Refrigerated prep tables are an essential part of a commercial line kitchen. Refrigerated prep tables serve a number of purposes, and are featured (in one shape or another) in every line kitchen. Used both as a food prep surface and a way to refrigerate uncooked foods, refrigerated prep tables keep ingredients at their proper temperatures in the often stifling heat of the cooking line. Shopping for a refrigerated prep table, however, can be an incredibly arduous process. There are a tremendous number of makes and models out there, as well as a few different styles of refrigerated prep tables. Before shopping, it is important to know the main distinctions between the two primary styles of refrigerated prep coolers.
Salad / Sandwich Prep Cooler: The most common style of refrigerated prep table is the sandwich / salad prep cooler. For all intents and purposes, a refrigerated sandwich prep unit is an undercounter reach-in with a refrigerated area for 1/9 size hotel pans (standard) to rest, and a cutting board / working area on top. The hotel pans rest so their storage area is held in the interior refrigerated area of the cooler, and the cooler has a fold-down lid to cover this area when it is not in use. Traditionally, the fold-down lids stand around 12” above the surface of the cooler, and cover the entire top, excluding the section covered by the cutting board. Though most sandwich prep coolers have condensers mounted inside the cooler, there are some units that feature side mounted refrigeration.
Pizza Prep Tables: Pizza prep tables are similar to sandwich prep coolers, but vary in several significant ways. First and foremost, their refrigerated storage for hotel pans is at the far back of the unit’s top, and is elevated above the work surface. This refrigerated area rests around 4-8” above the worktop (usually), allowing for easy access and making it easier to drop ingredients on a pizza. The worktop / cutting board area is nearly twice as large as that of a sandwich prep unit to facilitate the diameter of most large pizzas. Since the hotel pans rest above the surface area of the worktop, they are not suspended within the undercounter refrigeration area; rather the refrigerated area is extended above the working area, and a flat lid with a stay open hinge is placed on top to keep the cold air in. This gives refrigerated pizza prep units a larger storage space underneath. Most, if not all, pizza prep units have side mounted refrigeration.
Shopping Tips: Pizza prep units and sandwich prep units are the two varieties of refrigerated prep tables. All models fit into these main two categories, however there are a number of variable features that will make models distinctly different. Here are a few of those variable features, along with a few other factors to examine when shopping for a refrigerated prep table.
- Size – The most important determining factor of finding the right prep unit is the size. Size not only determines the amount of storage area on both the surface and the cabinet of the cooler, but also how it will fit in your operation. A large prep unit can be a godsend in some lines that have lots of refrigerated ingredients, and can help direct flow on the line. A wrong size cooler, however, can adversely affect kitchen flow as much as the right one can direct it. It is important that size and the accessibility of the unit’s contents by all cooks using it be examined when shopping.
- Lid – Most standard prep units will come with insulated stainless steel lids. These lids are easy to clean, and are adequate at conserving electricity and keeping food refrigerated. There are some models that can be purchased with varying styles of lids. Though pizza prep units only come with one standard style of lid, sandwich / salad prep units can be equipped with flat closing glass doors with hydraulics, pass-thru lids that can be opened from either side (perfect for food expo stations), or can even be purchased without attached lids do they can be used more like a salad bar.
- Pan Capacity – Pizza prep units will have an arbitrary capacity for 1/3 size hotel pans that will vary by model and manufacturer. Though the capacity may be different from brand to brand, each size pizza prep unit will only have one configuration per size. Sandwich and salad prep units, however, will have a number of different pan configurations. Each size table can come with a number of various pan configurations / capacities to choose from. These tables’ hold 1/9 size hotel pans standard, and storage capacities should be chosen to accommodate the number of ingredients needed on your line. The varying capacity tops will fit the same cooler worktops, but will leave less space on the sides of the unit (and in some instances may have a smaller cutting board area). The coolers with larger capacities draw slightly more energy, and it is best to find one that fits your needs but will not waste electricity.
- Drawers – Just like undercounter or work top refrigerators, refrigerated prep tables are available with drawers in lieu of a hinged door. More often than not, refrigerated prep tables are available to be configured with two drawers to replace each door the cooler has. So, for example, a standard 60” sandwich prep unit (depending on make and model) will traditionally be available with two hinged doors, one hinged door and two refrigerated drawers, or four refrigerated drawers.
- Cutting Board – A white poly cutting board comes standard with most refrigerated prep tables, along with pegs to hold them in place, but it should be noted this is not always the case. There are often times optional cutting board upgrades, such as composite wood-plastic boards or additional poly boards that can be purchased along with coolers.
- Optional Upgrades – On top of additional cutting boards and different lids, a number refrigerated prep units have additional upgrades or add-ons that can be chosen when shopping. Things like overhead shelves, extra interior wire shelving (for the cabinet), plastic hotel pans (not all units come with them), sneeze guards, and other options that vary by make and model. These add-ons can, in some instances, replace other pieces of equipment, or can help conserve valuable space in the back-of-the-house.