product, let it thaw out in a refrigerator and then reintroduce it in smaller amounts into the fresh mix.
“With soft-serve ice cream, the freezing process is so important, because we really want that soft texture and consistency. When reintroducing frozen mix, we run the risk of getting ice crystals instead of that smooth texture. The product will get over-beaten, and although it’s safe to eat, the texture and colour may be off because the sugar starts to caramelize and you get butterfat separation.”
Change the machine’s tune-up kits and scraper blades inside the freezing cylinders quarterly, says Cheung.
“When the barrels are flooded with product, the refrigeration kicks on. Then, those blades inside the barrel scrape the frozen product off the sides and bring it forward to create ice cream or slush,” he explains.
“The sharper the blades, the better and longer the machines run. The better your equipment operates, the more money you make.”
Grab-and-go coffee requires top performing equipment that’s not on the fritz during morning rush hour. Knowing how automatic bean-to-cup machines operate will help you keep it happy, says Cheung.
“Whenever we're heating up milk or water, you get calcium or milk-stone deposits, so that needs to be cleaned daily,” he explains.
If your machine has an internal boiler, you’ll need a water filtration system in place, and pay attention to your water monitor, because sediment levels fluctuate and the system may need adjusting. Also, the natural oils in espresso beans can gum up the hopper and block the machine, so clean the bean receptacle weekly.
“Make sure the hopper is 100% dry before putting in a fresh batch of coffee beans,” Cheung cautions. “We're mixing natural oils from the beans plus ground beans and water: You’ll get a thick paste that could seize the grinders and cause a very expensive repair.”
Built-up coffee oil along the sides can change the flavour profile of the coffee bean, making it taste bitter.
Walk-in coolers and refrigerators
Don’t take shortcuts when it comes to refrigeration equipment, says Chris Midbo, a sales consultant with Western Refrigeration in Edmonton.
Refrigeration units have compressors that pump the refrigerant through the system to provide cooling, and fans that help cool that compressor down. No matter how clean your store is, that fan collects dust.
“Ninety per cent of the reasons for early breakdowns on refrigeration equipment comes from people not cleaning out those parts,” he says.
“These units are designed to run most efficiently at room temperature – 72 degrees F. If dust accumulates and you don't have good airflow, the unit will run hot and break down.”
Every six months, take the front vent cover off—it’s either along the bottom or top of the machine—and vacuum the dust out.
Also, don’t just jam your freezer into a corner. Instead, make sure there’s enough air circulation around your unit—at least three to six inches—because the machine blows hot air out.
“Pull your machines out periodically and clean up the dust inside, around and outside,” he adds. “And be sure your air conditioning in the building is working properly. If it’s 85 or 90 degrees inside, your equipment will start running hot.”
Don’t forget about sliding doors: Products will spill, clog up the tracks and prevent the door from opening and closing properly, adds Midbo.
“Wipe down the gaskets for the doors, because with built up dirt and spills, they’ll become brittle and then crack, breaking your seal. Then the unit will run longer and can break down.”
Most manufacturers’ warranties require that ice machines be thoroughly cleaned every six months with a specialized cleaner, says Midbo.
“And depending on your area, you might have scale deposit buildup from your water,” he explains.
“Clean those units according to the manufacturer’s suggested maintenance plan, using approved ice machine cleaner. You’ll also be cleaning the condensing fans.”
Novelty ice cream freezers
Ice cream freezers need to be emptied and defrosted as ice builds up, usually every few months, because they don't have an automatic defrost setting where the unit melts off ice from the coils.
“If you had a defrost setting on a novelty freezer, product would continually be slightly melted and slightly frozen,” explains Midbo.
“The more often you defrost, the less time it takes because there's less buildup. You may end up with a big puddle inside the unit at the bottom of the self-contained unit, so make sure you dry it out before putting everything back.”
Fountain beverage dispensers
Water scale buildup can alter the flavour and quality of your soda, says Midbo, who recommends having a filtration system.
“With these machines, you not only need to clean and sanitize the syrup lines every six months, but you should also re-lubricate the wear parts,” he suggests.
“This equipment is expensive and if maintained properly, you should get 15 or 20 years out of it.”
C-store operators can contract suppliers to do the six-month cleaning service for them.
Countertop ovens and hot dog roller grills
C-store operators running hot food programs take safety courses to learn the proper operating procedures, including recommended temperature settings, notes Midbo.
“When you're cooking product, it needs to be brought up to an internal temperature of 165 degrees to kill any potential bacteria, and then held at 140. The biggest mistake we see with hot food offerings is people holding the product way too warm,” he says.
That will dry out products like pizza very quickly and cause shrinkage, so monitor your temperatures closely and be diligent about regular maintenance.
“If you cooked on your stovetop at home for a year and never cleaned up any spills, you’d have a problem. It’s the same for hot dog roller grills: They need to be cleaned on a daily basis,” says Midbo.
The longer you wait to wipe up baked-on grease, the harder the job gets, he adds
“The grease will slowly migrate inside the equipment, so you’ll have mechanical issues as well. Clean up spills and wipe the units down with hot, soapy water.”
Getting the right recipe for success
Cleaning procedures take time, but it’s time well spent, insists Cheung.
“It’s all about proper store-level operations, proper service by your equipment reps and a planned maintenance program,” he says. “That’s the recipe for success: maintaining a high percentage of up time, not down time.”