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Keep Cool While Shopping for Heating and Warming Equipment

Many folks find that shopping for food heating and warming equipment can be infuriating.  It is a necessary part of every functional foodservice operation, but there are so many different ways to keep food warm that many business owners have trouble deciding which ones best suit their operation.  First and foremost, heating and warming equipment is best broken up by the location it will be warming food, as each different section of a foodservice operation will require varying pieces of equipment.  Let’s take a look at the different areas of foodservice that require heating or warming equipment, and then look at a few factors to help you choose the right one.


Back-of-the-house operations are constantly in need of warming equipment.  Warming equipment plays various roles in keeping food hot before it even comes close to reaching the table.

  • Food Warmers / Steam Wells – Certain side dishes or other pre-heated menu items need to stay hot throughout service, and countertop food warmers or steam wells are one of the most common and efficient ways to do that.  Foods stay on hand while consistently being heated, and these warmers can even accommodate hotel pans that came directly from the oven.  Both food warmers and steam wells come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
  • Soup Kettles – BOH soup kettles are an incredibly convenient way to keep soup at the proper serving temperature.  These kettles have standardized sized inserts which can be easily removed when switching over soup.  Often times food warmers have adapter plates that can allow them to heat a number of soup rounds at the same time.
  • Heating / Holding Cabinets & Proofers – Heating cabinets are incredibly important in high volume kitchens.  They can accommodate either sheet pans (most common) or hotel pans, and have adjustable heat and humidity controls so the environment can be adjusted to the food it is keeping warm.  Many of these cabinets can double as dough proofers (a must for bakeries and pizzerias).  Additionally, there are some “cook and hold” models that can roast food and then hold it at the proper serving temperature until it is ready to plate (ideal for foods like prime rib). 
  • Rethermalizers – Rethermalizers are heated water baths used to thaw frozen food or bring refrigerated food up to temperature.  All food products that go into a rethermalizer needs to be 100% sealed to prevent any damage to the food product.  Depending on the temperature range of the rethermalizer, it can even be used for sous-vide cooking.  Many countertop food warmers are considered rethermalizers; however, it should be noted that these are traditionally higher watt units, and are meant to reheat items in a hotel pan, not in a sealed bag.
  • Heated Drawers – Some food items, such as baked potatoes, do better being heated in an environment with circulated air.  Heated drawers keep food warm, but don’t have the one-sided heating that a food warmer or steam well provides.  Heated drawers are also ideal in instances where excess moisture can affect food quality, and prevents certain items from cooking onto the edges of a traditional warmer.
  • Fryer Dump Stations – Fryer dump stations are made specifically to store foods which are just being pulled from a fryer.  They have ways to trap excess grease, and circulate hot air around the food to help it stay hot and crispy.  The air circulated in a dump station is dry air; this prevents the steam rising off food from affect its texture.
  • Chip Warmers – Chip warmers, similar to heated drawers or dump stations, are heated with circulated hot air.  Though intended for fresh corn or potato chips, these large cabinets can also be used for high volumes of things like breadsticks or baked potatoes.  Chip warmers will more often load from the top and have an access door at the bottom; ensuring the oldest product is taken first.  Hot air is pumped up from the bottom of the chamber through the food to heat every inch of cabinet space.  There are both countertop and free standing chip warmers on the market.
  • Countertop Heat Lamps / Strips – In operations that have faster fryer turnover or lighter volume, dump stations are not always necessary.  If food is only to remain under a warmer for a short time before being plated, kitchen managers will often use a countertop heat lamp or strip to keep the food warm until it is plated.

Expo Station / Front-Of-The-House

The food expo station and front-of-the-house require a number of heating and warming devices as well.  Some of the equipment overlaps with back-of-the-house operations, however they serve different purposes.

  • Heating Strips – A classic piece of heating and warming equipment, heat strips are found on the expo station / in the kitchen window in restaurants around the world.  They radiate heat and create a warm zone that keeps food waiting to be expedited or served warm until it is time to head to the table.
  • Bulb Warmers / Heat Lamps – Heat lamps operate similar to heat strips by creating a warm zone underneath.  Heat lamps are a bit larger than heat strips, limiting where they can fit, but heat lamps can often be more visually appealing (an important factor in open kitchens).
  • Heating Shelves – Heated shelves are flat, heated platforms that heat food from the bottom up.  They are perfect for resting pizzas, or other food items that require a hot plate.  They are typically used in a food expo unit in lieu or in addition to a heat strip or lamps.
  • Heated Drawers – Heated drawers have their place on the expo line as well.  Oft times things like bread or breadsticks, chips, or other items will be stored there to spare cooks from doing nominal tasks like refilling a bottom less bowl of chips.
  • Chip Warmers – Similar to the use of FOH heated drawers, it can save cooks time to have a chip warmer on the expo line.
  • Heated Merchandisers – There are two main varieties of heated merchandisers found in the FOH.  Open-air heated merchandisers are intended to act in place of a heated service window in many chain restaurants, or they can be used in self-serve style operations such as convenience stores.  Heated glass merchandisers and heated display cases are meant to rest where customers can see them, and are typically on the “to-go” side of a foodservice operation.  These glass merchandisers range in sizes from small countertop pizza or pretzel cases, to large full sized heated display cases.
  • Steam Wells – Steam wells / food warmers can rest on the expo station to keep gravies or sauces warm for plating, but can also be a feature in the FOH.  Buffet style restaurants require steam wells (and usually heat lamps) to keep on the buffet line at proper temperatures.
  • Soup Kettles – Soup kettles are also found on the expo line frequently, as ladling soup into a bowl can be painstaking irritation to line cooks working a station.  They can also be found on buffet lines, however, decorative or built-in soup warmers are traditionally the norm when they are in view of customers.

