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Reach-In For The Stars: A Reach-In Refrigerator and Freezer Buyer’s Guide

Reach-in coolers and freezers take on many forms in both front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house operations, and each one can be indispensable to the functionality of a business.  There are several varieties of commercial refrigerators that are intended to serve their purpose in different facets of a business.  Here is a list of the most common commercial refrigerators and freezers seen in both, and some tips to take into consideration when shopping:

Solid Door Reach-In Coolers & Freezers

The most common unit for BOH storage, solid door reach-in coolers and freezers are used to store items to save employees trips to the walk-in, as well as in lieu of having a walk-in.  The largest and best insulated coolers and freezers outside of a walk-in, these units are some of the most common units in the restaurant business.  Most of the factors used to determine the perfect solid door reach-in also apply to all other reach-ins as well.  You should keep the following in mind when searching out a reach-in:

  • Space – First and foremost, as with every other purchase of large equipment, it is important to ensure your new reach-in will fit.  Solid door reach-ins can be rather bulky, and must be able to not only fit in their designated space, but also into a doorway.
  • Other Available Refrigeration – The size and necessity of a solid door reach-in will relate directly to the other available refrigeration space.  An over sized reach-in cooler, for example, would not necessarily be needed if a large walk-in cooler is present and there is other refrigerated storage on hand (undercounter units or the like).  In most instances, overly large reach-in coolers (and especially freezers) are used in either high volume operations, or when there is no walk-in space available.
  • Top / Bottom Mounted Refrigeration – Reach-ins are made with either a top mounted or bottom mounted refrigeration unit.  Both varieties have pros and cons.  Bottom mounted units are often easier to service should there be condenser issues, and their condensers operate low in the kitchen, away from much of the heat and grease.  Top mounted units often have more available storage space, and since their condenser exhaust stays above the air it is cooling, they can often stay cooler.
  • Doors – Many reach-ins come with a variety door options, including split doors, field reversible doors, as well as a hinge option.  These door options can be incredibly important, as doors can almost double the depth of a cooler when open.  It is important to make sure your cooler or freezer’s door is aligned to maximize available space, and not obstruct critical areas.
  • Necessary Certifications – Many health departments require that coolers meet NSF or UL certifications in order to pass inspection.  Make sure you know your needs, and whether or not the models you are looking at meet these requirements.
  • TemperatureRange– Different coolers and freezers have different ranges, so it is important to read the specs of a particular model you are looking at to make sure this range is adequate.  In addition, there are some combination units that have both cooler and freezers in them, which can save space and the need to make an additional purchase.
  • Electricity – Though most solid door reach-ins operate on a standard 115V circuit, it is important to make sure the model you are looking at operates on the electrical line you are using.  It is not uncommon to see reach-ins that are 208V.  Wattage and efficiency are other things to keep in mind, as refrigerators are perpetually using electricity when they are turned on, and a large reach-in can use a hefty amount of electricity in a hot kitchen.

Glass Door Merchandising Coolers & Freezers

Though their glass doors don’t insulate quite as well as that of a solid door, these reach-ins are the best fit to operations that are marketing refrigerated or frozen goods to consumers.  The aforementioned solid door reach-in tips still apply to glass door merchandising coolers and freezers, but since there are additional options, there are a few extra factors to look at when picking one out:

  • Color – Often times glass door merchandisers come in different colors, so make a point to know (if there are options) which exterior would fit best in your operation.
  • Lighting – There are glass door merchandisers that come with or without interior lighting.  This is important depending on the lighting of your business, it is essential to have marketed products visible for customers.  Many glass door reach-ins have begun lighting their interiors with LED lights, which provide high efficiency, high lumen light and use less electricity. 
  • Display Signs – Some merchandisers come with a top mounted illuminated display.  Some companies have standard signs that come with these units and others can even custom make designs to cater to a customers needs.
  • Doors – Glass door merchandisers come with either hinged or sliding glass doors.  Though hinged doors are more common, and traditionally less expensive, sliding glass doors are convenient when space is a concern.

Undercounter & Worktop Reach-Ins

Undercounter solid door reach-ins are designed to fit under a work surface or fit in areas that would otherwise not accommodate a large refrigerator.  They are NOT intended to be used as work surfaces.  Worktop reach-ins are undercounter units that have a specially designed work surface built onto their top so they may be used for food prep.  These units have many of the same options as traditional solid door reach-ins, and many of the same factors should be examined.  Size is incredibly important when searching for the perfect worktop or undercounter refrigerators, as they tend to be filling small gaps in a kitchen.

Sandwich & Pizza Prep Units

Food prep refrigerators such as pizza and sandwich prep units are a largely important of most line kitchens.  These prep refrigerators have a traditional undercounter cooler mounted underneath them, but also feature a refrigerated countertop to keep cold food product on hand.  On top of the standard solid door reach-ins tips mentioned above, bear the following in mind (**please note many of these are for sandwich prep units as pizza units are fairly standardized):

  • Sandwich Prep v. Pizza Prep – Pizza prep units are usually the larger of the two main varieties of prep refrigerators.  They are traditionally taller, and are significantly deeper; this additional depth allows for a larger cutting board and worktop area for prepping larger pizzas.  Sandwich prep units have narrower work areas, but can have a deeper refrigerated counter area to store more ingredients.
  • Pan Configuration – Sandwich prep units often come with a variety of different configuration options for their refrigerated counter.  These options should be closely examined, especially in instances where certain food products can’t fit in a 1/6 pan.
  • Lid – Some sandwich prep units come with a handful of different hinged lid options.  Some can be purchased with single or dual lids, and some can even equipped with a dual sided lid so the refrigerated countertop can be accessed from both sides.

For a thorough look at the variety of bar coolers, please take a look at our Buyer’s GuideTIPS FOR THE BARTENDER.

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