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Playing It Cool

ACCESS: Some reach-ins can be accessed from the front and back.

CHOICES: Just about any type of refrigerator layout you can dream up already exists.

If you're just looking for a decent refrigerator that will keep food cold, your search will be easy. At last count there are over 50 U.S. refrigerator makers. You can't go wrong selecting a refrigerator as long as you use an NSF listed model. The challenge for the sharp operator is to select the size, configuration, options and accessories that will best suit their operation. Here are some factors to consider when purchasing either a walk-in 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 is wasting area in your kitchen. If you will be storing large items, such as case goods, a larger length may be the best 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-ofthe-line for most manufacturers is an all-stainless steel cabinet. Stainless is the most durable long-lasting finish and best-looking, 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 NSFlisted 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 including frequent door opening and being situated in a hot environment. You may want to 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 and storage temperatures. 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 to refrigerator temperatures quicker than a standard refrigerator. Blast chillers have been slow to catch on in restaurants, but are regularly used in institutions like hospitals and schools.

You may want to set your refrigerator to below the safe standard level of 41°F. The shelf life of perishable and uncooked foods can be extended by more than 1/3 by keeping temperatures to 34°F-38° F.

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 to the restaurant both in terms of storage capacity and maintaining food safety in keeping products 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 mass-produced 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 that you want to be sure to get. 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 this 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 safety dealing with flame spread and smoke development during a fire. 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 where needed. 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. 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 walk-in material because it corrodes easily.

Most walk-ins get heavy use, but are able to 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 doorframe for rigidity. Next, look at the door hinges and specify three heavy-duty hinges if available from the manufacturer. Also, buy a kick plate for the door. The kick plate will help the durability. The combination of the reinforced doorframe, kick plate and heavy-duty hinges will provide a much more durable unit.

Despite all that we've covered, the most important decision you have to make is choosing the right refrigerating system for your needs. We often think more powerful and bigger is better, which is not always true when it comes to refrigeration systems. Too big a refrigeration unit can be as bad as one that is too small. Matching the refrigeration system for not only the size walk-in purchased, but for the type of use expected is why you need the help of a professional to work with you.

Choosing the appropriate refrigeration system is extremely important in getting a properly working refrigerator or freezer, even more important-than choosing a good walk-in box. It is important to note that the walk-in compartment and the refrigeration system 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 refrigeration professional who will take into account your specific application and stand behind your system.

If you consider your needs carefully, it's not difficult to find a good quality walk-in or reach-in refrigerator that meets your particular requirements. Make your choices carefully and economically based on your needs and resources.

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.

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