Traveling & Catering

Catering and banquet operations require the same variety of back-of-the-house warming equipment, with a few additional items as well.  However, as similar as their back-of-the-house needs are, the front-of-the-house needs are significantly different.

  • Heating / Holding Cabinets – Caterers often have to produce large quantities of food that finishes at different times but still needs to remain hot until service.  Heating and holding cabinets are best suited to keeping large quantities of food at temperature, and their adjustable temperature settings allow cooks to control the holding temperature.  This custom environment keeps food perfect while ensuring it does not continue to cook while holding.
  • Insulated Food Carriers – Once a traveling caterer has all their food cooked (assuming they are not cooking on site), that food needs to stay at temperature.  Insulated food carriers are ideal for holding, and many can often be equipped with heaters to get them up to temperature before traveling.
  • Heat Lamps – Heat lamps are needed for banquets that feature buffets or carving stations.  Large banquet buffets (for a wedding, for instance) often have large food lines and occasionally a chafing dish or steam well is not necessarily enough to keep an uncovered hotel pan at temperature.  They are an absolute necessity on carving stations to keep the meat being sliced, as well as the meat that has been already sliced, at proper temperatures.  Additionally, in instances where chafers are not available, heat lamps can act as a suitable substitute.
  • Steam Wells – Many catering operations will serve plated meals from hotel pans resting in steam tables.  It keeps food hot while simultaneously creating a sort of mini assembly line to aid in plating consistency.  Banquet facilities that offer large buffets will sometimes invest in a custom portable steam table that can be moved to facilitate specific banquets or put in storage when not in use.
  • Plate Warmers – Plate warmers are an essential part of keeping plated banquet food hot.  Large plated banquets will often times wait to serve food until the entire reception can be served, and a hot plate keeps food temperature up better than a room temperature one.
  • Banquet Carts – It isn’t prudent to place several hundred plates under heat lamps, so banquet and catering facilities have another way to keep food warm.  Portable banquet carts can be plugged in and heated before use (just as a plate warmer can), and are the best way to store and move large quantities of plated meals inside a facility.  Food is (usually) covered and stacked inside of the preheated cabinet, and when every dish is plated the carts are moved to the area that they will be served.
  • Chafing Dishes – Chafing dishes are the single hotel pan version of a steam well, and are a favorite of caterers.  Fueled by either burners or an electric heating element, chafers are traditionally decorative to create an attractive display, though there are some more basic models on the market for traveling caterers, or businesses who prefer a bit more a basic serving vessel.

Tips For Shopping

After getting a rough idea of what equipment will be necessary in your operation, take a look at the following variables to determine exactly what models will suit you best.

  • Space – When picking out warming equipment of any style, it is important to bear in mind the available space.  Space is a constant concern for every kitchen, so it is important to know that your new piece of warming equipment can do the job you expect of it without obstructing any other areas of the kitchen.
  • Quantity – It is important to note if one piece of equipment would serve better than two.  In many instances, such as with over-sized steam tables or heat strips, it can be better to actually break up the workload to smaller pieces instead of buying one excessively large one.  Reducing the workload on a piece of warming equipment can extend the life of your equipment, and potentially save space.
  • Volume – Volume is another important factor in determining the proper models of heating equipment required on an operation.  It is important to get equipment that can not only handle the workload, but also provide sufficient warmth to all food products it is keeping warm.  If hot food drops below 140°F (the exception being beef of course, and there is always a disclaimer on menus) it is not only a safety concern, it is a health code violation. 
  • Energy Source – Energy is important factor on picking the right piece of warming equipment.  Most pieces of electrical warming equipment have several different electrical options, and it is often the case that businesses choose higher voltages to draw less electricity and save energy.  Warming equipment can be on from open to close, and are only one of the many pieces of kitchen equipment drawing energy.  Additionally, most models of electric steam tables have gas counterparts which can be more convenient for business owners depending on the environment they are resting in.
  • Placement – How and where a piece of warming equipment is placed is incredibly important to the functionality of the environment it resides in.  Heat strips need to properly hung or affixed, fry dump stations should be adjacent to a fryer / fry bank, countertop warmers should be away from areas where they may be knocked over, etc.  Often times it can be more beneficial to purchase built-in warmers, steam wells, or heating shelves to reduce clutter and give kitchen lines or buffets a sleeker look.
  • Mobility – For obvious reasons, traveling caterers need to make sure that the warming equipment the need at events is mobile; but mobility can also be a plus in large restaurants and banquet facilities.  It is important in larger kitchens or multi-floor buildings that things like heating cabinets, steam tables, and banquet carts are able to move from floor to floor or around the kitchen.  Not only does this get the equipment where it needs to be, but it also allows it to be easily stored when not it use.

Related Categories: Food Warmers, Steam Tables

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