Ah, the coffee business is great, isn't it? You strive to offer quality products and services, and every day you are rewarded with the sale of your coffee. In the background are all of the devices that make your job easier and more practical as long as you give them the attention they deserve. After all, where would you be without your espresso machine, grinders, refrigerators, and ovens? Considering the time and expense It takes to acquire this equipment, proper maintenance should be a priority.

On top of all the details you already contend with, you need to find time to regularly maintain your shop's machinery. Some equipment in a coffeehouse demands daily attention, while other pieces need weekly or even monthly maintenance. The good news is that if you can't (or don't want to) complete a maintenance task yourself, there are professionals who can do it for you. The trick is staying on top of it all. Creating a schedule is the easiest way to guarantee proper care for each piece of equipment. The following is a list of items commonly found in a coffeehouse operation and some basic suggestions for a maintenance schedule.

Espresso Machines

Espresso machines are expensive workhorses that you can't afford to neglect. To begin with, back-flushing the group head is a required daily task. Many shop owners do this several times a day, but unfortunately, some might read this and ask, "What the heck is back-flushing?"

The term refers to a cleaning process that removes coffee oils and grounds from the inner workings of your espresso machine's group head. It consists of removing one of the filter baskets from a portafilter, replacing it with a blind filter (one without holes), placing a portafilter into each group head, and dispensing water from the group as if pulling a shot.

Run the machine in this manner for about 15 seconds and then stop. The blind filter will cause the water to pressurize, and once you stop extracting, it will flush back through the group screen and group solenoid (the device that allows water to flow to the group head) and help to clean out any coffee grounds and oils that may have accumulated. Because this process creates a great deal of pressure, it is a good idea to firmly hold the portafilter handle to prevent it from being forced back out of the group head. This technique can be done periodically with water alone, but at least once a week you should back-flush with an NSF-approved detergent like JoeGlo (NSF approved) or Urnex Cafiza. This entails simply placing a teaspoon of detergent on top of the blind filter before backflushing. Run the group in 15 to 20 second intervals several times.

After back-flushing with detergent, it is important to remove the portafilter and run the group again to rinse out all remaining soap. At this point you should back-flush several more times with water to ensure that no detergent remains in the solenoid discharge valve.

Maintaining your group gaskets is also essential to effective espresso machine operation. If scheduled regularly, this is a simple task. If you neglect your gaskets they can become carbonized and break the positive seal between the portafilter and the group head. Removal and replacement of group gaskets is fairly simple. If it has been a while since the last replacement, it can be difficult to remove the old gasket, but a scratch awl or ice-pick shaped device will help. By replacing your gaskets four times a year, you avoid this problem altogether.

The steam valves and wands of your espresso machine should be maintained on an as-needed basis. If a steam valve develops a leak, replace the seals or the valve. Steam wands should be kept clean and free of milk deposits. Again, there are several products available to remove milk proteins from the surfaces of your steam wands. But simply purging excess milk and wiping the wand off after each use is the simplest solution.

Water Filters

Water quality is as important as the equipment it's going in. The trick is to maintain water filters so they function correctly. A water filter's life expectancy is based on the severity of the water quality it treats, so you should check the manufacturer's specs for the particular filter you're using and replace the cartridges as needed.

Filters not only remove particulates and odor, but they also greatly reduce maintenance costs due to water-related damage in your equipment, such as lime scale buildup. If you do not have any water filters, by all means find out what you need and get them in place. The single largest cause of ice-making and coffee-brewing equipment failure is poor water quality and lack of filtration to the equipment. A little effort in this area goes a long way.

Drip Coffee Brewers

Drip coffee-brewing equipment is important to any coffeehouse, and even with the best filtration you may still develop mineral scale deposits inside the boilers. If ignored, mineral scale can cause a reduction in water flow through the machine. Removing coffee oils and residues from brew baskets and airpots daily is an important part of your brewer's maintenance schedule. There are many cleaning agents on the market that assist in the cleaning of brewers and related components. All manufacturers of coffee-brewing equipment provide instructions to reduce scale buildup and offer suggestions for proper daily maintenance of brewers. Check the owner's manual for your particular brewer.

