Customer Service: Tales From The Front Lines, Part II

Relationships between foodservice operators and E&S manufacturers, dealers and distributors are inevitably delicate. In a perfect world, each partner supports the others, everyone is satisfied with the value received for the price paid for services, and follow-up on repairs and breakdowns is immediate so foodservice operations don't come to a standstill.

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Whether their experiences have been stellar or disastrous, operators don't easily forget how their supplier partners have responded to their needs. In fact, as this two-part article reveals, operators have keen long-term memories about their joys and traumas, and are willing to share these with colleagues and partners. They shed new light on the delicate nature of loyalty and appreciation.

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Located in South Bend, Ind., the University of Notre Dame has a total enrollment of more than 10,000 students. Of these, nearly 6,200 live on campus. Dining Services, under the direction of David Prentkowski, operates residence hall dining facilities, retail units, catering, concessions and vending.

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The ideal customer service relationship for Prentkowski is typified by the one he developed with a manufacturer that installed cook-chill equipment for the university's central production facility. After investigating cook-chill equipment in use at other foodservice operations, Prentkowski, his project team and the project's consultant wrote specifications and put the contract out for bid. The manufacturer selected, according to Prentkowski, was chosen "because it sold us a system, a process and continuous support." This included the services of technical chefs who worked on-site at the university to convert recipes from small batches to large quantities.

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"Those chefs are still helping us," Prentkowski explained. "A company representative comes here without charge to us, works with our staff, then reports back to the factory's engineers and product developers about improvements that are needed."

Notre Dame's Dining Services department also has been pleased with the customer service offered by bakery equipment manufacturers. "These companies support us," Prentkowski said. "And we do tell others."

Price, explained Prentkowski, is not the sole factor he and co-workers consider when selecting a piece of equipment. "We won't spend money unnecessarily," he said, "but we'll pay for service benefits, because we know companies can't be in business without charging. This is true also of training. The more sophisticated the equipment, the more we need help."

Most important to creating a good relationship with the university's Dining Services department, Prentkowski admitted, is suppliers' representatives spending enough time with his staff to help them figure out what is needed and what will work. "A good example recently occurred here when a manufacturer helped us custom-design a piece of equipment for a small taco/burrito stand. It took effort to bring in a manufacturer's rep, but he did a good job of understanding what we wanted. And, we're going to go back to this company, even when we need something stock."

On the other hand, Prentkowski won't go back to one steamer manufacturer from which the department purchased a unit that "we were advised was the newest and coolest and would work with our hard, mineral-rich water." Not long after the steamer was installed, however, it began to clog up. "A year later, we are still dealing with resolving this issue by trying to figure out the right filter system," Prentkowski noted.

In addition, this steamer had malfunctioned in such a way that the door couldn't be opened. "There's a safety mechanism built in, so if the pressure is too high, the door won't open and the steam won't rush out and burn your face," Prentkowski noted. "However, something has happened to our machine, so pressure isn't released properly from the cavity to allow the door to open. A 400-pound football lineman couldn't pull open the door of this machine."

For a while, cooking staff had to allow food to remain in the steamer for an extended time until the pressure was released and the door could be opened. "We finally put in a water filter and spent half again as much money to get the machine to work," Prentkowski recalled, adding that he believes the manufacturer should have replaced the equipment and fixed the problem.

That's why when steamers had to be purchased recently for a new Dining Services' operation, another company's products were used. "The problem is that some manufacturers' reps don't spend enough time learning about the environment the equipment is going into," Prentkowski opined. "We try to take advantage of their expertise and new technology, but if reps don't learn enough about what we are using the equipment for and what our environmental conditions are, they make incorrect recommendations."

Prentkowski advised manufacturers' reps to keep in mind that a university's foodservice program may need equipment, such as fryers, capable of producing huge volumes and supporting changing menus, in comparison to quick-service and family restaurants that have repetitive menus and limited product lines. "We rely on these reps, because distributors' reps usually don't know the details about all the lines they represent," he stressed.

In order to avoid difficulties with installation, Notre Dame hires mechanics who are certified to make necessary repairs. Occasionally, a local service agency is called in "with pretty good results," according to Prentkowski.

Training is another area that is often neglected. "We expect manufacturers' reps to come in and show us how their equipment works and how to clean it," Prentkowski said. "But, they often shortcut us and say, 'Oh, just turn on the switch and it'll be fine.' Obviously, there's a lot more to it. We've also had situations in which manufacturers' reps told us they'd come for training and didn't. We're had to call up at the 11th hour and demand they get here right away for an opening."

When warranty issues have been in question, Prentkowski, his staff and consultants have, on occasion, had to call manufacturing firms' presidents directly when equipment hasn't worked properly. "Sometimes," he commented, "we have to explain that we won't bad-mouth the company per se, but that we have a lot of friends in the industry who will ask us about equipment and we will tell them about our experiences."

