Well Equipped

At some point all of us are going to need to buy equipment of some sort. Commercial food equipment is seriously expensive – and I mean seriously, ridiculously expensive. I paid more for the flooring in my commercial kitchen than I did for my first car! I’ve never truly understood why a commercial food processor is thousands of dollars when I can pick one up for $200 at the local department store but that’s just the way it is. Equipment is a big investment for any business, so it’s no wonder that some of the questions I’ve had from you recently are around what types of ovens to buy, what things to invest in, and what sizes of baking sheets you need.
I can’t answer this question in specific without seeing the space you have, the money you’ve got available and knowing what the bigger plan is for your business. However, I can give you several pieces of advice about equipment and what works or doesn’t work when deciding what to invest in.

My first commercial kitchen came fully kitted out with a stove top, oven, massive cool room and one shelf of shared freezer space. When I did my costing for moving into that space, I didn’t include any of those things because they were already in place. I DID however include a broom, a mop, a set of scales and myriad other small things on my list and I thought I was the smartest business owner that ever lived. 

Exactly one week after moving in, I found myself writing a check for $6,600 for a new commercial oven. So… there went the money I’d reserved for rent for the next two months. Damn.

It turns out that the oven under the stove top was useless to me because it could literally bake no more than a domestic oven could and it was very uneven. And… it turns out that since I only ever used one pot on the stove to melt chocolate or boil cream, I really didn’t need the full 4 burner commercial stove top. It also turned out I had no need for a fridge the size of a ballroom but I did need much more than one shelf of freezer space. Hmmm. Who knew?! (Clearly, not me.)

When it comes to buying equipment for your business (home based or commercially based), here are my top ten tips:

  1. Remember that ovens (or mixers, or anything at all) are not meant to be kept forever and that you can (and will) replace them as your business grows. You’re not stuck with it even if it cost you a bomb. You can replace it, upgrade, downgrade, whatever you need. Nothing is forever even if making the decision feels enormous because the cost is enormous.
  2. Heating up an empty oven costs WAY more to run than a full one. Don’t buy equipment you can’t justify actually using. If you’re only baking 5-6 cakes a week, don’t buy something which can bake 50 cakes at a time. It’s a waste of money and resources. Invest in things big enough to cover what you need plus a small amount more.
  3. Don’t buy the big stuff brand new if you don’t have to. Commercial cooking equipment can often be found second hand for much cheaper and remember that you can get rid of it if it does not suit your needs (my oven was a floor model used for display at food expos. I got it for that price because it was ‘second hand’ although it had never been used. Original price was $14k.)
  4. Decide on which items are truly non-negotiable and invest the money there. So for me that was an oven, a planetary mixer, and baking tins and trays. I spent more on getting good quality essentials and bought cheaper versions of the not-so-essentials (microwaves, food processors, pots, knives and so on).
  5. Keep small stuff on hand because it will come in handy more often than you realise. In my kitchen I’ve got plenty of “big batch” items but I also have a small, domestic, hand-held beater – which is perfect for making small batches of royal icing.
  6. Resist the urge to buy toys. The baking industry has ridiculous amounts of fabulous toys to play with – cool cutters, shaped tins, fancy rolling pins, impression mats, special chocolate melting pots, edible image printers, Cricuts…the list of ways to spend money on baking and decorating toys is endless. I bought tons of that stuff (who can resist it?). Most of it was a colossal waste of money. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used the tin shaped like Pooh Bear or the special pot for melting isomalt. If it’s trendy, expensive, or can’t be honestly used for more than several different designs or products – don’t buy it. How many times are you going to get asked for a cake in the shape of a frog, really?
  7. Buy up big on consumable stuff – consumables being anything you use only once and then get rid of. I’m talking about tin foil, baking paper, white cupcake papers, paper towels, plastic wrap, take out containers, thin cake boards. Anything which is “throw away” is much cheaper when purchased in bulk (assuming you have where to store it.) Invest in a good stash of this stuff. You’re going to use tons of it and it’s not the stuff you want to run out of and then need to pay a premium for.
  8. Be resourceful and look and ask around. Look for a solution among what you already own and who you already know than immediately running out and buying something. One of the best tools in my commercial kitchen is my dehydrator – I happened to mention to my Mother In Law that I wanted one but they were very expensive. The next day she brought me one she had bought back in the 70’s, when dehydrating stuff was apparently all the rage. It was sitting in a cupboard gathering dust. Five years later and it is in use almost every day in my kitchen (and I’m not making homemade fruit leather or semi dried tomatoes.) Essential item for FREE. Win!
  9. Everyone wants a Kitchen Aid because they are cool and sexy, right? Don’t buy a product because everyone has one – check out what the options are and make a choice based on need and usability not just cool factor. You need your equipment to be useful, efficient, easy to use and robust. if not, it wasn’t worth buying in the first place. (All of you who bought a Cricut would be feeling this pain right about now.) (By the way, I’d buy a Kenwood.)
  10. Recognise that good equipment is an investment in your business and it therefore is worth taking care of. We are all bad at maintenance but it’s one of those things which bites you on the backside when you least expect it – I recently paid $1700 to repair my fridge because I didn’t clean the filter and so the compressor died in the middle of summer. Who knew the damn thing even had a filter?

