Comparing Walk-in Coolers and Reach-in Refrigerators

If the reach-in refrigeration in your restaurant is feeling a little overstuffed, it may be time to consider expanding your business's refrigeration. Overfilled refrigerators often provide inconsistent cooling due to blocked air circulation, leading to overworked compressors and unsafe food conditions. Once you've decided to rectify the situation with more storage, you'll need to decide whether to invest in more reach-in refrigeration or take the leap to a walk-in.

How Will You Use Your Refrigeration?

The first thing to be aware of as you consider upgrading from a reach-in to a walk-in is that one does not necessarily replace the other. While a restaurant can, in many cases, function with only reach-ins, the same cannot be said for walk-ins. Walk-ins are storage units, meant to hold food at safe temperatures, but they are not meant to bring hot food items down to those temperatures. Placing hot food in a walk-in can raise the temperature of the whole box, potentially bringing all the food stored there into the danger zone. Even if that doesn’t happen, there’s a chance the hot food items itself will stay in the temperature danger zone long enough that it could allow for dangerous bacterial growth. In order to prevent compromising food safety, hot food must first be chilled with an ice paddle or other approved cooling device, or in a blast chiller.

While a walk-in cannot bring food down to safe temperatures, it is ideal for storing food in bulk that is received refrigerated or frozen. It also provides more room for organization, which makes storing prepped foods simple.

Where a reach-in excels is as a working box. Working boxes are made to keep the interior of the unit cool even when the doors are opened repeatedly throughout service. That makes them ideal for storing products that need to be readily available. Because a walk-in has to cool such a large area, the door being opened repeatedly lets in far too much warm air, putting more strain on the compressor as it struggles to cool the room. Too much warm or moist air can also lead to condensation inside the unit, creating a slip hazard.

Installation Requirements

While a walk-in can be a beneficial addition to a restaurant, there is no denying it has more involved installment requirements than a reach-in. A reach-in can be installed almost anywhere, as long as there's a power source and enough floor space for it. Typically this type of refrigerator can even handle being installed on slightly uneven floors, as long as the variance is small enough that the adjustable feet can make up the difference.

Alternatively, a walk-in has pretty extensive installation requirements. The floor on which it's installed must be level, and if it's not on a concrete floor, you’ll need to construct an insulated floor for it. While the space you have will dictate the size of the unit you can install, walk-ins can also be installed outside; many restaurants have coolers just outside their back doors, which sometimes requires additional considerations for weather depending on climate. The location is optimal for receiving shipments, though. While some smaller walk-ins can be assembled by the end users, many larger units require professional installation, which can add extra cost.

Pros and Cons

Walk-in Coolers

Pros

  • Highly customizable to fit nearly any space
  • Open layouts allow for easy organization
  • Outdoor installation can remove excess heat and noise from the kitchen
  • Allow for more bulk storage, which can save money on deliveries
  • Can use less power when used in place of multiple reach-ins for storage
  • Can be placed indoors or outdoors

Cons

  • Higher initial costs
  • Sometimes require professional installation
  • Installation area requires more prep work
  • Climate and seismic activity are considerations in some regions
  • Require extra equipment, such as strip doors, air curtains, and shelving
  • Some have long lead times for customization
  • Reach-ins are typically still needed for use with a walk-in

Reach-in Refrigeration

Pros

  • Takes up less space, with compact undercounter models available
  • Comes with shelving
  • ADA models available
  • Provides convenient access to ingredients
  • Most models are more affordable than walk-ins
  • Simple installation
  • ENERGY STAR models available

Cons

  • Most models have only limited customization options
  • Limited storage capacity; only available with one to three sections
  • Most reach-in refrigeration is self-contained, which adds heat and noise to the room
  • Shorter average lifespans than those typical of walk-ins