Ken Callaghan Executive Chef, Blue Smoke New York City

Restaurants specializing in barbecue are rare in NYC. When Danny Meyer, David Swinghamer and other Union Square Hospitality Group partners decided to present a new barbecue concept by opening Blue Smoke restaurant, they selected Ken Callaghan as executive chef. Prior to helping open this restaurant, Callaghan had been executive sous chef at the group's Union Square Café. The preparation Callaghan received at Union Square Café has been invaluable at Blue Smoke, which opened in March 2002. He was involved in the kitchen's design, selection and speccing of standard and customized equipment (which was purchased from a dealer) and worked with the kitchen designers/consultants. In addition, he has learned how to maintain and repair most pieces of equipment, including barbecue ovens.

According to Callaghan, the Blue Smoke planning went "very well." However, during the construction phase, in which existing kitchens that had sat in Blue Smoke's space were gutted, "Things started falling through the cracks."

From the beginning, the restaurant group insisted on finding the finest equipment. Central to production, of course, were two rotisserie smokers that prepare chicken, ribs and other meats. Extensive research and tastings throughout the country led the group to Mike Mills, who owns several barbecue restaurants in the Midwest and has won numerous awards in national barbecue competitions, including that in Memphis last May.

"We were aiming at Mike's Memphis-style barbecue," explained Callaghan. "Our version has the tomatoey, sweet and thick taste of Kansas City-style and also a touch of Memphis with mustard and vinegar, as well." Callaghan visited Mills to inspect his operations. When the time came to spec Blue Smoke's ovens, Callaghan knew exactly what he wanted: huge rotisseries with thermostatically controlled fireboxes in the back, where wood (Callaghan uses hickory and apple) is loaded.

Once the smoker manufacturer had been selected, Callaghan flew to the factory to inspect production. Several adjustments were made on the spot, according to Callaghan, including changing the drain for fat and drippings from the back of the ovens to the front, in order to accommodate space restrictions in the restaurant. The control panels also were placed in front. "Making changes while they were still building our ovens wasn't a problem," said Callaghan. "Modifying later would have been difficult."

Another adjustment in the equipment's positioning had to be made on-site at the restaurant, also due to space restrictions. Most barbecue restaurants, explained Callaghan, place their ovens outside in order to load wood most easily. In contrast, at Blue Smoke, the ovens are half in the building and half out.

Because Blue Smoke's oven maker doesn't have an authorized dealer or technician in Manhattan, Callaghan has had to maintain and repair the equipment. "If something goes wrong, I fix it," he stated, adding that a full-service package wasn't offered. "I'm in tune with how the ovens work and, if needed, I replace fan motors, fan belts and bulbs, circuits and fuses."

Callaghan admitted, "This [repair ability] gives me a sense of control. It empowers me. The other day, a sous chef called and reported that the racks continued to rotate when the door was opened. I knew that a button was stuck, probably because of grease buildup. I told him to pull out the button, and the problem was fixed. He was impressed."

During the construction process, several changes had to be made, giving Callaghan memories of "an agonizing process." For example, the main cooking line was positioned further from the wall than normal due to miscommunication with the plumber about the placement of pipes. As a result, there isn't as much space between the line and the chef's table as Callaghan would have preferred.

Also during this phase, the back of one of the ovens was damaged. "In a rain storm," Callaghan explained, "water builds up and creeps into the electrical area. Therefore, the oven doesn't light; we have to dry it with a hairdryer. We're now putting in a roof so the rain doesn't get into the equipment."

Other incidents also impeded a smooth construction process. A two-door, reach-in refrigerator from the former restaurant had to be discarded because it didn't fit into the allotted area. Another refrigerator had to be sent back and replaced by a new one due to inaccurate measurements. Hoods had to be re-cut on-site because they were too long when installed. A support column hadn't been taken into account before a custom-designed prep table was ordered, so the workstation in this area is much different than originally conceived. In addition, after the hot line was installed, the floor had to be taken up so sinks could be repositioned on the line in order to meet N.Y.-state health regulations.

Since Blue Smoke opened, most of the equipment has worked properly and Callaghan said he is pleased with the facility's design. That isn't to say all is perfect, however. He has been trying to get range burner replacements for over 11 months. His dealer has been unable to rectify the problem with the range manufacturer. After four visits by authorized equipment repairers, the situation still was not fixed. Then, Callaghan's contact at the manufacturer left. "I have to start all over again," he reported.

As the restaurant grows, Callaghan is beginning to delegate responsibility for repairs and maintenance to one of his sous chefs. This spring, Callaghan hopes to forge a partnership with different service companies than those he is now using.

During the construction of Blue Smoke, Callaghan said that he learned many lessons. "I realized that I constantly need to be on top of everyone involved with design and construction. I must review everything with a fine tooth-comb. It's my responsibility to make it right." As a result of his recent experiences, Callaghan offered this advice to equipment suppliers: "We're the customers. We're the ones who will either like or not like your equipment and service, and we will tell people about how we're treated. So, suppliers need to cross all their 'Ts' and make sure that customers are 100% happy. If a customer is signing off on a job, explain everything to him so he knows what he is getting."

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