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Industry Service Award: Mike Harlamert

Mike Harlamert
Director of Equipment Engineering

Yum! Restaurants Int’l.
Louisville, Ky.

No. of Years in Industry: 40
Industry Affiliations: North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM)
Awards: PG&E Food Service Technology Center’s Leadership in Applying Emerging Technology 2006 Award
Volunteer Endeavors/Special Causes/Initiatives: NAFEM Data Protocol (NDP) Steering Committee; Certified Foodservice Professional certification; presenter at numerous conferences including FER Multiunit Foodservice Equipment Symposiums; volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician 

In his role as director of equipment engineering for Yum! Restaurants Int’l., Mike Harlamert has pushed manufacturers to enhance foodservice equipment technology and durability. He also has volunteered for the past 13 years on the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers’ Data Protocol Steering Committee.

Because of his substantial, life-long contributions to the industry, FER awarded Harlamert the 2013 Industry Service Award—Operator.  

Back in high school, Harlamert worked as a cook for a corporate-owned KFC in Louisville, Ky. He quickly moved up through the ranks to assistant restaurant manager. In that role, he often ran equipment tests and collected data for the research and development team at nearby Yum! headquarters, which also includes the Taco Bell and Pizza Hut brands. In 1979, he joined the R&D department full time.

After four decades with Yum!, Harlamert is retiring this month.

Reflecting on his early days at corporate headquarters, Harlamert says the commercial foodservice equipment industry was less than sophisticated.

“There was an article published back in the mid-’80s that I’ll never forget,” he recalls. “The title was ‘The Shocking Lack of R&D at the Food Equipment Manufacturer’s Level.’ It was about how much money manufacturers would typically reinvest into research and development. It was pretty low when compared with a lot of other industries.” 

In response, Harlamert set out to encourage manufacturers to perform more R&D by requiring improved foodservice equipment technology. For example, the KFC staff led the way in the industry’s development of microcomputer control systems in cooking equipment.

“We were requiring more precise temperature controls over the cooking processes that you could only get by implementing these microcomputer-based control systems,” he says. “The control system on a fryer used to include a bimetallic thermal switch or a thermostat and a spring-wound timer. Now, you would be hard pressed to find a piece of cooking equipment in the industry that doesn’t have an electronic control system on it.” 

The KFC group also performed accelerated durability testing on equipment. It set up equipment in its laboratory and designed test fixtures that would, for instance, open and slam a door for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Many manufacturers didn’t appear to be doing that sort of rigorous testing,” Harlamert says. “We identified a lot of design deficiencies. After that, it seemed like the manufacturers were doing more testing. I guess they wanted to find any design deficiencies before we found them.” 

To further develop his career, Harlamert looked for ways to get involved in the industry. One of his first endeavors was in 1997 when he earned his Certified Foodservice Professional certificate.

“That was great because KFC was the only company I had ever worked for,” he says. “Studying for the CFSP exam really broadened my exposure significantly to things you have to know about other restaurant segments, such as fine dining.” 

From 1999-2012, Harlamert participated on the NAFEM Data Protocol Steering Committee, which he says was one of his more satisfying volunteer experiences. The protocol establishes a set of standard rules and message formats that allow commercial kitchen equipment to communicate with a foodservice manager’s or service technician’s computer.

Harlamert’s boss at the time, Dave Brewer, who currently serves as chief operating officer of cooking solutions at Middleby Corp., pushed him to get involved in the project. 

“Serving on the steering committee helped me grow professionally,” Harlamert says. “We made presentations at NAFEM and other trade association meetings and that stretched me beyond my comfort zone.”

He laughs, “I’m really pretty much an introvert. Getting up in front of 300 to 400 people and speaking is something I wasn’t really comfortable with but this pushed me to do that. It’s been a great development experience.” 

While serving on the committee, Harlamert had the chance to work with his counterparts at competing chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Arby’s.

“They were our direct competitors but here we were working side-by-side,” he says. “It’s something that I probably never would’ve had the opportunity to do otherwise, to meet a lot of those people and work with them.” 

Meanwhile, Harlamert also serves the industry by participating on panels at FER’s Multiunit Foodservice Equipment Symposiums, COEX: Chain Operators Exchange, FSTEC and the former American Society of Healthcare Foodservice Administrators (now the Association for Healthcare Foodservice). The panels covered topics including back-of-house data communications and applications for restaurant automation.

Outside the industry, Harlamert has volunteered for the past 35 years in various roles at a Louisville suburban fire department. He was an active firefighter and emergency medical technician from 1977-1989. Since 1990, he has held the position of chairman on the department’s board of trustees.

For anyone looking to get involved in the industry, Harlamert says it’s well worth the time. “To get out there can be a stretch, as it was for me, going beyond your comfort zone and doing something in front of a large group of people, but it’s very rewarding.” It’s rewarding for the audience too, when you have knowledge to share.

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