Restaurants are notoriously tough environments for HVACR equipment, and contractors who want to serve restaurant clients must possess a very particular set of skills.

For example, Dave Galbreath, operations manager with Seaman’s Mechanical in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said the first thing a contractor needs to properly serve restaurant clients is good refrigeration technicians.

“Although there’s a proper way to charge an air conditioning system so that it operates at its highest efficiency, we’ve all seen many examples of improperly charged systems still working to some extent,” Galbreath said. “That’s not the case with refrigeration. If you don’t get it right in refrigeration, the equipment most likely won’t function properly. The cooler box won’t reach temperature, the freezer won’t be cold enough, coils will freeze up, and equipment will get damaged. Refrigeration has more variables, and you can’t skip a step when you’re troubleshooting refrigeration equipment. Simply put, a technician can’t muddle through refrigeration.”

In addition, there are everyday challenges associated with restaurants, Galbreath said. One is that you never know what you’re going to encounter. The equipment in a commercial setting takes a lot of abuse, and it may be old or poorly maintained. In addition, you must be willing to work around the restaurant’s schedule. You generally can’t arrive at busy times, such as the lunch or dinner rush, and gain access to the equipment. And it can just take longer to do things.

“Let’s say you’re called because a restaurant is having trouble with a big freezer box,” Galbreath said. “You find out the time clock malfunctioned, and it hasn’t been defrosting. So now you have a coil that’s 2 feet tall and 6 feet long and it’s a giant block of ice. You’re going to have to spend a couple of hours thawing it out before you can even work on it.”

And don’t overlook the human part of the equation.

“It can be difficult for technicians to work in restaurants,” Galbreath said. “You try to stay out of the way on a cook’s line, but by the time you get your equipment in place, it can be tight. I once had a cook who was making spaghetti ‘accidentally’ dump hot water down my back because she was mad at me for being in her way.”

Finally, restaurant owners — perhaps even more so than other clients — just want the job done right the first time. As Galbreath noted, a restaurant kitchen has a production system in place, and all of the coolers and freezers are a part of that system. When a cooler or freezer is out of operation, it’s more than an inconvenience — it throws off their entire system.

So, how can contractors make themselves valuable partners to these sometimes difficult clients? Galbreath advised first being sensitive to the fact that restaurant personnel have a job to do, and contractors should strive to make the least impact on the business as possible. Beyond that, he said Seaman’s makes it a point to help restaurants with their planned maintenance so service calls occur less frequently and are not as urgent.

“Help them help themselves,” he said. “Planned maintenance is huge in restaurants, and it saves money in the long run. It also gives us the opportunity to talk to our clients about planning for their restaurant’s future. We show customers a breakdown each year of what they’ve spent on planned maintenance and service for each piece of equipment, and we keep a running total of that from year to year. This helps them identify which pieces of equipment they might want to focus on replacing sooner rather than later. It makes us more valuable to them because now we’ve gone beyond HVACR, and we’re helping them with their business planning.”


Melink Corp. in Cincinnati is a global provider of energy-efficiency and renewable energy solutions for commercial buildings with offerings that include Intelli-Hood kitchen ventilation controls and HVAC testing and balancing. Darren L. Witter, vice president and general manager, Melink Test and Balance, provided some down-to-earth advice for contractors striving to best serve restaurant clients: start with integrity.

“Clients look to you to be their HVAC experts. They must be able to trust what you tell them,” Witter said. “They’re looking for contractors who have experience with their types of restaurants and HVAC systems. Be honest when you don’t have all the answers, and don’t be afraid to pull in other experts to supplement your own knowledge.”

Witter also advised contractors to put the relationship ahead of sales. Advise clients based on what you would do if you owned their restaurant, not what will maximize the value of your sales order. And don’t make promises — real or implied — your service people can’t deliver.

“Be very clear with expectations,” Witter added. “To protect both you and the client, put in writing what you will do [what is in-scope] and what you won’t do [what is out-of-scope]. Be open about possible contingencies and additional charges. No one likes to feel they are being held hostage or taken advantage of.”

Finally, as with all clients, always be looking for no- or low-cost opportunities to add value.

