We've become so used to having our products work properly that we've forgotten what preventive maintenance is. Ian Boughton finds out
Maintenance is something of a hot topic in the coffee trade.
Many caterers avoid suppliers' service agreements, disliking the cost of the premiums and preferring to rely on an emergency call to a local engineer. But machine companies, trying to push service contract business, allege that such independent engineers are not good enough, and don't carry enough replacement parts. The engineers protest that the machine makers deliberately withhold spare parts to sabotage local competition.
Unofficial trade estimates suggest there are about 150,000 espresso machines in the field, and far more coffee-brewing machines of other kinds. There are about 500 service engineers and they're all fully employed in what's largely an emergency trade - they're serving caterers who live with the fear that, if their machine breaks down, their beverage service stops instantly.
The principal reason why coffee machines go wrong is, curiously, not that they're prone to faults rather, they're generally extremely reliable, and this is what leads users to overlook preventive maintenance.
"An espresso machine will generally continue to make coffee even when desperate for a service," says Stuart Brigante, service manager at Fracino. "So operators let them run and run without maintenance, until minor problems get worse and turn into an emergency fault - and that's usually at a time when it's inconvenient to fully service a machine."
Relying on emergency calls is an appallingly cost-ineffective way to work, he warns. "The caterer never really gets value for money from emergency calls," he says, "because the time is spent only on the direct cause of the repair to stop losing money from downtime. So the repair job becomes a quick fix, and this only means the cycle of neglect starts again.
"That's why it's always better to have a regular maintenance programme, when you can spot a seal that needs to be replaced for 50p, instead of waiting until it damages an £80 motor."
Now, though, some engineers say attitudes are changing. High-street operators are beginning to accept the argument about the true costs of emergencies. "It's because the first year of a machine's life usually goes by without trouble that the operator begins to think it needs no servicing at all," says Agostino Luggeri, managing director of Mulmar.
"He sees the coffee machine as an item that just sits there and makes money until that busy Saturday-morning breakdown, when he wishes he'd listened about preventive maintenance."
He adds: "In the past 12 months, we've seen many of the high-street operators investing in a service regime. They've seen that the service package more than pays for itself against that Saturday morning without a coffee machine and 400 drink sales lost."
The chains have seen it, but many independent caterers still stubbornly resist - and, says the coffee trade, they cause their own problems. The ridiculous thing about these problems, agree all service engineers, is that expensive problems usually have simple causes and it's rarely the complicated parts of coffee machines that go wrong, as Anthony Kolker at Coffee Select of Southampton explains.
"The head chef of a hotel called me and said that he was going to buy his coffee somewhere else, as customers had complained it was too bitter," he says. "I discovered that his machine, a bulk-brew with detachable urn, hadn't been cleaned since the day it was installed. The urns were thick with burnt coffee, which had carbonised and was tainting the flavour of the freshly brewed coffee.
"How often do I hear myself saying to people that if a machine is looked after and cleaned, there's no reason why the coffee that's served from it shouldn't be the best? That hotel now keeps the same machine spotless, and has used it ever since with no complaints."
Many operators simply don't keep to a cleaning or maintenance regime. "Day-by-day degradation in coffee from a dirty machine can be too insignificant to notice," says Martin Lines, marketing director at Nestlé FoodServices. "The accumulated difference from day one to day 60 is dramatic, but you don't notice it progressively."
He explains: "Coffee is an oily and smelly substance, and milk and whiteners both have a fat content which will coagulate. Machines are designed to be serviced and cleaned in a certain way, and that's why certain cleansers are recommended. Unfortunately, the human element means that we all know better, so it's usually a cheap and wrong detergent, or no cleaning at all."
So are machine problems always the operator's fault? Yes, comes the chorus from the coffee trade, although it's accepted that naïvety is as much a problem as negligence.
Every engineer has his horror stories of steam wands caked shut with dried milk, customers who put sugar instead of salt into the water-softener and ended up with caramel, and of the restaurateur who put instant coffee into his espresso machine for economy.
