Are you opening a new restaurant or renovating the kitchen in your current space? If so, then you probably landed on this page because you’re researching your refrigeration and commercial walk-in cooler options.
There are many types of refrigerators for restaurants — from refrigerated prep tables to undercounter refrigeration drawers and even display cases. This article focuses on the main cold storage, which usually takes the form of either one or more commercial refrigerators or a walk-in cooler.
The FDA Food Code requires all perishable foods to be kept at or below 41°F. That’s not just the ambient temperature. The food itself must maintain this temperature internally, which means you’ll need to set your refrigerator or cooler at 38°F or lower, especially if you open the door a lot.
With proper selection and maintenance, both commercial refrigerators and walk-in coolers can get the job done. Here, we’ll explore five factors that will help you decide which solution will best meet your needs.
Commercial Walk-In Cooler
Floor plan / space available
Space is usually the top factor in determining your cold storage solution.
Walk-in coolers don’t come much smaller than 6’x6’, and you’ll need some extra room on the sides and possibly the top (depending on the type of refrigeration system the cooler uses). If that doesn’t fit into your floor plan, then a refrigerator is your best bet. However, if your floor plan does allow for a walk-in cooler, there are many advantages to going this route, as you’ll see below.
What will you be storing? Obviously, you’ll be storing food, but think about what kind and how much. Will you have a lot of produce, dairy products, prepared foods, beverages? The more fresh products on your menu, the more storage space you’ll need. You’ll need wire shelving, food-grade buckets, and perhaps S hooks for hanging things like meat. You may also want to chill certain non-perishables and possibly some kitchen tools. And if moisture content is a factor, consider a commercial humidifier or commercial dehumidifier.
Also, consider how often you get deliveries. You’ll want to make sure you have enough cold storage space for when your inventory is at its highest. This is crucial because air needs to circulate the products to chill them properly. If you overstuff the refrigerator or cooler, you’ll have a hard time keeping product temperatures consistently at or below 41°F.
Finally, give some thought to how you’ll organize your refrigerator or cooler. Raw meats and seafood should be kept separate from other products to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Ideally, they’d be in a completely different area. In any case, they should always be stored below other items (i.e., on the bottom shelf).
If you need cold storage for a large quantity of products, a wide variety of products, or both, a walk-in cooler is a good solution. It will give you considerably more space than a traditional refrigerator, so you can store more products and organize them according to best practices.
It’s also more cost-effective per cubic foot. A refrigerator with 46 ft3 capacity can cost as much as $3,000, and a single refrigerator often isn’t enough. An 8’x8’x8’ walk-in cooler will give you many times that capacity, and using a CoolBot and an air conditioner, you can DIY a cooler for about the same price. But even a pre-built walk-in cooler will cost you less than a couple of refrigerators.
Energy is expensive, and your appliances require a lot of it. Since your refrigerator or cooler will be running all of the time, this is a great opportunity to both save money and do something good for the environment by choosing an energy-efficient option.
If you opt for a traditional refrigerator, be sure to select one with an energy-efficient design, insulation, and components. Learn more about the ENERGY STAR certification program for commercial refrigerators and freezers here.
With a walk-in cooler, the energy efficiency depends a lot on the refrigeration system and the insulation. With proper insulation, a CoolBot walk-in cooler can save you up to 42% in energy usage compared to a walk-in cooler that uses a more traditional refrigeration system. Learn more about the pros and cons of the different refrigeration systems here.
Maintenance and repair
In a restaurant, if the refrigerator breaks down and your perishables exceed 41°F, you’re in trouble. At the very least, you’ll have to throw away food. In the worst case scenario, someone could get sick.
Maintenance and repair for a commercial refrigerator and even a traditional walk-in cooler can be expensive. You’ll need to call a service professional, and you might have to wait — which means you might have to close.
With a CoolBot walk-in cooler, you don’t have to wait for a professional service technician — you can do all of the maintenance yourself. And, if you do have to replace something, it will usually be the air conditioner, in which case you can simply go to Home Depot and get a new one. You’ll be back up and running in no time. Check out our videos to see how easy it is to install and maintain a CoolBot refrigeration system.
Preparing for the future
Finally, where do you see your restaurant in a year or two? Do you plan to expand your seating area or your menu? A walk-in cooler provides a more scalable solution by giving you room to grow without having to invest in additional cold storage equipment.