The walk-in is an integral part of your restaurant. Neglecting it can cost money and cause big headaches. The percentage of waste may not seem big—3 percent by some accounts—but as any operator knows, those percentages are better off on the bottom line than in the garbage. Nip the problem in the bud with these tips on how to build a better walk-in:
1. Know where everything goes
No one likes getting burned—especially when it’s freezer burn. Understanding the best location for each product is essential. Morrissey Hospitality, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based restaurant and hotel management group, advises clients to store fresh produce as far from a unit’s fans as possible to reduce the chance of freezer burns. Store meat on the lowest possible shelf to prevent accidental spills from contaminating the food below, and space items three inches apart from each other to allow cool air to circulate around the products.
2. LED the way
Upgrading to LED lights, which can cost about six times more than fluorescent, saves big bucks in the long term. “LEDs work better in cold environments, making them the ideal choice for coolers in commercial kitchens,” says Amy Silver of MaxLite, an LED manufacturer for restaurants and grocery stores. LEDs also may last 35 to 50 times longer than incandescent lights and about two to five times longer than fluorescents. According to Silver, operations can see a return on investment in six months.
3. Practice checkups
A recent list of best practices from the Washington Restaurant Association and the University of Washington underscores the importance of maintenance. Keep an eye on door seals and hinges to prevent air from escaping. Monitor refrigerant levels to ensure your compressor isn’t wearing out. And clean condensing coils regularly so fan blades don’t ice over, which can reduce drag and cause energy costs to skyrocket.
"The walk-in is the heart of the heart of your restaurant. That’s where your money is, so you’ve got to do everything you can to protect it."
-Cory Wilk of City Range Steak House Restaurant
4. EDUCATE YOUR STAFF
Chef Mark Estee, who owns and operates eight restaurants in Nevada and California, suggests that chefs teach walk-in maintenance with the same level of detail as knife skills. Show your staff the way—and how often—you clean, and they will follow your lead. One tip: Map out where each item should be placed, and create a visual guide for all to follow.
5. Stick to a rotation schedule
Sam Corigliano, owner of the 35-year-old Marina Cafe on Staten Island, New York, says assigning walk-in duty to a steward ensures profitability. When inventory arrives, the steward removes items from cardboard cases and places them in clear storage containers to make them easier to identify. New items are then placed in the back of the cooler, pushing the older items to the front. “Use first” stickers on containers act as a safety net to ensure older products are used first.
6. Put an eye in the sky
Kathy Matrious, director of service operations-food and beverage at Grand Casino Hinckley, in Hinckley, Minnesota, suggests monitoring the cooler with cameras. An inexpensive camera aimed at the walk-in is a reminder for staff to reduce the amount of time they spend in the cooler and to turn off any lights. She also recommends that smaller operations install vinyl strip curtains to prevent air leakage from the walk-in, but larger outfits use blast chillers to shorten the time it takes to cool products down before they get placed in the walk-in.
7. Customize your freezer
Cory Wilk, co-owner of City Range Steak House Restaurant, based in both Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina, uses three different walk-ins: one for proteins, another for produce and dairy, and a third for drinks. As a result, his bar team knows to stick to its cooler and the kitchen team theirs. Wilk says each cooler uses customizable shelves, which can be adjusted and removed for easy cleaning. “The walk-in is the heart of the heart of your restaurant,” Wilk says, “That’s where your money is, so you’ve got to do everything you can to protect it.”