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Moving through the dishwashing process

By Connie Lannan

August 23, 2023

Photo courtesy of Party Reflections

Every event rental operation that offers dishware as part of their inventory has a story to tell about their first dishwashers and how their systems and equipment have evolved as their businesses have grown.

“If I would ask my mom, she probably would say we started in our home with our home dishwasher. Our first commercial machine back in the 1970s was a Hobart single-door type. We called it the one-arm bandit,” remembers Dan Hooks, CERP, president, Party Reflections, Charlotte, N.C.

“You had to raise the arm of the door, put in a rack of glasses or dishes and close it back down to wash one rack at a time for 90 seconds. When I first started, we stored all our glassware in wax-coated cardboard boxes and all our plates in wooden crates. We couldn’t afford to buy the plastic racks back then that everyone has now. This created a huge labor issue because we had to take everything out of their storage boxes, put them in a plastic rack, wash them, take them out, dry them and then put them back in their storage racks. As we grew, we were able to replace the racks with more machine-friendly plastic ones that reduced our labor immensely. We had to do this in phases due to the expense of the plastic racks. Now, we have evolved to the point where as soon as we order glasses, we order racks,” he says.

Party Reflections, with four locations, now has a combination of Hobart conveyer dishwashers and a Meiko flight-type system depending on the size of the location. From flatware to dishes, the operation processes about 100,000 pieces a week during its busy season.

As his dishwashing system has evolved, Hooks has learned “you need enough space, electricity, hot water and the right amount of people to handle the operation. You don’t want a bottleneck,” he says.

Water was the biggest issue, according to Hooks. “Electricity is fairly easy to run and inexpensive. However, running water and sewer lines is much more costly. We tried to design around where drains and the water sources were instead of where it was the most efficient. That is the biggest need. As you get a bigger machine, you will need more capacity of water,” he says.

“The bigger issue is when you have a large laundry facility for your linens and large dishwashing facility, you probably will need to put in another water line or enlarge the line or run them at different times, which is less efficient,” Hooks says. “Another solution we used in our Charlotte operation was to incorporate a 1,500-gal. water reservoir to dispense water when the operation needs it instead of adding a new line. It is constantly filled throughout the day as it is being used.”

Moving from the “one-arm bandit” to larger machines was pretty much “a volume play,” he says. “When we realized that more was backing up in the system and we couldn’t process it fast enough, we moved to a conveyer system, which probably doubled or tripled our output. We had to add more bodies, too.”

As he moved up to larger systems, Hooks needed more space to house these units. “The one-arm bandit is the size of a rack with tables on either side. The conveyer is about three times that width and the Meiko is six times that length and double the width. Our dishwashing room went from 10 ft. by 15 ft. to 20 ft. by 30 ft. Now it is a 30-ft.-by-60-ft. room,” he says.

Before moving up to a new system, especially the Meiko MiQ flight system, Hooks did a lot of research. “I did a lot of looking at other rental operations before deciding what we needed,” he says.

Even with the larger machines, “we have not had to add more people even though the volume has increased considerably. With the one-arm bandit you had people taking dishware out of one box, putting into another, polishing, etc. — four or five people not working efficiently. Now we have five people all working very efficiently. One or two are loading, one is monitoring the processing, two are taking the dishware out, watching quality control, stacking and putting them away,” he says.

When he put in the Meiko flight machine about five years ago, “the only decision we had to make was to determine how many drying bays vs. washing bays we needed. The recommendation was based on the calculation of how much humidity was in the room and whether more heating time was needed. We did the calculations on our end. We could adjust as needed if the season got busier or slower. We didn’t get the very largest Meiko available. We have air conditioning pumped into our dish room to keep the humidity down and didn’t need extra drying time. For us, the advantage was time. With the way the racks and system work, it goes in and it is completely clean and dry when they come out. Stack them for a few hours and then they are ready to wrap,” Hooks says.

Hooks acknowledges that “having the right chemical company also is critical. Your chemical company needs to know your water softness and all you are putting through the dishwasher. There are many companies out there. You need to find the right person for your operation,” he says.

