Cold Food Bars Buyers' Guide

Keep Cool with the Right Cold Food Bar

Cold food bars, sometimes called cold wells or refrigerated salad bars, are made to keep food or drinks cold while on display in a serving line. These are used in buffet- and cafeteria-style operations, and are available in multiple styles. Continue reading to learn more that will help you choose the right cold food bar for your catering or foodservice operation.

Display Type

Cold food bars come in several display configurations. The most flexible configuration is the open top. This type of cold well does not have individual cut-outs for pans or bowls, and instead has a flat surface for displaying dishes. Open designs are often used for drinks, and can also work well for pre-packaged salads and desserts in bowls or plates. If you have oddly-shaped pans or bowls you wish to use, you may pair an open-top cold bar with a cut-out that will support the dish size you have in mind.

Another option in display types is a cold food bar made to hold pans of varying sizes. These are measured by how many full-size pans they can hold, with models available that hold as few as two or as many as six. Most can also hold variations on the standard size, such as 1/2- or 1/3-size pans. While the width and length are standard sizes, the depth varies, so check each version to be sure that the pans will be able to hold the amount of food you need to display.

The least common top configuration type is cold bars for bowls. These are intended to be used as a salad bar, with one large bowl opening for holding lettuce and several smaller openings to hold bowls of toppings.

Cooling Method

Cold bars use one of two cooling methods: ice or refrigeration. The one you will choose depends largely on where you will be using the equipment. If your cold well will always be used near a power source, refrigeration may be the best option for you. However, if you will be moving your cold bar around or would like to avoid using electricity, there are plenty of ice-cooled cold food bars to choose from.

If you decide to go with an ice-cooled cold well, you will have a few options to choose from. The most common type just uses an ice-filled well to keep food cool. Some companies offer ice packs to use in place of loose ice, which can make cleanup simpler. Another option is chilled food pans, which are frozen ahead of time, then filled with food to hold temperature for long periods of time.

If you choose to go with refrigeration, you will need to decide where your compressor will be located. If the compressor is located on the end of the cold bar, you will not be able to place another bar flush against that end. A compressor located on the front will blow warm air toward customers, while one located on the back will add heat to the working area, or again at customers on double-sided bars. For a cold food bar that will be stationary, a remote condenser may be the best option. These are more expensive to install, but prevent extra noise and heat being added to the serving area.


There are several sizes of cold bars to choose from. Countertop models range from small trays filled with ice to large cold wells that can hold multiple food pans. Countertop models are all ice-cooled. Another option is a drop-in cold food bar, which can be ice-cooled or refrigerated. These are permanently installed into a counter by lowering the equipment into a cut-out sized to the bar's specifications. Refrigerated drop-in models require extra clearance for the compressor under the counter, while ice-cooled models will need a drain or drain hose.

For foodservice operations with more room, or no counters to work with, a floor model cold bar may work best. These units are available in both ice-cooled and refrigerated options, and most come on casters to simplify relocating and cleaning.

Specialty options

Many cold food bars come with specialty options to make their use easier for customers or servers. Sneeze guards can help protect food from germs and debris, and may be used on one or both sides of a cold bar. Built-in lights can help with merchandising the food on your bar.

Some cold food bars feature one or more shelves underneath, which can allow you to store trays, dishes, or other items that may be convenient to keep close at hand. Another available feature is tray slides and end shelves, which may be built-in or sold separately.