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February 21, 2023

Does it pay off to lock down the drains in a restaurant?

The article below was originally published in the Facilitator : December/January 2022 issue.

On Lockdown

The true value of preventing plumbing-related restaurant closures with Shawn Coe, CRFP, Panda Restaurant Group

What is your current title? How long have you been with Panda Restaurant Group?

My current title is regional facility manager. I have been with Panda Restaurant Group for approximately 2.5 years.

What is your history in the restaurant industry?

I have been in the restaurant business for much of my life. My restaurant experience began in operations, and I’ve held every position from dishwasher to area director. Now in my current role I am able to support operations, having walked a mile in their shoes.

How is facilities organized at Panda? How many locations do you have?

Our Restaurant Development Department consists of four sub-departments, with real estate, design, construction and facilities. Panda Facilities is structured with directors, senior facilities managers, regional facilities managers, associate facilities mangers and support team. Team members are located throughout the country, living in a home region and supporting two or more regions with anywhere from 100 to 200 stores. I support close to 150 locations and several different concepts (Panda Express, Panda Inn, Uncle Tetsu, Ippudo and Yakiya). While the number may seem high as an FM, I am supported by our facilities support team and a number of in-house departments, and we utilize CMMS software to manage our work order process.

There are few items that could potentially shut down your restaurants like having no utilities, hot water or plumbing. What programs do you have in place to minimize plumbing issues?

Store shutdowns are something that we work hard to minimize. For hot water issues, we have implemented redundant tankless hot water heater systems. As for plumbing backups, we have been testing locking drain covers for the past two years with a goal of proactively preventing drain back-ups on the main sewer line.

What prompted the test of drain lock covers?

When I began working with Panda, I was supporting the West Los Angeles Region and noticed that I was having excessive drain back-ups. The stores in this region are older and tend to have more build-up. While we did have stores receiving regular drain jetting, the plumbers would still be pulling foreign objects out of the drains.

How many restaurants were chosen? How were the locations determined?

We partnered with operations to select 10 stores. It’s simple to pick just the opportunity stores, as we know these are the exceptions. Our thought process was to include a broad spectrum of stores: old, new, opportunity, drive-thru and end-cap locations. In the end with the 10-store test, we were able to get data from stores that represents our entire brand.

Can you share the pre-test plumbing R&M costs, on the average, for these restaurants?

The monthly plumbing drain back-up average spend over a two-year pre-install was $93.59 per store. The average cost was $267 to clear the back-up on the main grease line. The numbers do not include any sanitary line back-ups.

What was the approximate cost per store for the covers? Was there any prep work required for the drains?

The cost to implement the locking drain cover project was $950 per store. Locking drain covers were roughly $400 per store, depending on the number of drain locks needed to cover every floor sink, trench drain and three comp sink. To prep the stores, we contracted with our vendor to drain jet the main grease line to include the outline after the grease trap, mini-jet the branch lines and install the drain locks.

Who kept possession of the keys for the locking drain covers?

We decided to not give the security Torx bit to the stores, which would prevent the stores from removing the drain covers. In addition, I notified my plumbing vendors that the floor sinks would now have the drain locks and to ensure that all of their techs came prepared to service with a Torx bit.

Do you have line-jetting preventive maintenance programs in your restaurants? If so, what is the frequency of the jetting?

Our stores do have drain jetting service. Depending on the area, it can be one to three times per year. This preventive maintenance approach helps to maintain the integrity of our plumbing lines.

Where were the drains located? Approximately how many per store were included?

The drains included every floor sink, mop sink, trench drain and, in some stores, the three comp sink drains. While I believe the mop sink to be a major contributor to the drain back-ups, it was important to secure any opening.  Our stores already had floor screens for each floor sink, along with a secondary removable drain cover. At first glance, that is a great practice and should prevent foreign material down the drains. Going to the store late at night or early in the morning, I noticed both would be removed to allow cleaning of the floor sink and floor screen. It’s a great sanitary practice in cleaning; unfortunately this is the root cause of the drain back-ups. I definitely saw the need to provide a solution that couldn’t be removed.

What were the goals for this test?

The goal of the test was simple: to reduce drain back-ups emergencies.

During the two-year test, did you provide periodic reporting on the results?

I provided updates to the stores, leadership team and department at the three-month, six-month, nine-month, one-year and two-year mark. I recall reviewing the numbers at the one-year mark, and the spend for the stores was roughly the same. I was including the cost to purchase and jet the lines in my figure. I was hoping for more positive numbers to share with a new region I was supporting. The regional director of operations challenged me on a call, stating that my numbers were incorrect. I didn’t understand at first, as I was attempting to defend the black-and-white numbers in front of me. Then, I realized that the results of this program don’t only show up on the R&M line on our P&L. Any store shut down impacts the store on their sales line, food cost and labor line. The regional director of operations, his leadership team and I were able to come up with a formula to discover the true value of a shut down:

Sales loss = Average response time for plumbing emergency x average sales per hour

Labor loss = Average response time for plumbing emergency + reopening time x average associates on shift x average wage

Food costs = Costs of all food on steam table (as we have to discard)

True costs = Sales loss + labor costs + food costs + plumbing costs

What were the results of the test in regard to plumbing R&M and store shutdowns?

After two years of running the test and utilizing the true costs value, I can really say this program was a success. Our actual drain back-ups and shutdowns were reduced by 59.63%. When we factor the savings of the true costs, these 10 test stores were saving in the tens of thousands each year. There is an additional cost saving not discussed that should be considered an added benefit with the project: When technicians snake/cable our lines, eventually it will ultimately lead to a broken P-trap. We then have a larger spend on getting a night crew to dig up the floor sink and P-trap, and complete tile work. Fewer back-ups reduces this risk.

What are the next steps you would like to implement?

We have many ideas on how to proceed with this project. One will be to present this data with our Construction Department and have the locking drain covers added for all new store openings. While we began our testing with 10 stores, our ops leadership partners have seen the benefits and requested additional stores. Currently we have roughly 50 stores with locking drain covers. My next goal will be to expand testing to an entire region. Shawn Coe’s restaurant career began in 1987. He has been employed by smaller chain restaurants in a variety of positions, from dishwasher to area director. His operational background, along with military experience as a C-5 crew chief, has helped him transition to working as a facility manager with Panda Restaurant Group. He supports Panda Inn, Panda Express, Uncle Tetsu, Ippudo, Hibachi San and Yakiya.

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