Cold to Go


They’ve become ubiquitous. You see them everywhere—on end aisles and the foot of the checkout lanes in supermarkets, on the counter of a snack cart in an office lobby, against the wall of a campus or retail bookstore, in the middle of a cafeteria servery, even built in to the counter of a coffeeshop. Refrigerators in every shape and size, with air curtains or glass doors, merchandising a wide variety of foods and beverages.

In the U.S., consumers like icy cold beverages, cold, crisp salads and other cold foods like sandwiches and snacks as much or perhaps even more than a good hot meal. And they’ve grown accustomed to convenience to the point that they’re willing to help themselves whenever and wherever they can, from self-serve checkout lines at the airport or grocery store to grab-and-go cases in foodservice and retail stores.

Refrigerated display cases can help you take advantage of this trend by merchandising a mix of products beyond your normal menu, and offering customers a convenient way to help themselves. Not only do grab-and-go cases generate additional sales, but a large proportion are impulse sales, meaning a higher check average.

But not all cases will work well in all applications. What type and size you spec depends largely on what products you plan to merchandise and the configuration of the space where you’d like to put it. Here’s the skinny on how to narrow down your choices.

Open Vs. Closed

Our focus in this piece is on open display cases, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss closed cases outright. In fact, you may have an application or situation in which a closed case is the better choice. The primary advantages of a refrigerated case with doors instead of an air-screen are a greater assurance that products will be held at the proper temperature, and reduced energy use compared to open cases.


There are some situations in which open display cases won’t perform well, which we’ll get into in a bit. If your operation poses these problems, or if you plan to merchandise primarily food products that must be held at the proper temperature from a food safety standpoint, then closed cases may be the way to go.

Where they’re not limited by performance constraints, open cases offer operators a number of benefits. First, products usually are more visually appealing in an open case than behind a closed door, even a glass one. Manufacturers cite studies that indicate sales from open cases are typically 50% higher, and in some cases as much as four times more.

Open cases also are more convenient for customers. They can take the products they want quickly and easily. And more than one customer at a time can take items from the case instead of waiting in line to access a cooler door one customer at a time.

Air-screen display cases come in a wide range of sizes and shapes, including vertical, horizontal, islands and built-ins. In most spaces, at least one of these will fit the flow of the operation and perform to specs.

Placement, Performance

One note to cover first. Presently, refrigerators can meet one of two NSF 7 standards. Type I models operate in environments that don’t exceed 75°F and 55% relative humidity. Type II models operate in temperatures up to 80°F and 60% relative humidity. Obviously, if you have stores in southern states with warmer climates, you probably already have Type II refrigeration units.

However, the Department of Energy (DOE) has mandated that all refrigeration, including open, air-screen display cases, must meet the Type II standard by Jan. 1, 2017. Manufacturers have to meet these standards—you don’t have to do anything except be aware that between now and then, not all manufacturers make open display cases that meet the higher performance standard.

Why is this important? All refrigerators must deal with humidity to some extent. But relative humidity affects open display cases more than refrigerators with doors. Models that meet the Type II standard are better equipped to handle humidity.

Even when all makes and models must meet the standard next year, humidity still will be a factor. You’ll need to locate air-screen cases over or near a floor drain, or purchase a model with a condensate evaporator—essentially an electric heating element that sits in the drain pan and evaporates excess condensate when the pan gets too full.

While air-screen refrigerated cases aren’t yet an Energy Star category, some manufacturers have had third party testing done to determine how energy efficient their models are. Equipment that already meets the Type II standard is likely to be more efficient than equipment designed to meet the Type I standard, especially if ambient conditions tend toward warm and humid.

Be sure to ask suppliers for energy efficiency ratings, and use those to help you determine how much it will cost to operate different models. Factor that into lifecycle costs, too, to give you an idea of which model will give you the fastest payback and lowest operating cost over the life of the equipment.

Remote Or Self-Contained

Another factor affecting where to put display cases in your store is whether you want self-contained or remote refrigeration on each case. Self-contained models, as you know from the reach-ins you probably have in the kitchen, can be noisy and put out a fair amount of heat, neither of which is a desirable attribute in the serving or dining areas of your operations.

Depending on the layout of your operation, remote refrigeration might be relatively easy to do if, for example, you specify vertical cases against a wall. Even if it’s a new operation designed from the ground up, remote refrigeration for islands and built-in units at the counter might be difficult. Remember, if you manage to locate the compressor remotely, evaporator fans will still make some noise.