Hooks is just one of a cross-section of American Rental Association (ARA) members interviewed by Rental Management on this topic. See what others are doing, how they arrived at their current processes and what they have learned:

Nancy Snell, CERP, president, NJS Design Event & Party Rentals, Clinton, Ontario, Canada

Photo courtesy of NJS Design Event & Party Rentals

Very soon after establishing her business in 1997, Snell started with an undercounter commercial dishwasher and then went to a pass-through model. After building a brand-new, 12,000-sq.-ft. warehouse and then coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, she started thinking about ways her operation could become more efficient, especially if she would have to deal with labor challenges, a side effect of the pandemic that has plagued many rental operations.

“In February 2022, I started identifying things when we came out of the COVID-19 pandemic that we would need to be very efficient at if we couldn’t find staff,” she says. “The dish pit area, where we process 15,000 pieces a week during our busy season, seemed to be a time-sucker with the volume and the way we had it set up. The challenge with a pass-through dishwasher is that it relies on your staff to lift the arm, pull the crate through, push another crate through and put the lid down. I found that we had experienced staff at the beginning and at the end of the line. In the middle it was our students, and they had to be paying attention all the time to lift and lower it. We had room to improve.”

Luckily, Snell didn’t end up having any trouble finding labor, but she continued on this path and did her research.

“I talked with people in the restaurant industry and the venues we supply as well as others who had more experience than me in the hospitality industry. They kept telling me that a conveyer dishwasher was a game-changer and what I needed to have,” she says.

She went with a Hobart conveyer dishwashing system. “This eliminated all the lifting. That was as much of a game-changer as having somebody to remember to lift the lid, push the crate and that whole bit. They can concentrate on what is right in front of them and the racks come right to them,” she says.

Photo courtesy of NJS Design Event & Party Rentals

She is still using the racks, “but once they go into the conveyer, the conveyer catches the crates and pulls them through the dishwasher. What we installed at the end of it, which was as much of a game-changer as our conveyer, was our 180-degree roller table. Before, we had to lift them off and turn around and put them on the table for people to finish processing them — drying, stacking, wrapping and crating them.”

One aspect Snell hadn’t thought about involved the electrical requirements. “I never anticipated putting in a conveyer dishwasher when we built the warehouse. We had lots of hot water; however, the electrical requirements were such that I couldn’t add an electrical booster on the system. I ordered my dishwashing system with a natural gas booster. We already had gas in the buildings because we have floor heat. That was an easy add-on. We had to put in gas lines as it was a gas booster and not an electrical booster. Luckily, our gas bills haven’t gone up much,”
she says.

That created another challenge. “I did not realize at the time that I would blow the budget out of the water because we went to a natural gas unit. We had to have proper ventilation. Even though we had 6,500 sq. ft., we still needed that ventilation hood above it. With the specs of the ventilation hood and the installation, that added another $15,000 on the project, but it was done properly,” she says.

Supply chain hiccups also impacted this part of the project. “They did not affect the dishwasher. That was here in a heartbeat. The tabling was here, too, but the hood had to be specifically manufactured with all the components, and the contractors were behind,” she says.

She went with a low-temperature machine, natural gas booster and lots of roller tabling. “We also have gold cutlery, which I find works better in low temperature,”
she says.

A bonus is that she has been able to reduce her staff for this area. “Before, we had four or five people in our dishwashing area. Now we have three or four on wash days,” she says.

Snell has found that equipment, staff and the right layout to create a good flow are essential for an effective dishwashing area. In the middle of all of this, she hired a warehouse processing manager. “She had a chance to work with the old system because of the delays on installation and now is in love with the new system. Overall, the new dishwasher has had a waterfall effect on staff morale, which has been huge,” Snell says, adding that “my staff has had some exciting revelations on what all they can put through the conveyor dishwasher. It’s just not for dishware.”

After going through all of this, Snell has learned a few lessons. “I had some people tell me my weekly dish count wasn’t high enough to justify a conveyer dishwasher, but they failed to look at the bigger picture of overall labor requirements. Only you as a business owner know what your business is like and the goals you want to accomplish. It was the right time for us to do the conveyer dishwasher. I think you have to do your own research, talk to people and then decide,” she says.

She also learned to “not be afraid to spend the money to save the money. It was a calculated gamble. I projected that we would spend $45,000 CDN for the whole project and we were at $65,000 CDN by the time we were done, but the increased throughput and improved consistency has justified the decision,” Snell says.

