Product Knowledge Guide: Refrigerated Display Cases

The popularity of grab-and-go items has more foodservice operators looking to refrigerated display cases to help meet customer demand. This equipment includes enclosed and open displays designed for bakery, deli and packaged food applications. A variety of operators, including restaurants, schools, businesses and airports, use refrigerated display cases.

iStock 000021999492XXXLargeIt’s important to note that this equipment is designed to keep cold food cold, not to pull warm food down to safe holding temperatures. Refrigerated display units should hold product between 33 degrees F and 41 degrees F — any warmer temps will compromise food safety. Open air, glass door, countertop bakery and deli merchandisers come with either remote or self-contained refrigeration systems, depending on the unit.

This equipment can range from small refrigerated pie cases that mount to a wall to open air grab-and-go merchandisers to curved glass display cases. Sizes vary, but typically glass door cases measure 27, 30, 52 or 78 inches wide; open air cases measure 27, 30, 52 or 78 inches wide; bakery/deli cases measure 50, 59 or 77 inches wide and countertop displays measure 24 inches wide.

The majority of cases for commercial use have a stainless steel exterior, with interior finishes of either stainless or ABS material. Shelves feature either stainless or glass construction. From a merchandising standpoint, the more glass on the unit, the better its merchandising ability because it allows for better views of the food.

Temperature monitoring choices include standard electronic controllers for reliability, defrost timers, thermometers and alarms for high-temperature alerts.

The type of unit that best suits a foodservice operation depends on the application. Unpackaged foods must be displayed in a unit display and served by an attendant, while packaged foods can be merchandised as self-service in open-front units.

Product shelf life also can help determine which type of case will work best in an operation. For example, unpackaged food displayed in a closed display is exposed to cold air blowing inside the display or heat from the internal lights inside a non-refrigerated display, which can cause food to dry out.

When specifying air screen units, assessing the location is key, since open displays tend to condensate water in warmer environments.

Self-service displays have been shown to increase sales because they provide quick and easy access to food, which stimulates the customers’ impulse to buy. For optimum accessibility and viewing, display product at eye level whenever possible.

Also, evaluate the length of the display and number of shelves to determine how much product a unit can display at one time and how fast the operation expects to sell that product. Shelf adjustability can provide increased flexibility for operators with changing menus and different size products.

Display case features include rear loading doors and shelf lights, an often overlooked element. Because 60 percent of food quality perception is based on the environment that the food is displayed in, increased visibility from lights can provide added value. LED lighting also is available, which lasts longer and throws off less heat, increasing energy efficiency.

Some models come with security covers that lock open front displays during non-operational hours and close off the unit to enhance the refrigeration system’s efficiency. Keeping key refrigeration components clean is critical to ensure reliable refrigeration performance 24/7. Today’s refrigeration systems operate on less
energy than previous designs, which can lower operating costs.

 Service Q&A with Bruce Hodge, president, General Parts & Service, Waukesha, Wis.

FE&S: What are the maintenance considerations for refrigerated display cases?

BH: The maintenance requirements will depend on the type of equipment and where it is located. Basically, the care is similar to a residential refrigerator. Install these units on level surfaces and allow space for air to move across the coils. We often see cases pushed into a corner or into a confined space where there’s no room for air movement, and this will shorten the equipment’s service life.

FE&S: How often do these units typically need to be cleaned?

BH: The cleaning requirements will depend on where the unit is located and if there is an excessive amount of dirt and dust in the environment. Display cases situated in an outdoor concessions area will need to be cleaned more often than a unit used inside a hospital or school, for example. Also, a remote condenser on a roof with trees shedding leaves nearby will need more attention. Most of our maintenance agreement plans are for twice a year.

FE&S: What is the cleaning process and supplies needed with refrigerated display cases?

BH: There are a few methods used to clean this equipment. Manufacturers will generally recommend cleaners or chemicals for their units. Rooftop refrigeration units can be hosed down and cleaned with a brush.

FE&S: How can operators ensure the unit holds at the proper temperature?

BH: Check the temperature daily to confirm it’s in the proper range. If not, a service agent should be contacted. Out of range temperatures may indicate the thermostat is bad or out of calibration, but it also could simply be a sign that someone left the door open for an extended period of time.

FE&S: What is the typical service life of a refrigerated display case?

BH: The typical service life for these units is about 7 years for normal depreciating write off, but display cases can last as long as 10 to 12 years.

Specifying Refrigerated Display Cases

 Refrigerated display cases work best when properly specified, and there are a number of factors to take into account when purchasing these units.

Harry Schildkraut, principal at S2O Consultants, Inc., based in Hawthorn Woods, Ill., provides further insight on this equipment category.

  • Consider the menu to ensure the display case will support the operation’s needs. This will also determine whether a full- or self-service unit best suits the operation.
  • Refrigerated display case sizes range from small countertop units that are 3 feet long and 36 inches high that sit on counters all the way up to 6- to 8-foot-long deli or air stream cases. The anticipated sales, storage volume and length of time product will stay in the case will help determine the size unit needed.
  • Operators can choose from cases that utilize air-cooled, water-cooled or remote refrigeration. With large installations of these cases, remote refrigeration tends to be the best option. This is because operators can combine multiple cases on one compressor within the line, which is very cost effective and gets the compressor out of the front-of-house space. With water-cooled units, operators don’t have to worry about getting rid of hot air that gets rejected from the compressor. This type costs a bit more up front, but is more cost efficient over the long run.
  • For operations emptying refrigerated cases each day, security features may not be necessary. However, those storing product in these units should consider models with vertical folding doors that slide into pockets at the end of the case. These close and lock at night, while also eliminating removable front panels.
  • Take into account the unit’s operating environment. In warmer or more humid environments, for example, condensation or sweating inside the case will become a problem. This happens mainly with open cases and can impact energy efficiency. Most case manufacturers offer high humidity cases for these situations, which will operate better, but are still not always 100 percent effective in high humidity environments.
  • We’re seeing more combination cases that have one refrigerated and one non-refrigerated section in the same unit without a physical divider. This is accomplished by placement of the refrigeration coils inside the case, which can be divided either vertically or horizontally. These units work well with grab-and-go applications, since operations can offer wrapped sandwiches on one side and chips on the other, for example. Combination displays can be space savers, as well.
  • All manufacturers will customize display cases to a large extent in terms of finishes and features.
  • Although both fluorescent and LED lighting are available, the latter is more popular, since it is more energy efficient.
  • Vertical airstream cases with doors in the back provide easier access for restocking and won’t interfere with service from the front.
  • We have found black interiors for refrigerated display cases are best to display and emphasize food items.
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