Operators are paying closer attention to refrigerator innovation


Refrigeration has always been one of the more challenging areas for restaurant operations. “The question is always, how can I store the maximum amount of stuff in a small space?” says Rob Hood, corporate director, Food & Beverage, Silver Hotel Group in Mississauga, Ont.
That hasn’t been easy to answer in the past. But many of today’s operators are paying closer attention to innovations that can save space and energy, as well as offer up a few extra bells and whistles.

“A lot of the innovation is due to the economy opening up,” says John Lilly, Sales and Marketing manager for True Refrigeration Canada in St. Louis, Miss. “We are starting to see the execution of ideas that have been percolating over the past few years.”

Keeping it small(er)
One area taking hold is under-the-counter refrigeration and freezer systems, says Hood. “Sizing options have vastly expanded, giving a lot more capability [and flexibility] in the kitchen. There is also a whole range of drawer-and-rack extensions that can provide multi-zone refrigeration and freezing.”

Multi-function systems are also helping ease the congestion in smaller-footprint kitchens. For example, True’s Flex Temp cooler freezer can switch between refrigeration and freezing with the flick of a switch, says Hood. “It’s gives greater flexibility for places where you don’t have much room to play with.”

“If restaurants change proteins or have a large shipment of frozen products coming in, they can simply flip the switch,” says Lilly. “If it’s summer and there is less foot traffic for steak, you can push the unit out to the front and start merchandising ice cream.”

The power of blast chilling
Blast chilling is making its way to the forefront in tandem with the increased adoption of combi- and re-therm functions. “You can par cook food to a certain point, blast chill it down to a frozen state very quickly and place it into a re-therm environment when you are ready for service,” explains Hood.

The advent of smaller-footprint models has made blast chilling more feasible for all sizes of operations, he adds. ‘When I interned many years ago, there used to be industrialized full walk-in units. Now some are as small as under-the-counter bar fridges. Like other refrigeration technologies, they have also become highly efficient and are more user friendly.”

“Blast chillers can chill, freeze, and have cloud capabilities, allowing operators to tap in and see all the data,” says Granett Douglas, vice-president Foodservice at GBS Foodservice Equipment in Oakville, Ont. “Now some, such as the Afinox, can even cook. You can put in a roast, slow cook it over an extended period, slow chill or freeze it, and re-therm it when you’re ready. It’s all done in one unit.”

The new face of walk-ins
Tried and true walk-ins have also had a facelift in recent years, says Hood. “There are now boxes that you can put onto an existing tile floor at the same level. Companies like Norbec have created Lego-like sets that can be designed to be really [space] efficient. You can even cut panels to go around corners.”

In large-format spaces, walk-ins can even be used as full-blown prep kitchens, minimizing the time products coming in and out, he adds.

Display systems in demand
Since the beginning of COVID, display refrigeration has become a high-demand item for grab-and-go offerings. Today’s display systems come in all shapes and sizes, from fat to thin, from reach-in to open-air merchandizing units. “There’s a lot of innovation there,” says Hood. “There are even guest-facing units with an e-pay system on them. These will be more popular for areas such as lobby markets.”

As manufacturers get more creative, new profiles abound. “The square glass profile where you can control air circulation by shelf is much more hip,” says Douglas. “Fri-Jado for example, has units where you can fine-tune circulation and air flow.”

Compressors get an efficiency boost
Compressors at the heart of any refrigeration system are now smaller and much more efficient. “The old compressor room was practically Edwardian in style, with over-mechanized pieces,” says Hood. “Now the units are smaller, higher-efficiency and easier to clean, and you don’t need to vent them outside the building.”

Douglas points to innovations such as variable-speed compressors. “Instead of having to run the compressor 100 per cent of the time, it can range from 30 to 100 per cent, allowing units to be significantly more efficient.”

Keeping compressors clean is the name of the game. True now has a condensing fan unit that blows excess debris off the condensing coil in every unit it manufactures, notes Lilly. “The new refrigerants have allowed us to do that.”

Turbo Air has gone a step further with its patented self-cleaning condensers, says Chris Koehler, president, Food Service Solutions Inc. in Milton, Ont. In simple terms, a brush moves up and down the condenser coils daily, allowing refrigerators to dissipate heat which can extend the life of equipment considerably. “When you combine the self-cleaning condensers with the electronic controls and new hydrocarbon refrigerants, systems run more efficiently with less refrigerant and energy.”

Whatever the need, there is a cooling technology out there that can fit the bill. “There was a time when refrigeration choices were limited,” says Hood. “Not only do they now come in a wide array of sizes and designs, they’re a lot smarter in how they operate.”


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