Ice is one of the last things most of us think about in a restaurant. As long as my glass has enough (but not too much) I am fine, occasionally at the bar I want a large, slow melting cube, but beyond that I do not think much about it.
That all changed last year when I met Fred McAllen who was starting up a little company called Safe Ice. McAllen worked for years in the refrigeration repair business, even starting his own service company in 2012. During that time one of the things that struck him was how dirty the components in restaurant ice machines were.
“We would go into service an ice machine and it would have huge buildups of mold and mildew just out of sight,” McAllen explains. “These are the internal components making the ice. Even though the ice comes out clear, it still carries a bit of that mold and mildew with every cube.”
The food coming out of restaurants largely safe thanks to regulations from the health department. They oversee the cooking conditions within kitchens to make sure everything is prepared in a quality environment. The ice from ice machines, something that is in the drinks of 99% of the restaurant customers, is not typically inspected and is often overlooked.
That is where his idea for Safe Ice was born. McAllen wanted to create a service where restaurants can have these regularly inspected and cleaned at an inexpensive rate.
Part of the problem with ice machines is that it is not visible on the surface, you have to dig into the panel to see the issue. I went out with McAllen’s team on a service call, and an ice machine that looks perfectly clean was easily dirty inside the ice making components.
Looking through some photos of previous ice machines they have cleaned, it is easy to get a little disgusted about consuming anything that has come out of them.
“Every time I think I have seen the worst ice machine, I find another that is even worse. I can 100% guarantee that you have had ice from some of these disgusting ice machines, ” McAllen explains as he flips through photos taken from the inside of ice machines at some popular restaurants before cleaning.
The service started small, but quickly signed up the Yellow Rocket Concept restaurants (Big Orange, Zaza, Local Lime, Heights Taco, Lost Forty) which helped move the service along quickly. Since then they have signed up over 50 restaurants in the Little Rock area and around 100 locations total that includes hotels, schools, churches, hospitals and more.
“It is nice because they just come in, do it, and I do not have to think about it,” Table 28 owner Scott Rains tells us. “I spend my time focusing on producing good food, it makes me feel better that little things like our ice is also good.”
McAllen says they frequently monitor the condition of the ice machines, usually cleaning 3-4 times per year for the average restaurant. Some heavier use ice machines require more, but by keeping an ongoing service contract they are able to make sure the ice is always coming out clean.
Safe Ice has started distributing stickers to restaurants to place on their restaurant door to show that the ice is clean and managed. It helps give reassurance that not only is the food safe, but the restaurant takes an extra step to make sure small things like ice are safe for customers too. A full list of Safe Ice restaurants can be found here.