Self-contained units are more typical in most operations, but plan ahead when thinking about where you want them to vent excess heat. Depending on the model, some units take in air at the front and vent it out the back. Others vent out the top. Be wary of models that take air in and vent it in the front. Some of that excess heat will be drawn back in, forcing the compressor to cycle faster.

Virtually all manufacturers use quieter, electronically commutated fan motors these days (motors that adjust speed to maintain a specific cfm rate), but look for models that have fan blades designed for quieter operation, as well as new, less noisy compressors. If you think noise may still be a problem, some makers offer compressor blankets that dampen sound by as much as 30%.

The 5, 10, 15 Rule

Location is critical to performance in other ways, too. The air-screen that keeps cold air inside the case from escaping into the surrounding environment can be easily disturbed if you’re not careful about where you put these cases.

Think of it like the effluent plume on your hood. Anything that interferes with capture and containment will make the hood less efficient (and also affects other systems like HVAC). Follow the 5, 10, 15 rule to make sure air flow in your operation won’t interfere with the efficiency of open display cases.

Locate cases at least 5 ft. away from exterior windows. Direct sunlight increases the heat load on the case, making the compressor work harder. Windows that open, of course, can let in breezes that will disturb the air curtain.

Make sure cases are at least 10 ft. away from HVAC vents, for the same reason you avoid putting four-way ceiling vents in front of the hood canopy—air blowing toward the front of the case will disturb the air curtain. If the case has a glass front, air from the HVAC vent might cause condensation on the glass.

Finally, locate open display cases at least 15 ft. from exterior doors to prevent drafts from interfering with the air-screen and letting warm air into the case.

Sounds Like A Plan

Form (vertical, horizontal, island, etc.) and the product mix you want to merchandise will help you determine the capacity you need and size of the case or cases you buy. Once you’ve determined your mix, consider how fast it will turn. The last thing you want is to run out of product during a lunch rush when you don’t have a spare employee to restock the case.

The fuller the case, the more effective it is at merchandising product, but don’t overload the case or it won’t cool product efficiently. Since cold air is heavier than warm air, flow of the air-screen in these cases is typically from a plenum or diffuser in the top down to vents in the front bottom of the case (even in horizontal and built-ins).

With that information, and the physical dimensions of the products, you can start to determine the cube you’ll need to hold the product for a certain period of time. Build a plan-o-gram from there to determine the capacity of the case or cases you need.

For example, say you want to merchandise beverages, salads and yogurts. Shelves in a 48-in.W vertical case will be approximately 45-in.W x 15-in.D. You can fit 80 20-oz. bottles on a shelf that size; about 14 6-in. diameter clamshell salad containers; and about 102 2½-in. diameter yogurt cups.

Take into account the heights of the products you want to display on each shelf, with room for customers to reach in and remove products, and you’ll have an idea of the height of the unit you need. Horizontal, island and built-in units may have stepped shelves, so you can put products of varying height on each step.

Featured Presentation

That segues nicely into the features you should consider before you buy. Adjustable shelving will give you more flexibility in the mix of products you display and how much of each. Shelving is available in a wide range of materials and finishes. Solid shelves most often come in stainless, glass, or black paint finish. Wire shelves offer good air circulation to keep products cold, but nothing merchandises as well as glass.

Pick lighting that best shows off the product. Fluorescent lighting is your least expensive option, but LED lighting is more energy efficient and comes in a wider range of colors. Merchandising will be more effective if each shelf is lit individually.

You can spec practically any exterior finish you want, from sleek stainless to the custom color and material of your company’s décor. Not every manufacturer offers this capability, but it’s becoming more common in the industry.

Other features you may want to include rear doors so employees can load cases from behind the counter or the kitchen, casters so you can easily move cases for cleaning, and space and lighting for custom signage. An indispensable option, especially if you have a smart thermostat or energy management system that adjusts the temperature at night, are covers. They help save energy, and some are lockable to prevent pilferage in locations, like airports or kiosks, where cases are out in the open.

As with other refrigeration equipment, little maintenance is required on these units other than cleaning the condenser coil regularly—once a month or so. A couple of manufacturers offer automatic cleaners with brushes that travel up and down a track removing dust from the condenser on a daily basis.

Some models offer slide-out components for easy access during service calls. Check with suppliers to find out what kind of service network they have, availability of parts, if needed, and product warranties.

Refrigerated grab-and-go cases give you a terrific opportunity to offer customers a convenient way to get cold packaged food and beverage products you might not have on your regular menu, driving impulse sales and higher check averages. Taking the time to do a little homework can help you find the display cases that will work best in your operation and add more cold cash to the bottom line.

As originally printed in FER Magazine

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