Playing it Cool

Playing it Cool

Although stainless steel walk-in doors are still the most durable, glass doors have become more common in recent years. Depending on usage, see-through doors can help minimize theft and encourage neatness and sanitation. They also provide workers with quick view of inventory and space availability. As with any refrigeration door, kick plates and heavy duty hinges are recommended.


If you're just looking for a decent refrigerator that will keep food cold, your search will not be difficult. At last count there are over 50 U.S. refrigerator manufacturers. You can't go wrong with one of their products as long as you select an NSF listed model. The challenge for the sharp operator is to select the size, configuration, options and accessories that will best suit his or her operation. Here are some factors to consider when purchasing either a walkin or reach-in refrigerator.

Reach-in refrigerators
There are plenty of products in a variety of price ranges to choose from. Most reach-in refrigerator manufacturers offer different finish materials, sizes, mixes of refrigerators and freezers, and door configurations.

The amount of usable refrigeration space in a reach-in is a consideration, since every inch of space or wall length is often coveted in a kitchen. Consider the fact that a manufacturer may make a two-door refrigerator in 48", 52", and 58" widths. Costs are all very close, so which do you choose?

If you will be using pan slides for kitchen sheet pans, you will want the narrowest unit that will fit slides, since anything wider wastes area in your kitchen. If you will be storing large items, such as case goods, a larger length may be the better buy. Widths are also sometimes optional so match your needs to your purchase.

Finish materials can often add to or reduce the cost of a refrigerator, but they also affect durability. The top-of-the-line for most manufacturers is an all-stainless steel cabinet. Stainless is the most durable and best looking finish, but if you forego stainless inside the box you can save about 10-15% of the overall cost.

For about $1,500 less on a two door refrigerator you get a very functional aluminum interior lining. Aluminum is a fairly soft metal and may be dented more easily than stainless. If you will accept aluminum finish on the refrigerator exterior, except doors, an additional 20% or more savings may be realized. I recommend keeping stainless steel on the doors because of the banging and abuse they get.

Most standard reach-in refrigerators are furnished with wire shelves in each compartment. If you use a lot of sheet pans or steam-table pans you may want to consider pan slides in lieu of shelves in some refrigerators. Universal style slides will allow you to use either sheet pans or steam table pans. A sheet pan on slides can also serve as a shelf when both are needed.

It was already noted that you should select an NSF listed refrigerator. These models have gone through extensive tests to ensure they will maintain a safe operating temperature of 41°F or less under typical kitchen conditions, such as frequent door opening and being situated in a hot environment.

On the other hand, while 41°F is a good standard, you may want to actually set your refrigerator to 34-38°F. The shelf life of perishable and uncooked foods can be extended by over 1/3 by keeping temperatures a few degrees colder.

Cool down, rapid chill, and blast chillers are becoming popular as health departments are becoming more sensitive to proper food handling procedures. HACCP ( Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) requirements, which have specific time requirements for chilling food, are being looked at in many geographic areas. Any of these rapid cooling refrigerators will help to cool food more quickly than a standard refrigerator. Blast chillers have been slow to catch on in restaurants, but are regularly used in institutions like hospitals and schools.

Walk-in refrigerators
A walk-in refrigerator is the largest piece of equipment in most kitchens and usually a fairly expensive item when you include the refrigeration machinery. Walk-ins probably contain most of the food inventory value in your restaurant as well, so it's an important item to maintain and keep in good operation. Its operation is critical both in terms of storage capacity and maintaining food in the temperature safety zone.The purchase of a walk-in is significant, since the cooler or freezer, if bought and used wisely, should last 20 years or more.

Most of today's walk-in refrigerators and freezers are made using prefabricated panels with urethane insulation sandwiched between aluminum, stainless steel or other skin material. These panels are massproduced in standard widths, nominally one foot, two feet and four feet.

Typical heights for food service are 7'-6", 8'-6", and 9'-6". When corner panels and floor and ceiling panels are added, manufacturers can produce just about any size walk-in needed in one-foot increments. The panel approach is good for mass production and excellent for shipping, since the units are assembled from a stack of panels at the restaurant location. A panel-style box may also come in handy if someday you want to move the unit or change its configuration. The panels can be disassembled and reassembled if necessary.

When looking for a walk-in, consider first several basic items. Look at the warranty on the panels. Don't choose a walk-in with less than a 10-year warranty. Most companies provide from 10 years to a lifetime warranty. Actually, there is little that can go wrong with a walk-in panel, but the warranty is good to have. It's important to note that a warranty does not cover the refrigeration system, which is a much more critical consideration.

Also, look for codes and standard approvals. The most important are NSF, for sanitary construction, and UL for fire safety. Depending on your location, there may also be some local guidelines to follow.

The next important consideration is the finish material. The exterior and interior finish must be sanitary and durable. Things like carts and mobile racks are always hitting the outside and inside skin, so it needs to be tough enough to withstand the abuse. You may want to specify wall guards or kick plates. The rest of the finish on the box is typically aluminum or stainless steel. Aluminum is much less expensive, but also softer and more prone to denting, but both are acceptable to sanitation authorities. It's important to note that galvanized steel, once widely used for durable flooring, has been outlawed as a walkin material because it corrodes so easily.

Most walk-ins get heavy use, but last many years because the only moving part is the door. Since the door is the only moving component, it makes sense to buy the most rugged door you can get. Choose a walk-in manufacturer that provides a reinforced-door frame for rigidity. Next, look at the door hinges and specify three heavy-duty hinges if available. Also, buy a kick plate for the door, which will help durability. The combination of a reinforced door frame, kick plate, and heavy-duty hinges will provide a much more durable unit.

Still, the most important decision you have to make is choosing the right refrigeration system for your needs. We often think more powerful is better, although this is not always true when it comes to refrigeration.

It is important to note that a walk-in compartment and the refrigeration system that cools it are two totally separate items, sometimes provided by different suppliers. The refrigeration system can be purchased from the panel manufacturer or separately from a refrigeration contractor. The choice is yours, but it's always best to leave the equipment sizing up to a professional who will stand behind your system and take into account your specific application needs.

Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. He can be reached at 240-314-0660.