Good equipment becomes the backbone of our business. It makes us more efficient, it allows us to have a business in the first place (can’t sell cake without an oven to bake it in) and it can make or break our sanity sometimes. We’ve all been in that place when the cake you’re expecting to be done at midnight is still liquid in the middle because the oven died and you didn’t realise it – and you don’t have time to re-bake it as the cake is due tomorrow night.

All that being said – equipment needs to be paid for over the length of it’s life, not just when you first purchase it. Buy the item which best meets your current needs and which you can best afford, always remember that it’s replaceable or upgrade-able – and you can’t go wrong.

By the way – best purchase I ever made? A local cake maker decided to retire. Sight unseen I bought the entire contents of her garage for $200. I’m still using those 20+ cake tins, flower stamens, stands, and have some of the cake boards – nearly 7 years later. Worst purchase I ever made?  Any shaped tin made by Wilton (and I mean no offence to Wilton, but those pans are flimsy, too low, and I never got asked for a cake shaped like a hot air balloon again.)

Have you bought anything you can’t live without – or anything you’re embarassed to admit you own?

14 comments on “Well Equipped

  1. I love my Globe mixer. Can’t wait to get a 10 qt mixer to make double batches of buttercream! I use my KopyKake projected, edible printer, and Agbay leveler all the time! A good turntable and sitting stool are a must!

  2. I in absolute love to my Cameo Silhouette! cannot live without it! i can cut any font or any picture out of homemade gum paste!

  3. Before you all completely malign Wilton, their professional (and even non-professional) regular round and square cake pans are LOVELY quality. Beautifully made and finished, a hefty weight, they don't dent easily, they clean beautifully, and they bake evenly.

    As for Smeg, that's my home oven (the same 90-cm) and its thermostat is wildly unreliable, fluctuating down at least 20 degrees before it kicks in again. I now use an external thermometer and adjust manually — a real pain in the neck.

    And as for the differences in commercial versus domestic machines, any good service person will tell you that the primary difference is that the commercial machines ARE service-able. The 'guts' of a commercial machine is a whole different caliber, meant to take the sort of use and abuse commercial machines often get. That's what justifies the price.

  4. Best purchases were my Smeg 900mm oven and my KENWOOD (yay kenwood) mixer. I went through FOUR Breville Mixers before I learned my lesson and went with Kenwood – the machines that my Mum and my Grandmother both used when they did cakes!
    Worst purchase… hmmm I've only ever bought one Wilton tin – A heart one…I did use it! … once 😛

  5. Hmmm, that Wilton ballerina bear tin I bought circa 1994 that's still in a cupboard, label still attached?? Clearly I needed it real bad, not, and it's been used so many times, like never! Something for ebay I think 😉 And yet again, you made me smile – I bought a Kenwood, simply because I couldn't afford a KitchenAid then or since 🙂 Could have been a bit bigger but I can divide the amounts and then add them together. Having once attempted a red velvet cake without checking the final amounts (who knew how big a cup was at that time?? I work in imperial measurements) which then ended up flying over my head on the way past to the wall, ceiling, kitchen units, the dog, blinds, windows and the top of my head which then made it's way down the back of my neck as well as burning out the motor in the hand-held mixer, I can't do without the Kenwood – or the ability to calculate just how much mixture I will end up with if I put it all in at once!

  6. You know what's funny about that Sara – I hate my pasta machine (not an attachment, maybe that's where I'm going wrong.) I ended up selling the damn thing because it drove me insane! 🙂 Might have to check out the attachment option! -M

  7. I couldn't live without my kitchenaid pasta roller attachment. My sugar flowers would take so much longer and look way less realistic without it.

  8. Funnily enough I adore my kitchen scales (at home and at work) and could not live without them…but I actually disagree that successful baking is all about accuracy. I do actually think some people have the baking touch and some don't – it's why some people even manage to screw up box cake mixes (including my Mom. Go figure!) 🙂 Thanks for commenting. – Michelle

  9. Can't live without my weighing scales. I am really bad at estimating. Plus, accuracy is key in successful baking, no?

  10. I can't live without my silpats. I might only be a home baker, but my silpats have helped me produce gorgeous french macarons. No sticky mess for me. And I'd like to think that i'm saving the environment by using less parchment/baking paper 🙂

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