According to Witter, technologies HVACR contractors should be discussing with their restaurant clients include:

• Demand-controlled ventilation for energy savings, such as optic and temperature sensors that detect cooking load and modulate the kitchen exhaust/makeup systems accordingly;

• Air conditioning systems with variable-speed compressors that save energy and improve comfort in part-load conditions, which occurs most of the time; and

• Direct-drive motors with speed controls to eliminate the energy losses and maintenance associated with belt/pulley-driven systems.


Since 1986, Valarie Yoder and her husband, Richard, have co-owned Coffey Refrigeration in Kennewick, Washington. She said the desires of restaurant clients aren’t all that different from any other customers: They want honesty, responsiveness, and knowledgeable technicians.

“For restaurants, re-
sponsiveness and timeliness are huge issues because the health department is going to give them a hard time if they don’t keep their products hot or cold,” Yoder said. “They can’t work in the kitchen without an exhaust hood, and they can’t operate without hot water. In Washington, if a restaurant’s hot water is out, they’re supposed to close their doors until it’s fixed.”

HVACR contractors must be available to restaurant clients 24/7 and communicate well with them. They also need good suppliers who understand their businesses. Coffey Refrigeration serves as a warranty dealer for a large number of manufacturers, which Yoder said requires a lot of effort, but increases her company’s value to restaurant owners.

“The restaurant business is tough for a contractor, but it keeps us busy all year round,” Yoder noted. “Restaurants run whether it’s hot or cold outside, and serving them has leveled off our business. Another good thing is that most other companies don’t want to do what we do, so they kind of leave us to do it.”

Yoder concluded that good people are the ultimate key to success for contractors who want to serve restaurant clients.

“In the service business, your people are your greatest asset. In some ways, they’re your only real asset,” she noted. “It starts with the people in the office who take and triage the calls, keep communication with our customers open, and process the paperwork. In addition, to serve restaurant clients, I have to ask my technicians to work evenings, nights, and weekends. So I take good care of them. I happily pay them overtime, and we have a great benefits package. I want to make sure my people share in the value of the business because my people are my business.”


Within Harker Heating & Cooling’s commercial division, co-owner Marcus Nelson said the most important factors restaurant owners consider — like most of the Madison, Wisconsin-based company’s commercial customers — are time and money. This includes making equipment repairs or changes quickly, and coming in on budget.

“You have to be responsive to restaurateurs,” Nelson said. “They have many other things to worry about, and the HVAC aspect, although relatively run-of-the-mill on the surface, can have different degrees of challenges. This is especially true when a restaurant goes live. What happens when the electrical and gas equipment are at full capacity? When you add a full house of customers to the load of the system, how will it respond? There are always going to be challenges, but facing them in a timely, responsive, and economical manner are always going to be at the top of the list.”

Nelson added that because most restaurants are open in the evenings and on weekends, a skilled and responsive service department that can quickly respond and fix problems is very important. Becoming a routine maintenance partner is also critical, as restaurant owners typically don’t have time to worry about the HVAC equipment and are willing to pay to ensure their restaurants stay comfortable for the staff and customers.

When it comes to new technology and trends, HVACR contractors should be talking about all available options with their restaurant clients, said Nelson. He further pointed out that the ability to monitor systems when the lights go out and the doors are closed is a need that has increased over recent years.

“Restaurateurs need the ability to know, and have access to, the control systems of the restaurant when there is no one around,” he said. “We are becoming increasingly effective and efficient with our abilities to monitor, maintain, and troubleshoot a variety of systems available to restaurant owners. Another advancement in the last few years that is of interest to restaurant owners is direct-fired makeup air units with packaged cooling. Historically, kitchens are notoriously hot during the summer, and these units ensure the staff in the kitchen feels reasonably comfortable, even on hot and humid days.”

Contractors who are responsive and stay on top of the challenges restaurants present can build trust with restaurant clients, which leads to strong partnerships, Nelson concluded. And there is one more thing.

“Most people, including restaurateurs, aren’t fans of surprises,” he said. “Keeping those to a minimum can go a long way in creating indispensable partnerships and relationships.”

Publication date: 9/5/2016

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