Buying a Commercial Refrigerator: The Cold, Hard Facts

You spy a weekend truckload sale on low-cost refrigerators. With all the expenses of opening or upgrading your restaurant kitchen, you’d be a fool to pass it up, right? Where else are you going to get a deal like that?

It’s a tempting proposition for any restaurateur or bar owner, but don’t even think about using a residential refrigerator in a commercial environment. Beverage refrigerators, reach-in refrigerators, display refrigerators, walk-in refrigerators — they are all better options, says Robert Powitz, a food safety consultant based in Old Saybrook, CT. “But it’s important to get the right refrigerator for the right job.”

Cost is only one of a number of factors to consider when purchasing a fridge, Powitz says: “The design of residential refrigerators makes them more difficult to clean, and they lack the power to chill large quantities of food as quickly as needed in a commercial environment.”

Here are some tips for purchasing a commercial refrigerator for your restaurant, catering business or other enterprise.

Begin with a Plan

Contacting your local health department and asking for a plan review is the best first step. “The size of the refrigerator you’ll need is based on the type of meals served and the frequency of food deliveries,” says Powitz. “Health department personnel have a formula that can be used to accurately estimate the amount of refrigeration needed.”

Most restaurants need a combination. A walk-in unit with shelving provides the space to store large deliveries of food items when they arrive. Reach-in or under-the-counter refrigerators located closer to the food preparation areas in the kitchen provide easy access to the ingredients being used for that day’s menu.

Having a built-in digital thermometer that displays the internal temperature is well worth the extra investment. “With the digital readout, it’s easy to see the temperature and know immediately if there’s a problem,” says Jason Hayes, who has managed both restaurants and hotels, and is currently general manager of the Residence Inn Midtown in Raleigh, NC.

Space and Access Are Critical

Once you know how much refrigerator capacity you need, the next step is figuring out how to fit it into your available space. “You may not have enough room for a walk-in refrigerator,” Hayes notes. “You may have to look at different options and combinations.”

Buying one that’s too small for the job is the biggest mistake Hayes sees restaurateurs and bar owners make. “It’s tempting at the beginning to buy a smaller refrigerator to save on cost, but you’re not thinking that down the road you’re going to have to buy five refrigerators to provide the space you’re really going to need.”

Access is another factor to consider. “You want your staff to have the items they need at their fingertips,” Hayes says.

Powitz suggests under-the-counter refrigerators for sandwich or pizza prep areas, where ingredients need to be readily at hand but easily refrigerated when not in use.

Evaluate each unit to make sure it’s easy to clean and that all important parts are accessible. It’s also smart to ask about energy efficiency, replacement parts and maintenance costs so you can include those expenses in budget forecasts.

The availability of an adequate power supply to run the required refrigeration is often overlooked in the planning process, Hayes says. “Make sure to research what kind of power supply is required to run the refrigerator you’re buying to ensure you’re prepared on that end as well.”

No One-Size-Fits-All

It all comes back to proper planning, says Powitz. “The best value comes with a refrigerator that’s suitable for the needs of the restaurant and fits the space that’s available. There’s no such thing as one size fits all.”

Linda Morris Gupton is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, NC, who specializes in articles related to health, great food and sustainable living.Find her on Google+.

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