Breaking the Ice With Ice Machines

By Tracy Morin

It may not be the most glamorous of purchases for a pizzeria operator,  but choosing the right model of ice machine—and implementing the proper maintenance procedures—are fundamental to solving the beverage puzzle in your poperation. After all, a poorly functioning machine can easily create a negative experience for in-house, carryout and delivery customers alike; incur unnecessary expenses for an operator; and even lead to health code violations.

According to a report by Suffern, New York-based TigerChef, restaurant owners must first determine the capacity needed (with the suggested amount as 1.5 pounds of ice per meal served, plus 20% to account for variations), then choose the ideal ice shape (cubed, nugget or flaked) and the type of machine (air-cooled or water-cooled). After that, operators can look into additional accessories, such as ice bins, water filters, scoops and ice caddies, according to their specific needs.

Related: Raise a glass to warm weather with these summer cocktail recipes!

To nail down more details on finding the best machine for you and keeping your machine operating at peak production over the long haul, we chatted with expert John Mahlmeister, chief operating officer for Easy Ice, headquartered in Marquette, Michigan, and Phoenix. He answers operators’ top questions and offers a wealth of ice-related advice for the uniquely high-maintenance pizzeria setting. 

What models of ice machines are available for pizzerias, and where should operators position them within the restaurant?

Modular-style ice machines with an ice storage bin are often the best choice for pizzerias. These ice machines come in a large range of sizes to accommodate any pizzeria. Ice dispensers can also be a great option for quick-serve or pizza-by-the-slice restaurants. With these models, customers can fill their drinks at a fountain and grab ice whenever they need it.

More important than the type of ice machine you buy is where you install it. You want to keep the ice machine far away from the oven or prep area. The heat from a hot pizza oven will cause the ice machine to overheat and produce less ice. Prep areas in pizzerias produce a lot of yeast, which leads to rapid mold growth. If you place your ice machine near one of these areas, you can expect additional problems with ice machine performance, as well as a greater need for additional cleanings to keep the mold away.

You want to keep the ice machine far away from the oven or prep area. The heat from a hot pizza oven will cause the ice machine to overheat and produce less ice.

What price should operators expect to pay for a high-quality machine, as well as for ongoing maintenance?

Depending on the size of the ice machine and how much ice it produces, commercial ice makers cost from $1,500 to more than $10,000. That does not include cleaning, maintenance and repairs.

Ice machine maintenance and cleaning are especially important in pizzeria ice machines, because, as noted, these businesses work with a lot of yeast, which is an excellent source of food for mold. While many ice machine manufacturers recommend at least two professional ice machine maintenance and cleaning visits per year, pizzerias and bakeries should consider scheduling more than that. The average professional maintenance and cleaning visit costs around $300.

Even the best ice machines require repairs from time to time. Repair costs depend on the severity of the problem and the part that needs repairing. Small repairs, like valve replacements, can cost around $600. Bigger repair jobs, like an evaporator or condenser repair, can cost around $2,000. This is why preventive maintenance is so important in commercial ice machines. Preventive maintenance works to identify potential problems before they become ice machine disasters.

An all-inclusive ice machine subscription or rental can be a great solution for budget-conscious pizzerias. These subscriptions include the equipment, maintenance, cleaning, repairs and often backup ice deliveries for one monthly payment. 

What are some new technologies in ice machines?

While the refrigeration process hasn’t changed all that much since the 1930s, newer ice machines come with all kinds of bells and whistles. Many newer ice machines are utilizing digital technology to monitor their performance. For example, if the ice machine takes too long to produce a batch of ice, the machine will alert the user and give detailed information that can help diagnose the problem.

Related: 7 tips for better beverage sales in your restaurant

Other improvements include infrared bin controls, which use infrared beams to measure the amount of ice in your ice bin. When the bin fills to the top, the bin control sends a message to the ice machine to shut down.

What maintenance or cleaning procedures should operators keep in mind to maximize longevity of the machine?

As mentioned, pizzerias offer a unique set of challenges for ice machines because yeast is so prevalent. The leading ice machine manufacturers recommend at least two professional cleanings per year, but that recommendation is for typical environments—pizzerias easily need twice that. We’ve seen perfectly clean ice machines in pizzerias grow considerable amounts of mold in only three weeks! Mold can lead to health inspection violations, which can damage the reputation of any restaurant.

Routinely monitoring and cleaning the ice machine is also helpful. Make sure that your employees check the ice machine for excessive mold in and around the ice machine. When cleaning and disinfecting your restaurant at the end of the shift, make sure employees include the ice machine in that process.

What other considerations should operators keep in mind when working with ice machines?

Ice machines are often overlooked until it is too late. Pizzerias don’t sell ice, so it’s looked at as more of an expenditure than a product. However, running out of ice is a huge hassle and will cost you money. No one wants a warm soda to go with their pizza, and buying ice retail can be quite expensive—the average 10-pound bag of ice costs about $3. Assuming a pizzeria needs 400 pounds of ice per day to run, you’re looking at spending $120 for every day that the ice machine is down.

The vast majority of ice machine problems we’ve seen could have easily been avoided if the business owner kept up with maintenance and repairs. The annual cost business owners spend on maintenance and cleaning is a far better option than waiting for an ice machine to break down. Rushing to get an ice machine up and running is a huge headache—and can end up costing thousands of dollars!  

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.