Espresso & Coffee Grinders

Grinders are probably the most taken-for granted device, simply because they never seem to require any attention. This is how things can go terribly wrong. Burrs in all grinders need to be maintained to ensure proper grinding of coffee. They should be checked monthly for sharpness (just run you finger across the blade) or more often depending on the quantity of coffee you grind. If burrs are allowed to become dull, they will not

maintain a proper grind. The recommended replacement time frame for most espresso grinders is 600 to 800 pounds of coffee. Whole-bean grinders require burr maintenance as well, but the recommended replacement time varies depending on the type of grinder.

Keeping your grinders clean is also important. Coffee oils, if allowed to build up on the surfaces of the bean hoppers and dosing areas, can become rancid and ruin the flavor of your coffee. Use soap, water and a soft cloth daily to remove oily buildup from hoppers, dosers and exterior surfaces. Most grinders will see a decade or more of daily service if maintained properly.

Condensers on Refrigeration & Cold Cases

Ice machines, granita machines, pastry cases, and refrigerators all have a condenser, which is just like a car's radiator if it gets hot it does not work as well. Condensers are prone to collecting dust and lint. If this dust layer is allowed to build up, it will cause the compressor motor to overheat, reducing the overall effectiveness of the unit. This often overlooked chore is the most common cause of refrigeration failure, but it is one of the easiest maintenance tasks to complete.

Condenser maintenance should be on your list of monthly tasks. It can be truly frustrating to pay a repair technician to remove lint from the condenser once you realize how simple it is. Usually it is as easy as removing a screen or body panel and disposing of the buildup with a shop vacuum or by hand. Door gaskets should also be maintained so that they close properly and allow a sanitary seal at the door opening. Many professional refrigeration technicians can provide a quarterly maintenance schedule for all of your cooling devices, including the central cooling systems in larger buildings.

Granita Machine Maintenance

Granita machines can play an important role in the daily operation of some coffeehouses. Here again, a little bit of maintenance goes a long way. Granita machines are prone to failures caused by leaks and un-lubricated parts. All granita machines require some form of daily lubrication of the pour spouts and auger assemblies, as well as a thorough cleaning. A food-grade lubricant is required for this task and is available from your machine supplier or service company. As with refrigerators, granita machines use a compressor and condenser to refrigerate the contents of the machine. If the condenser becomes clogged with dust and lint, the machine may not freeze product to your expectations. If this is the case, check the condenser and clean it as described above. Remember to do this on a monthly basis as well.

Blender Maintenance

Blenders are perfect for preparing individual frozen drinks and are relatively easy to maintain. The main component is a motor. The connection of the motor to the pitcher is made by way of a clutch. Many manufacturers use a clutch made of two opposing rubber discs that are prone to deterioration. These should be checked weekly and replaced as needed. If the rubber nubs appear worn, they will make less contact and eventually not connect at all. Also, making sure that the clutch or drive sockets are not loose on the motor or pitcher will reduce possible binding. It's frustrating to be in the middle of a rush and have your blender stop working because of this type of wear. The other type of clutch is the drive socket, which is a more positive type of connection and usually stronger. Replacing drive sockets is not required as often as rubber clutches, but they should still be checked weekly. Blade assemblies should be checked daily for broken blades and sharpness. The sharper the blender blades, the faster they work. Beyond these basic maintenance steps, I recommend a little soap and water for exterior cleaning.

Drainage Systems

In addition to caring for the equipment that makes your coffeehouse hum along, you need to consider the mechanical systems of your building. One maintenance item that many coffee shop owners don't consider until it's too latte are drainage systems. Whether they are floor drains or in-wall systems, they require a certain amount of attention to keep them flowing properly. Given the amount of coffee and milk products that are dumped into drainage systems every day, it is critical to flush drains with hot water. This is especially true of the drain leaving the espresso machine. A daily rinse with boiling water and baking soda will reduce buildup that will cause a slow drain. Trust me, the last thing you want is drains clogged with coffee grounds and other coffeehouse sludge. Ask your local plumber for suggestions on the best way to maintain your particular system.

Understanding the maintenance required to successfully operate a specialty coffee business is the first step toward saving yourself time, money and the frustration of repairing valuable equipment. It's easy to put off the required maintenance on all of this machinery. Fact is you're busy making coffee and seeing to the needs of your customers. And if you find that you would rather be doing anything but tuning up your espresso machine, I highly recommend hiring a professional service company. Check your local yellow pages for companies that can set up and carry out a maintenance schedule for your shop. Trust me, you and your machines will be much happier in the long run.