Reach-in refrigerators and freezers are a must for any commercial kitchen. Designed for back of the house use, the reach-in is the workhorse you rely on to keep your ingredients at safe temperatures before being transformed into the final product your customers love.
At Central, there are hundreds of reach-in refrigeration models available, each with different features and specifications. Making a choice from so many options can be overwhelming, so we created this buying guide to help you understand which features are most important in your kitchen and make the best buying decision for your business.
What is a Reach-In Refrigerator?
Much like the familiar refrigerator in your home kitchen, a reach-in refrigerator is a commercial refrigerator designed for the storage of food and ingredients for preparation. Due to its versatility, reasonable cost, size, and storage efficiency, it is the most frequently used refrigeration unit in the foodservice industry. Let’s talk about a few factors that determine their cost and function.
The construction quality of a reach-in ranges from economy models to premium (often called “Spec Series” or “Spec Line”). The main factor in determining construction quality is the amount of stainless steel used in the product. Stainless steel is incredibly durable and more resistant to rusting and wear than aluminum, which is much weaker and not as scratch resistant.
Top-of-the-line reach-ins will use a heavy gauge stainless steel on both the interior and exterior of the unit. Economy and mid-priced reach-ins are typically built with some combination of stainless steel and aluminum, often with a stainless steel exterior and aluminum interior.
As one might expect, pricing increases with the amount of stainless steel used. Going with a less expensive option does save money on the initial purchase, but a model with an aluminum interior may not provide the same long-term protection against scratches and spills you would get with an all-stainless model and will likely need replacing much sooner.
Reach-in refrigerators and freezers work by pulling in ambient air through their compressor to regulate the internal temperature of the unit. Compressors can be mounted on either the top of the unit or on the bottom. There are pros and cons to both locations and the best choice for you depends on the environment in which the reach-in is located.
Top Mounted Compressor
Because warm air rises higher than cool air, units with top mounted compressors are ideal in cooler environments, since the compressor must work harder to regulate temperature when pulling in warmer air. Your kitchen will also stay cooler with a top mounted compressor, as the warm air exhaust is at the top of the unit and above the work area. Top mounted compressors are positioned outside of the food zone, giving you full use of the interior refrigerated space. While they are less accessible for cleaning and service, top mounted compressors require less overall service than bottom mounts, as they are less likely to get clogged from dust and grease from the floor.
Bottom Mounted Compressor
Better for warmer environments, reach-ins with bottom mounted compressors pull in cooler air from the floor level, so the compressor doesn’t have to work as hard. Not having the compressor up top also means you can store boxes and miscellaneous items on top of the unit. Having the compressor on the bottom of the unit means the lowest shelves are slightly elevated and easier to reach. Cleaning your compressor is easier as well, since you won’t need a ladder to access it. A bakery or an environment with a lot of dust or flour should avoid a bottom mounted compressor, as it can easily become clogged with particles from the floor, which requires regular cleaning to avoid reduced efficiency of the unit.
Reach-ins are available in both solid door and glass door models. Solid door reach-in refrigerators are easier to clean than glass and offer better insulation, and glass door refrigerators are the clear choice when you want easy visual access to its contents. Being able to see the product before you open the door means less time holding the door open to find what you need, keeping cold air in and thereby conserving energy.
It’s important to note that glass door reach-in refrigerators do NOT have the same functionalities as a glass door merchandiser. Yes, glass door merchandisers are cheaper, but they are only rated to safely hold non-potentially hazardous pre-packaged goods, including bottles and cans. Not only that, but they are designed solely for the front of the house, as they are intended for use in areas where the ambient temperature does not go above 75°F. Glass door reach-ins are designed for the back of the house, just like standard reach-ins.
Read also: Merchandising Refrigerators and Freezers Buying Guide
Glass Door Refrigerator
or Glass Door Merchandiser?
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which is right for your business.
This is simple. Reach-in refrigerators and freezers have either a full-size door or half-size doors. Half door refrigerators provide compartmentalized access to their contents. For example: if you need something on the top right shelf, you only need to open the top right door and expose the top right section, rather than with a full-size door, where the entire side is exposed when opened. This helps regulate internal temperatures more consistently and conserve energy. The main benefit of full height door units is that without the additional door mechanisms separating the unit, they offer more storage space than half height models.
Most reach-in units feature a swing door. Swing doors have the advantage of being able to stay open while you load and unload product, but they can sometime block the flow of traffic in a narrow kitchen. A few units offer a sliding door option, which is perfect for a compact kitchen environment. However, sliding doors are self-closing, which can make loading and unloading tricky if your hands are full.
The standard reach-in has a direct access type: you reach-in from one side, grab your product, and go. However, there are other access types available which are great options to consider. The first one is Pass Thru refrigerators and freezers. Just like their name suggests, pass thru models are designed to go between the back and the front of the house. These units offer convenient access from both the front and the back, so kitchen staff can load product from the back for servers to take from the front and serve as needed. There are also roll-in refrigerators with no shelves; they’re simply a cavity designed to fit a roll-in rack filled with product. This particular access type is particularly ideal for storing a rack full of prep work.
Reach-in units come in one, two, and three door models. You will see one door refrigerators with an average cubic foot capacity of 23 cubic ft. Two door refrigerators are 46 or 49 cubic ft., depending on the model, and three door units are around 72 cubic ft. These are nominal capacities for the industry, so check with your Product Consultant for actual capacities on the unit you’re looking at or look at the spec sheet on the product page. Larger units will provide more storage space, but they also consume more energy and floor space, so don’t overbuy! Width varies on reach-ins, but you should ALWAYS make sure to measure your space before making any buying decision—including door frames and corners. Don’t buy a unit that won’t fit through your door!
Making sure your reach-in meets health and safety codes and requirements is critical to avoiding trouble down the line. Models such as Victory Refrigeration’s UltraSpec line feature built-in temperature monitoring technology that meets HACCP compliances and meets NAFEM’s data protocol for safety.
Spec Series vs. Standard
As you search for a reach-in, you may see models branded as “Spec Series” or “Spec-Line.” Spec Series refers to a manufacturer’s top-of-the-line series. These will carry a premium in cost but will offer more sophisticated features and upgrades compared to a standard model.
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Based in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Emily uses her 15+ years of marketing, copywriting, and design experience to create foodservice equipment content that is as fun to read as it is useful and informative. After a long day of crafting many lovely words and images, you can usually find Emily with a big smile and dirty hands; either in the kitchen cooking up a new recipe or tending to her impressive jungle of houseplants.