The COVID-19 pandemic changes the dynamics of refrigeration choices


Refrigeration may seem to be one of the more pedestrian equipment investment purchases, but there’s no disputing it’s a vital cornerstone that works 24 hours a day to keep kitchen operations humming.

“Refrigeration is the bedrock for everything,” says John Lilly, senior product analysis, True Refrigeration Canada in O’Fallon, Mo. “It’s as important, if not more than, the hot side. If your refrigeration or freezer is not working properly, and your food is compromised, the best griddle or oven in the world can’t repair it.”

He often likens refrigeration to a vault. “The product you put inside are the jewels you want to keep safe.”

Like other equipment investments, there have been significant changes in demand and supply over the past two years, says Lilly. “The pandemic gave operators the opportunity to analyze business processes and all the inputs that go into it, and what is necessary. They had to examine every, single thing they did around refrigeration: Should they buy new, repair existing equipment, or change menus?”

As people scaled back, Lilly saw two trends of note that affected their choices. “They either bought small quantities of ingredients more frequently, or conversely, bought in larger quantities to get a better unit price.” In either case, refrigeration availability would still be a contributing factor.

The pandemic drove an increase in demand for self-contained display and reach-in refrigeration options, as well as open-air merchandisers. “We’ve seen kitchens creeping into dining-rooms, with to-go stations and grab-and-go as part of restaurant brand extensions,” says Lilly. “Right now, glass swing-and-slide door units are the biggest sellers in the sector, while open-air merchandiser cabinets are increasing in popularity.”

An added benefit of self-contained refrigeration is that it allows operators to easily move one, or a suite of units, around to the back or front of house because they can fit through a standard door, do not require installation and plug into a 15-amp socket.

With the rise in go-to and drive-thru services, there has also been a growing trend towards smaller spot freezers and prep tables used behind the scenes, says Lilly.

One interesting shift of note is a move towards ice-cream cabinets, says Phil Irwin, director of Sales and Marketing for Celco Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. “With the frequent openings and closings, they’re needing to offset revenues with inexpensive takeaway treats like ice-cream cones.”

Although demand may be there, supply has been an ongoing issue, says Irwin. “The global supply-chain challenges over the last year and a half have led to limited supply and long lead times. It’s been a complete nightmare, between the foam for insulation and certain components such as TX valves. If you’re one component short, it tends to completely snowball.”

Lead times for some equipment extended to weeks and months, he adds. “Before if you said four weeks lead time people would gasp. Now 12 weeks is the minimum, depending on the product line. With that, customers are grabbing whatever they can. Somebody looking for a 48-inch pre station for example will take the 36-inch version if it’s all that is available.”

The walk-in side of the refrigeration/freezer equation has been problematic from a supply standpoint, even though walk-ins are still a refrigeration/freezer system of choice for chains and casual-dining operations.

“The biggest trend that happened in the last two years was not related to COVID,” says Danny Collis, owner, Collis Group Inc. in Richmond Hill, Ont. “The huge snowstorm in Texas wiped out a major resin factory that was used in foam polyurethane that goes into the panels. For some time, you couldn’t get walk-ins. It’s still recovering at this point. It’s also hard to get compressors right now, especially larger ones.”

While there hasn’t been a lot of innovation on the walk-in refrigeration front, remote temperature monitoring is becoming an increasingly important wish-list item for operators, says Collis. “Some manufacturers are building that technology into their evaporators. But there are also wireless temperature-monitoring systems you can use for existing walk-ins.”

Blast chillers have shown steady growth over the last three years “People now understand what blast chilling can do for them in a production atmosphere such as grocery stores, long-term care homes and schools,” says Collis. can save a ton of labour. But they’re not cheap – prices can range from $8,000 to $100,000 depending on the size you need.”

Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont. recently added a Delfield blast chiller to its culinary program to help students familiarize themselves with the technology. “We felt it was a technology that is especially important in institutional healthcare settings,” says Steve Benns, chef/professor and coordinator of the Food Nutrition Management program.

That was just one of many additions to its two learning labs and finishing kitchen since a major construction project was completed in 2017. It allowed the culinary team the opportunity to re-think its refrigeration needs, he says.

One major change was a move to smaller station, solid-door refrigerators and freezers with worktops. “That was one of the biggest things moving forward. We liked that they were factory engineered, self-contained and environmentally friendly.”

They also opted for lower-profile units at 34-inches (six-inches lower than standard). “They are much better ergonomically and much easier on the arms and elbows,” says Benns.

Key drivers in their equipment choices were energy efficiency and sustainability, says Steve Moghini, chef/professor and coordinator for Fleming’s Culinary programs. “They have become the two key elements in refrigeration of the last 10 to 12 years.”

Beyond the environmental benefits, performance also comes down to proper preventative maintenance and buying quality products that are backed by the manufacturer, says Benns. “Taking the time to regularly vacuum the backs and make sure the trays are not plugged can go a long way.”

One of the biggest lessons he has learned in all the places he has worked over the year is that refrigeration was always inadequate for his needs. “A lot of times we were very limited by what we could do based on refrigeration capacity. For me, there was never enough.”

By Denise Deveau

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