Having a prep table can save a tremendous amount of time spent preparing made-to-order dishes like sandwiches, pizzas, and salads, or for preparing a large quantity of items ahead of time; some business models would be impossible without them. To make sure you choose the one that's right for your business, you should figure out your basic needs first. Decide what dishes you'll be preparing on your table. Make a list of which ingredients you'll need to keep on hand and how much of each, both in the pans on top and in the storage compartments below. Then, think about how often you'll be using your table. Will it be used just during the lunch rush, or will it be accessed regularly throughout the day? Finally, decide where in the kitchen you'll be placing your unit.
Salads and Sandwiches or Pizzas?
The two types available are pizza prep tables and salad/sandwich tables; their names describe the type of dishes they're designed to help you prepare. There are a couple of differences between the two, the primary one is the depth of their workspace and cutting boards. Salad and sandwich prep tables have shallower work surfaces, typically between 10 and 12 inches. Pizza units have surfaces deep enough to hold a pizza, usually around 20 inches. A pizza prep table will often have a raised rail for pans, one above the service area for holding ingredients and toppings.
Selecting a unit with right capacity is critical. Empty pans are an energy waster, and the quality of food can suffer if it sits unused and may have to be thrown out. Prep tables are designed to hold standard-sized food pans, most commonly 1/6-sized, but most include adjustable rails that can hold full, 1/2-size, and 1/4-size pans as well. The smallest sandwich prep table is 27 inches long and holds (6) 1/6 sized pans. The largest tables are over 119 inches long and can hold (32) 1/6 size pans. Many sizes are available in between those two extremes.
On some units, the pan rail does not extend down the full length of the table. This leaves an extra space behind the work area for storing dry ingredients or for placing small countertop equipment like a panini press or a microwave oven.
Air Intake and Exhaust
The refrigeration systems on any prep table needs to breath air just like a person does. The air intake and exhaust areas must be clear of obstruction to keep the equipment running properly, and the location of each varies between models. Knowing where you'll want your equipment installed will help you choose one with intake and exhaust that won't be blocked by a wall or other equipment. A front-breathing refrigerated prep table is usually a safe bet if you're putting your table in close quarters like a prep line or against a wall.
Choosing a Cover
Pan tops are designed to hold their temperatures while remaining uncovered for a couple of hours, but they can't hold safe temperatures all day, so they need to be covered with a lid to stay cold. There are two types of covers:
- A sliding top slides back into the unit and out of the way. If your unit is going to be used front-of-house, choose one of these so your customers can have a glimpse of their food getting prepared.
- Lift up lids are best for back-of-house use, where ambient air is warmer and the unit needs to be opened and closed frequently. That makes this type a great choice for a pizza prep table.
Drawers or Doors?
Drawers are designed to hold extra pans of foods, so they can keep your most crucial foods on hand to replace empty pans on top. Compartments with doors include adjustable wire shelving. If you want to hold bulk items like dressings or jars of sauce, then choose one with doors. If you think you could benefit from having both, choose a unit that includes both.
Most standard units accommodate two rows of food pans, but mega top units can hold three. Cutting boards on mega top units are smaller to compensate for the wider storage, so these are a dream come true for a sandwich shop owner that want to provide a large variety of toppings to their customers, but doesn't need a very wide cutting board to prepare their dishes.
Cold Wall or Forced Air
Two different technologies are used to keep pans cold on these tables. Forced-air systems blow refrigerated air over the tops of pans to keep them cold. This kind of cooling is common in the sandwich/salad units that store a lot of vegetables. They're best in high-volume establishments, because food can dry out if it's left sitting too long.
Cold wall systems are common in pizza tables, and are better at keeping dense items like cheese, meat, and sauce at safe temperatures. This technology is also found in most raised rail systems.
Cleaning and Maintenance
Regular cleaning and maintenance are important with any kind of equipment, but this is especially true with a prep table. These are complex machines, but a few simple steps can keep yours running efficiently:
- Clean the gaskets on the doors with lemon juice regularly. This will lubricate the seal, helping to protect it against cracking while also keeping it clean and free of bacteria.
- Regularly clean the filter, coils, and fins in the refrigeration system. Dust and dirt can collect on these components and make the system work harder, wasting energy and increasing the risk of overheating and breakdowns.
- If you make your own dough in-house, check the compressor coils of your pizza prep table at least once a month, as particulates from that process like airborne flour can be especially problematic.
- Check for punctured and dented pans that can let air escape, costing a fortune in wasted energy.