Not too long ago, food merchandising equipment was limited to a few grocery store-type cases from only a few manufacturers. Today there is a wide range of quality manufacturers producing well-designed, attractive equipment for holding or serving a variety of hot and cold items.
Merchandising equipment come in many different configurations ,styles and prices. The following is an outline of some styles and features available on the market today.
Refrigerated cases for displaying multiple layers of product are available as freestanding glass front units, smaller countertop models or open-air screen self-service units. For most foodservice operations, the larger freestanding units are more likely to be appropriate for merchandising a variety of products.
The freestanding cases can be a typical reach-in refrigerator with glass doors or a glass back. Be sure to ask about available interior lighting options to help you effectively merchandise your product. Lighting is especially critical in hot display cases, although important in cold units also. Reddish items, such as meats, often do not look good under some types of light, especially fluorescent bulbs. For these, a unit with special "warm white" fluorescent bulbs or incandescent lights will be needed.
How well product is merchandised will depend on the type of interior shelving you have. Keep the type of product you will be showcasing in mind when selecting shelving. Also, remember to always keep the inside of the refrigerator units clean and neat. Your sales will depend on it.
For smaller operations, countertop units may be just what you need to provide an impulse sale for a signature item or a take-out dessert item. Countertop units take up only 18" to 24" of counter space.
The deli case. The other popular type of case is the "deli" style case. They have full glass fronts or open fronts and can be served or self-service. Deli cases are usually three to five feet high so product can be passed over them or the top of the case can be used for additional display.
A variety of lengths are available, but the most popular made by many manufacturers are nominally four, six-and eight-feet long. Some manufacturers can piece together these sizes to make seemingly continuous cases. Many of these makers can add customized angles to make integral corners or serpentine arrangements of cases.
Some cases are made to be viewed from one side and food accessed by workers on the other. Some of the served product cases have a narrow worktop shelf on the operator side where a sandwich can be prepared or a platter assembled. In all there is a dizzying array of functional case styles for different uses. You need to determine the specifics of how a case is to be used, and then your needs can be matched to a unit.
Exterior finish materials and colors vary by manufacturer and many styles are available to complement a complete range of interior decors. When a special finish is needed, it can usually be added "in the field" when the case is installed. European-styled cases with curved glass fronts are popular because of their contemporary, clean look and the unobstructed view of food product they offer.
One of the most significant trends in display case design has been the introduction of merchandisers that are less institutional looking and more design oriented. The emphasis on design can help onsite operators enhance the retail ambience of their cafès while also installing highly functional equipment.
Air-screen units. In addition to closed temperature-controlled cases there are open "air screen" units that use sophisticated air flow systems to eliminate the need for enclosure. They are becoming popular in high volume self-serve foodservice and help accentuate the display of freshly-prepared foods.
If you serve bakery, consider a specialty display case made for such purposes. These cases control humidity and reduce airflow to help keep refrigerated baked goods from drying out.The refrigerated bakery cases can be mated together with identical looking ambient temperature units to display your full range of baked goods.
At least one manufacturer makes a compact single split case with one half designed for ambient temperature merchandising and the other half refrigerated for bakery products and pre-made sandwiches and salads. This unit was developed by a major coffee shop chain and has spread to many types of restaurants.
Refrigerated display cases are typically built with oversized refrigeration systems. These maintain temperature and humidity while compensating for constant opening of doors and reduced insulation because of the large amount of exposed glass. Even with the oversized systems, you need to control temperatures well in the nearby serving area to ensure that proper operating temperatures will be maintained.
Health and sanitation regulations require units in most areas to hold temperatures inside the case at 41° or lower. If you display perishable food product in your case, select a model with a National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) listing that will ensure compliance with the holding temperatures required.
Heated cases. In addition to refrigerated cases, there are matching heated cases for many uses. The heated cases control humidity and temperature to keep hot foods safe. Hot cases can be warmed from below like a steamtable, heated from above with a heat lamp or a combination of the two. Some cases are also fan-heated to circulate the air and provide a very even heat.
If you offer delicate foods, consider a case that offers moisturized heat in a humiditycontrolled cabinet. These units have a water reservoir to create steam in the holding compartment. A variety of shelving arrangements is available to suit your product needs.
Heated countertop units as well as floormounted merchandisers are available to hold and display a variety of products. These units, like their cold counterparts, can be had with virtually any exterior finish desired to accompany your dècor. They are also available in many of the sizes and configurations of cold merchandisers.
Stone merchandising. One of the more interesting new merchandisers is made by a European company. They use a granite (or other stone material) countertop with no cold pan or hot food wells. It appears to be just a flat stone top. But, under the countertop are coils that heat or chill the top surface. The stone is actually heated or cooled without any telltale signs to the consumer. When there is no need for the hot or cold unit, the function "disappears" and what is left is a counter that could be used for something else besides food merchandising.
When selecting food-merchandising equipment, be sure you know your budget before you look because there is a wide range of costs for available equipment. However, even if your budget is small, there are some attractive, well-designed hot or cold merchandisers that can enhance the food you are trying to sell.
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 301-926-8181.