John Bibbo, CERP, president, Event Source, based in Cleveland, and Panache Events, based in Pompano Beach, Fla., and So Cool Events, also based in Pompano Beach

Like other rental operations, Bibbo’s has evolved in its dishwashing needs. When his family started the operation 44 years ago, they had an under-the-counter Hobart dishwasher and then a pull-through model, but as the operation grew and expanded, he knew he needed another approach.

“We have always tried to be on the cutting edge. I am a big proponent that if you suffer pain, you don’t keep poking yourself in the eye. It always has been good for me to work in the operation to see what the employees are struggling with,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Event Source

“If the dish area can never be caught up or is always trying to find stuff, you need to look at it. When you start getting to the point where you can’t keep up, you tend to put a second shift on because you need more time to have that machine running. At that point, then you have to start looking at the dollars and cents. There is a whole other crew working another eight hours,” he adds.

He did his research, from having representatives come to his operation to talking with other rental operators and those who are involved in other businesses, including hospitals, casinos and large venues.

“We did find a machine in Germany [Meiko] that accomplished our goals. It didn’t need hot water all day long. It recycles the water. The final rinse is the last piece and the clearest and cleanest water. What happens is after it hits the dishes, it goes back into its trough and moves uphill. That water will be used in the second wash bay, the first wash bay and the prewash. You are always moving the water up. You still let water down the drain, but it is more water-efficient because you are not filling the machine during the prerinse, the rinse and the final rinse. You technically use less water,” he says.

He installed his first Meiko flight type machine more than 17 years ago. A few years ago, he installed the Meiko flight dishwashing system in his Pompano Beach location to keep up with the more than 110,000 pieces of dishware his operation processes in a typical week. “When we put the flight machine in, we were able to redirect the second crew into other areas. You either spend money in labor or machinery. If you buy the machine, you save the labor. It is a different appropriation of funds,” he says.

The goal at Bibbo’s operation has been to pick up the dishes on Monday and get them back on the shelf by Thursday — “hopefully before that because they are pulling the orders on Thursday and Friday for the next weekend,” he says.

Bibbo also has a philosophy of not pre-rinsing or scraping his dishes before putting them through the system.

Photo courtesy of Event Source

When he toured other operations to look at their dishwashing systems, “we saw that in the airline and hospital industries it could be three or four days before their dishes are washed, so we wanted to model our dishwashing system off of them,” Bibbo says. “When we went to Meiko, we devised the machine to have extra wash bays. The first door is the pre-rinse, rinse and then the final rinse. We added another one of those tanks onto the machine so the dishes have that much more time under the water. Now 97 percent of our first wash goes through clean — a 3 percent rewash rate. This machine gives you the ability to customize. Those other machines don’t let you customize,” he says.

For Bibbo, the components of a successful dishwashing system are the time the dishes are under the water and the temperature. “You can have this big machine and if you don’t have hot water because your laundry or bathroom is pulling water and you don’t have the temperature, it won’t become clean. It is always a battle getting hot water between the shared responsibilities. A lot of people underestimate the water system. Once we knew that Meiko has the internal heater so you are not needing water, that was a game-changer. We didn’t need to worry about whether they were washing linens right now. That was a big consideration. Those are the two factors that help clean the product,” he says.

Underestimating water demands is a big mistake that many rental operators make, Bibbo says. “They may know what they think their demand is, but they don’t know the spikes in demand between other things pulling at the hot water. That can be an area where mistakes are made. It is important to not let your dishwasher starve for water because several demands on water come at different times, such as processing linens, using the pressure washer to clean your grills,” he says.

Another essential is chemicals. “It is a delicate balance. Our machine in Florida was at a 47 titration. In Cleveland it was 3. The Florida operation was throwing chemicals down the drain. You have to watch the chemicals. You have to watch, work closely with your chemical supplier and be careful,” he says.

Staffing is also vital to make this area flow smoothly. On his flight machine, Bibbo has “two people on the front to feed it and two in the back to take dishes off. A fifth person will bring the pallets to the dishwasher so we have a nice productivity and flow,” he says.

Bibbo has learned that whatever company a rental operation uses, it is imperative they “find someone they can trust to be there when they need service. If a machine goes down on a Tuesday afternoon in June, you have to have someone there to service it in a timely fashion,” he says.