More and more newcomers to the trade are hitting problems out of sheer inexperience, says Stuart Lee Archer, a director at Pumphrey's Coffee in Newcastle. He explains: "They buy a machine second-hand from eBay, have a breakdown within a month, and come running to us to fix a machine which turns out to have been abused for a long period by someone else."
Don't try to be a smart buyer, says Roy Grey, owner of Capital Coffee Roasters in Wimbledon. "If the caterer gets his machine from his coffee roaster, both can become committed to each other, and the roaster will want to keep that machine going," he says. "Those who try to negotiate their coffee, their machine and their service separately won't get a good deal from any of them."
And the really dramatic news is that it's going to get worse, warns Glenn James, managing director of Coffix. "With the upsurge of a coffee culture, together with the smoking ban, we will now see pubs and hotels looking to generate income from other sources, such as coffee," he says. "If we already know that 70% of our callouts are because of inadequate care, then we're now really going to have to instil common sense into a lot more catering staff."
So where does the caterer look to keep his coffee service working? There's no standard or CORGI mark for coffee-machine engineers, as Soner Yilmaz, managing director of Coffeehouse, has protested. "I'm shocked that there's no industry standard for coffee-machine service," he says. "In our Pronto service division, we've decided to come up with our own standard, a CORGI equivalent."
Opinion in the coffee trade is radically divided on this issue. Some say that a standard is simply unworkable, while others say that, as the majority of callouts are down to silly little things, it's not necessary.
Standard or no, the really good independent engineers are coming into greater prominence, according to Louie Salvoni of Espresso Service. He says: "We've won a lot of business from caterers who have come to realise just how much their machine supplier may be bolstering its profit by its maintenance charges, and that national service companies which claim to work on everything from dishwashers to fridges may have no concept of what makes coffee taste good or bad."
At Drury Tea & Coffee, managing director Marco Olmi supports good independents. "There are good independents, and I'm happy to recommend them, but there are also cowboys," he warns. "We hear stories of café owners being quoted four or five days' wait for service to their espresso machine. Well, if you're told that, dump them. The good news about coffee-machine servicing is that there's always the option to vote with your feet."
It's well worth the effort to research the attitude of service companies before an emergency happens, says Angus McKenzie, marketing director at Metropolitan Coffee.
"Repairmen for the AA and the RAC know that their job isn't fixing the car, it's getting the customer where they're going," he says. "This is true customer service, but it's something the coffee industry has completely missed, and it led to us creating the 'emergency pack' support.
"So the question which really shows up a good engineer is, ‘If you can't fix it onsite, how will you keep my business going?' One high-street chain has an emergency policy that, if their espresso machine breaks down, they will serve filter coffee very cheaply - the customer appreciates the effort and is happy. But if you have no way of serving any kind of coffee, they walk out and you may have lost them for good."
He adds: "Every coffee company in Britain has backrooms full of unused pour-over machines, and when there's a crisis, these become worth their weight in gold. If an espresso machine cannot be fixed immediately, the engineer now picks our 'emergency pack' from his van and says, ‘Here's a pour-over machine and some filter coffee - you can now serve coffee of some description and keep your business going'."
So don't wait until you have an emergency, says McKenzie. Invest some advance time ringing round to check the attitude of various engineers - and you'll find out who really can be counted on in a crisis.
- Capital Coffee Roasters 020 8540 5000 www.capitalcoffeeroasters.co.uk
- Coffeehouse 0845 257 0301 www.coffeehousegroup.com
- Coffee Select 023 8022 6215 www.coffeeselect.santu.com
- Coffix 0845 257 4316
- Drury Tea & Coffee Company 020 7740 1100 www.drury.uk.com
- Espresso Service 0870 850 2112 www.espressoservice.co.uk
- Fracino 0121-328 5757 www.fracino.com
- Mulmar 020 8905 1060 www.mulmar.co.uk
- Metropolitan Coffee Company 020 8743 8959 www.metropolitancoffee.co.uk
- Nestlé FoodServices (Nescafé) 0800 745845 www.nestlefoodservices.co.uk
- Pumphrey's Coffee 0191-414 4510 www.pumphreys-coffee.co.uk