Buying a good refrigerator that will keep product cold is not difficult; the challenge is getting a proper model for your operational needs. There are a variety of different configurations of doors, drawers, pan slides, shelves, heights and widths to choose from. What takes some expertise is sifting through the many features and accessories available so you don't pay for more than you need or, worse yet, lose efficiency in your particular operation. Here are some factors to consider when purchasing a reach-in refrigerator or freezer.
No fewer than a dozen companies make reach-in refrigerators. Most reach-in refrigerator manufacturers offer a variety of finish materials, sizes, mixes of refrigerators and freezers, and door configurations in a variety of price ranges.
Upright or full-height boxes usually come in one-, two-, or three-door models, as do under-counter models. If you need refrigerators in the same general area, there may be good operational reasons to have several small coolers, but it's always more cost-effective to use a multiple-door unit than to use several single or two-door models. For example, if you buy two one-door units, the cost is about 40-50% more than the cost of a two-door unit for the same amount of usable refrigerator. A three-door model is proportionately less expensive than a combination of smaller units as well. If you go with a three door, just be sure it can fit through your doorway.
The amount of usable refrigeration space in a reach-in is also worthy of consideration. Consider the fact that a manufacturer may make a two-door refrigerator in 48", 52" and 58" widths. Costs are not much different, so which do you choose? If you'll be using pan slides for kitchen sheet pans, you can use the narrowest unit that will fit slides since anything wider gives you no additional usable refrigeration volume. If you'll be storing large items, such as case goods, a larger width may be the best buy.
Many manufacturers have an economy refrigerator series and a premium line, sometimes called a “consultant” series. The top-line refrigerators generally use more stainless steel and may offer more possibilities for shelving configurations. Often there is a top-line with stainless steel inside and out, a mid-line with a stainless exterior and aluminum interior, and an economy line with aluminum finish in and out. Many will argue that all stainless is the most durable long-lasting finish and the best looking. However, the tradeoffs are that aluminum is not going to keep its shine and it's a soft metal that may be dented more easily than stainless.
Most chain operators opt for at least the stainless exterior because the material is harder than aluminum and will dent less. Interiors generally can be aluminum since they don't get the same abuse. If you forego stainless inside the box you can save about 10-15% of the overall cost of the unit. For about $1,500 less on a two-door refrigerator you get a very functional aluminum interior lining. If you can accept aluminum finish on the refrigerator exterior with the exception of doors, an additional 20% or more in savings may be realized. Sometimes upgraded models also have larger evaporator and compressor units for quick recovery to compensate for constant door openings.
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. Depending on your usage, you may want to purchase additional shelves or opt for the pan slides.
One new innovation that may be of interest is a “knock-down” reach-in. The unit is made for getting into cramped spaces that were previously too small to even fit a refrigerator. The models come in flat wall sections and a top compressor section, which easily assembles in the desired space.
Recently, manufacturers have also made their products more maintenance-friendly. Some have switched to evaporator coils without the hard-to-clean fins. The fins, while dispersing and exchanging heat well, also collect a lot of debris, causing the refrigerator to work less efficiently. The solution some have devised is evaporator coils without fins. One manufacturer claims this change reduces cleaning from four times a year to once.
Other maintenance improvements include door gaskets that can be changed quickly and without tools, easy to adjust door-leveling devices, and compressor units that can be serviced easily from the front of the units.
Energy efficiency is at the top of everyone's wish list. Refrigeration in kitchens is a big user of electricity. Energy Star has developed a category for commercial reach-in refrigeration, which you should definitely consider when purchasing. When compared to standard models, Energy Star-labeled commercial refrigerators and freezers offer energy savings of as much as 35%. These units can expect to save purchasers $170 annually per refrigerator and $120 per freezer in electric costs. Some states may also have rebate programs available.
If you consider your needs carefully it is not difficult to find a good quality refrigerator or freezer that meets your particular requirements. Get everything you need, but don't overspend.
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. Bendall can be reached at 301-926-8181.