Tips & Tricks

Restaurants slow to make kitchen upgrades, but some look to future

Eddie Vozzella, executive chef of University Grill, prepares a lunch order on their new flattop grill. The flat cooking surface provides more room and replaces the older charbroil grill.

Eddie Vozzella, executive chef of University Grill, prepares a lunch order on their new flattop grill. The flat cooking surface provides more room and replaces the older charbroil grill. / Photos by Guy Tubbs/The News-Press
Vozzella says the new flattop grill is more efficient and cleaner than the old charbroil grill.

Vozzella says the new flattop grill is more efficient and cleaner than the old charbroil grill.
If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it — that’s a common practice in the restaurant industry, especially since the economic downturn.

Because upgrading a restaurant kitchen can mean spending anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, it’s not surprising those in the industry often drag their feet when it comes to freshening up. But planning for upgrades and picking and choosing what pieces are best can be a challenge as restaurateurs try to gauge how their concept will change or what new food trends they’ll showcase at their eateries over the next decade.

“People eat a whole lot differently today than they did even five years ago,” said Eddie Vozzella, chef and general manager at University Grill in south Fort Myers.

Roughly a year ago, the restaurant traded its charbroiler for a flattop grill — a roughly $9,000 investment.

The equipment was a cleaner and more versatile option the restaurant could use to grill everything from burgers to blackened chicken and fish at a time when the costs of keeping up the charbroiler was no longer cost-efficient. Typically, the restaurant will keep and maintain a system for 10 or 12 years, he said.

“As time goes on, you have to replace the deflectors, the grates, the burners,” he said. “Deflectors can range from $250 to $300 each … You could easily spend $2,000 a year.”

For the past six to eight years, Beltram Foodservice Group in Fort Myers has seen fewer restaurants buying new equipment.

“Before [the recession] there were a lot of new restaurants going in,” said Larry Hines, a design manager at Beltram. “Nobody likes to spend money they don’t have to.”

The company specializes in designing food service facilities and selling the equipment needed for everything from restaurants to hospitals and assisted living facilities. What equipment restaurants and other food service facilities decide to purchase depends on what the concept is and what they’re trying to do. The company designs new commercial kitchen spaces, and will get redesign requests from older restaurants with systems that are 15 to 20 years old, he said.

At FGCU, James Fraser emphasizes best practices and business planning to his resort and hospitality management students, but it’s not a common practice in the industry.

“I have not worked at restaurants that have had a best plan in place,” he said. “They are just more worried about opening their doors and selling food … very few people think about the exit strategy and how they are going to get out of the restaurant or what is the next evolution of the restaurant.”

Since Pam Lemmerman has operated The Connection Bar and Grill, formerly French Connection Cafe, in downtown Fort Myers, she’s renovated three times.

“Every time we’ve remodeled, we’ve added new equipment to the kitchen,” she said.

The restaurant expanded the kitchen in 1991, and again more recently in 2005, investing roughly $35,000 for kitchen upgrades, adding items such as a hood system, a charbroiler, ovens and deep fryers.

But more often than not, Lemmerman will repair and maintain equipment as long as it makes sense financially.

“For the price we pay for this equipment, you make them last as long as they can,” she said.

Like many restaurant operators, Lemmerman did not plan for the renovation in 2005, but ran with the opportunity to improve the restaurant and kitchens when the building was sold and new owners wanted to bring the historic downtown building to current code.

“I thought that was a good deal at the time, was able to get a loan and the rest is history,” Lemmerman said. “Had it not been for the building owners doing what they had done, I would not have been able to afford it.

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