How do I handle a complaint of the steam table being too hot, even when it’s set on low?
– Jorge Cardenas, Maintenance, Palmdale School District, Palmdale, Calif.
One thing I’ve loved about writing this column over the past seven (!) years is that by using real reader-submitted questions, I am always learning new things, due to the complexity of running a foodservice operation. No one is an expert in everything, and questions have ranged across food and beverage, human resources, marketing, finance and this—my Achilles’ heel, equipment maintenance. My approach both at home and in business is to work hard enough on the things I’m better at so I can bring in an expert before I shock myself or start a fire trying to solve a problem like a steam table burning away.
This question is a great follow-up to last week’s on steam table temperatures. For this week’s submission, I turned to James Feustel, commercial kitchen designer with the Singer Equipment Company based in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. James writes, “The problem may not necessarily be with the steam table hot well. It could be an issue with the type of controls. In hot wells, there are two types of controls: manual (sometimes also called ‘infinite controls’) and thermostatic. A manual control will have three or four settings like low, medium and high, but no real precise temperature control. The hot well will keep feeding heat to the steam table pan, even on a low setting, which will cause the temperature to continually rise. This could be the reason that a hot well set on low is still ‘too hot.’
“The difference [with a thermostatic control] is that when the heat level in the pan reaches that preset point, the hot well will cut the heat supply to the well. The thermostatic control prevents food from getting too hot because of the temperature cutoff. Typically, we urge customers to spend the extra money for thermostatic controls. On a three-well hot food unit, this may cost an extra $50, which isn’t that much of the overall cost (the unit itself can run over $1,200). If you’re purchasing a new unit, ask your dealer what kinds of controls the hot well has (most model numbers have the letter ‘T’ at the end to signify thermostatic controls), and check equipment cut sheets before placing an order.”
If your unit is already thermostatically controlled, you may have a bigger problem such as a broken thermostat. In that case, it’s time to bring in an authorized service tech. While you may be handy enough to fix it yourself, you want to make sure that after repair the unit can consistently hold food at safe temperatures, especially in a school setting.
More on steam table controls here.