A unit that keeps fresh ingredients cold and crisp makes sandwich prep a breeze.
A wide variety of sandwich and salad prep refrigeration models have successfully done their job for many years. What are the key considerations when choosing this equipment? Mainly, it’s about sifting through the features and accessories to get what you need at a reasonable price. Let’s look at several types of equipment and some features you should have to store ingredients properly.
The food prep table is the basic equipment item for a restaurant cold food service line. These units, sometimes called sandwich units, salad units or pizza prep tables, are essential for cold food service. They are basically an undercounter refrigerator with a chilled rail or cold pan and narrow work surface. Generally, they range in length from about 27” to 6 feet. They’re typically 30” to 36” deep and can be used to pass food across or positioned along a wall.
The top chilled rail or cold-pan portion will always be sized for some combination or fraction of 12” x 20” pans. Consider carefully how many products you will want in pans and how large a pan will be needed. Be aware that often manufacturers will list their units holding 12 pans, 24 pans or more, but these may only be 1/9-size pans (nominally 4” x 6”), which may or may not fit your volume needs. Most models will hold 6”-deep pans but make sure you aren’t limited to 4” pans if you need more capacity. Also, be sure to buy spacer bars, which are often optional, to hold the pans you will be using.
The most important function of the cold pan is to keep food cold at safe serving temperatures while having product positioned for easy access. Some pans use an insulated and separately refrigerated pan. Others open from the top where chilling pans are set into the opening. Regardless, sanitation guidelines require all open-top refrigerated units to hold all areas of the product at not more than 41ºF. The required temperature includes even the top of the product, meaning cold air has to be introduced above as well as under the food. Look for the NSF 7 label to be sure you comply.
Additionally, the top surface will have a narrow worktop. The depth of the worktop will vary with most manufacturers having at least two and sometimes three depths to choose from. Consider the products being prepared on the table to choose the depth that meets your needs. As the worktop depth changes so does the cold pan top configuration and the overall depth of the prep table. For example, a 11”- deep worktop will have a narrower cold pan configuration than the prep table with an 8” work surface. The widest prep table is usually called a pizza prep table, but you don’t need to be making pizzas for this table to be your best choice. Many operators like this 18-19”-deep work surface for making sandwiches, salads and cold appetizers. Most of the worktops are provided with a full-length cutting board.
The amount of usable refrigeration space inside the undercounter doors of the prep table is also worthy of consideration, since every cubic foot of space is often coveted in a kitchen. The manufacturers all list their claimed interior sizes in cubic feet. Sometimes these measures are not consistent and can be misleading. One thing to consider is whether the model you’re looking at has its internal evaporator coil mounted. Some units have evaporators that drop down into the compartment and may limit use of the top shelf. Some have evaporators that are recessed up into the top housing or mounted in the door mullion of the refrigerator, thereby expanding usable storage area. Models that have the cold pan open to the refrigerator below lose space.
Most models are designed with optional refrigerated doors or drawers at the base for easy access of commonly used products. As with the tops, be sure the drawer holds pans of the size you need and is fully utilized. An optimal drawer will hold two 12” x 20” pans, 8” deep. Usually you can get two drawers, one above the other, in a 42” or 44” prep table.
Also, if you select doors, consider what you are storing. Some models are sized for 12” x 20” pans and others can hold full 18” x 26” sheet pans. These units typically have their refrigeration compressor on the side of the unit to get the full working area in the undercounter refrigerator. Some units have the compressor mounted behind the refrigerator compartment. Mounting behind gives the advantage of doors along the full front of the prep table, but also has the disadvantage of reduced refrigerator space. These units usually do not hold the full-size pans mentioned earlier.
Energy efficiency is now important to many owners. Some of the latest equipment is more energy efficient because it is designed with innovative components such as ECM fan motors or high-efficiency compressors, which will reduce energy consumption without compromising refrigeration capacity. Some new innovations using glycol as an efficient chilling source. The innovation is available in all refrigerators, including reach-ins and walk-in units. A central refrigeration unit chills and circulates glycol (basically antifreeze) to the various units, making the mechanical equipment and compressors at each individual refrigerator unnecessary.
Heat normally generated by the compressor is remotely located and does not dissipate into your kitchen. The heat can be extracted and used to heat hot water or the building.
If you consider your needs carefully, it’s not difficult to find good-quality prep tables that meet your requirements. The more you understand about the cold food you serve, the better your purchase will be. Make your choices carefully and economically.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.