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Construction Confusion

In the January 2013 issue of School Nutrition, author Patrick White asked school nutrition operators and foodservice equipment vendors to share buying and selling insights unique to their respective perspectives. It’s one thing when a school nutrition operation is replacing outdated or broken-beyond-repair equipment. But are there tips to learn from directors who have outfitted an entirely new facility? Consider the advice of three directors in different parts of the country.

“With replacement equipment, I really don’t have any problem getting what we need, within the guidelines. But with new construction, we’re sometimes forced to accept equipment that really isn’t acceptable,” asserts Debbie Mobley, SNS, child nutrition director, Clarksville Montgomery County (Tenn.) Schools. Her experience certainly isn’t unique, as other directors also cite the challenges of getting the right equipment installed during new construction or major renovation projects.

In Mobley’s district, she has limited input into the procurement of new equipment for a brand-new site; a facility coordinator handles, among other things, all bids for new kitchen installations. This individual will award the business based on a low bid, and Mobley and her team might not even see which manufacturer was selected until the equipment is installed. Under these circumstances, not only is there the risk of ending up with unknown equipment, but there’s also the challenge of working with unknown people. “We prefer to work with an equipment company within our region, but we might end up working with one from another state, which means the service time isn’t as quick,” Mobley laments.

Connie Little, SNS, student nutrition supervisor, Beavercreek City (Ohio) Schools, agrees that the general process for managing new construction and major renovation projects can make it harder for school nutrition directors to get the equipment they want—and sometimes frustrated by with what they are “stuck” with. “For example, we did a renovation at one of our high schools, and we had a combi oven in there that was giving us all sorts of problems—it was down all the time and parts were very expensive,” she recalls.

Fortunately, she had some opportunity to challenge the powers that be when it came to the next project. When the architect was pushing for the district to install an additional combi oven of the same troublesome model, “We explained the problems we were having with it and how it was hampering us. We told the architect exactly what we needed and stuck to our guns,” explains Little, who says she listened to her staff and supported the equipment array that they thought would work best for the operation: two steamers and four double-decker convection ovens. It provided to be a successful combination, she reports. “The staff in that school is thrilled. You have to listen to your people,” she emphasizes.

In Oklahoma’s Mid-Del Public Schools, Child Nutrition Director Kevin Ponce, SNS, echoes the frustrations voiced by Mobley and Little. He acknowledges that new construction kitchens can pose the biggest challenge, because there are additional parties involved in the equipment procurement process. At press time, his district was planning construction of two new schools and two major renovations. His plan is to develop a relationship with the architect and the person who is handling the equipment procurement, he explains. “I have my own personal preferences [for equipment], and I’ve asked our staff in the kitchens about what they need, because they’re the ones who will be using it. I’ll take that information to the architect and explain, ‘This is what we want, so make sure you spec that.’”

Sometimes, though, an “alternative spec” is used to select the equipment. “I think it’s just a standard set of equipment that they plug in—maybe it’s cheaper or whatever,” muses Ponce in frustration. “They’re just looking at the specs on the equipment; they’re not considering the operation of it.”