Walk-in vs Reach-in Coolers: An Unafridged Guide

It’s no secret that refrigeration is crucial in the food service industry. Commercial refrigerators help you maintain the freshness and safety of your foods—whether you’re running a cozy café, a bustling restaurant, or a large-scale food manufacturing operation.

When you think of your main commercial refrigeration unit, two options generally stand out: commercial walk-in refrigerators and reach-in coolers and refrigerators. So, if you’re weighing the question of walk-in vs. reach-in refrigerators, here’s what you need to know to make an informed choice that’s best for your business.

Understanding the Cold Comfort of Walk-in Refrigerators

Walk-in refrigerators and walk-in freezers are essentially a “room of fridge.” Typically, this large, enclosed cold storage space is made to store large quantities of perishable foods on plenty of shelves and racks.

A walk-in refrigerator has a consistently low and steady temperature and extra space to store dairy products, perishable items, and bulk ingredients. It’s ideal for large-scale food service and production. You’ll commonly find a walk-in at big restaurants, hotels, and catering facilities, where storage needs are substantial.

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Advantages of Walk-in Refrigerators

  • Plenty of Space: The biggest advantage of a walk-in commercial fridge is that it offers plenty of storage for humongous quantities of foods and beverages. The spacious interior allows you to go inside the fridge to organize and store what you need.
  • Suited for Large-Scale: Catering for big events almost guarantees a need for substantial refrigeration. If your restaurant or food service business needs to cater to hundreds of customers a day, a walk-in can hold what you need and keep it consistently cool.

Disadvantages of Walk-in Refrigerators

  • Higher Upfront Costs: The biggest drawback of a walk-in unit is the upfront cost. A refrigeration “room” requires a large investment for setup and installation. There will also be significant ongoing costs for regular maintenance.
  • Requires a Big Space: Many restaurants don’t have the footprint required for a dedicated walk-in. Commercial walk-in units are very big, and many commercial kitchens can’t accommodate the loss of valuable space.
  • You May Also Need a Reach-in Refrigerator: Even with a walk-in fridge, your commercial operation might still need a reach-in unit for convenient access to frequently used items. During service, your workflow may suffer if everyone has to run to the walk-in for more ingredients and final touches.

Understanding Cold-Fashioned Reach-in Coolers

Reach-in refrigerators are a universal requirement for almost every commercial kitchen. Behind solid doors of stainless steel or glass, your reach-in cooler provides easy access to all the necessities. At the same time, an ample-sized reach-in cooler has the available space to store plenty of perishable goods for the longer term too. Reach-in refrigerators’ cabinet-like, compact design makes them the best choice for almost any space—even in small kitchens. 

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Advantages of Reach-in Coolers

  • Space-Saving: Commercial reach-in refrigerators are ultra-convenient with space-saving designs. Like a home fridge, your reach-in can be placed almost anywhere in the kitchen to help you maximize the efficiency of your kitchen layout.
  • Accessibility and Convenience: Reach-in coolers and refrigerators offer easy access to ingredients. Kitchen staff can open the doors as needed to quickly grab ingredients. It’s particularly helpful during peak service times when folks are rushed. Reach-in fridges have adjustable shelving to help you store large and small products. They’re the best option for a busy kitchen.

Disadvantages of Reach-in Coolers

  • Limited Storage Capacity: Now, reach-in coolers, refrigerators, and freezers have many benefits. Many reach-ins are high-capacity with the ability to store a surprisingly large volume of goods. That said, reach-in units are smaller than walk-in units, and if you have extensive needs, you may need multiple reach-ins to accommodate all the food.
  • High-Volume Businesses May Need More: If you’re cooking for hundreds, you might need more storage and cooling capacity than one reach-in unit can handle. Fortunately, due to their smaller footprint, they can help you make the most of vertical space, even if you need to place two units side-by-side. If you have a walk-in, you may also want at least one reach-in refrigerator for easier access.

A Cold Case Comparison: Walk-in vs Reach-in Coolers

Still on the fence about what type of commercial refrigeration you need to keep your establishment running as smoothly (and coolly) as possible? Here, we break down the walk-in vs. reach-in question.

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Capacity and Storage: No Cold Cuts to Space

Walk-in Refrigerators: Spacious but Need a Large Footprint
Walk-in refrigeration units can store a huge amount of food. Because they’re like an entire room of storage, you can fill them from top to bottom. That means that walk-ins can hold all those bulk purchases and commercial quantities. For big kitchens, the extra refrigerator storage can be a benefit, but if space is at a premium, it’s challenging to dedicate such a large area.

Reach-in Refrigerators: Compact with Limited Storage
Reach-in refrigerators offer both convenience and efficiency. The sizes of reach-in coolers, refrigerators, and freezers can range widely. By nature, they’re smaller than a walk-in, but larger reach-in systems still offer a significant amount of storage space, especially when well-organized. Reach-in freezers, coolers, and refrigerators are ideal for housing all those essential ingredients and frequently used items.

Cold Hard Cash: Cost Considerations

Upfront Costs vs. Long-term Savings
Of course, cost considerations are always important when deciding between walk-in refrigeration systems and reach-in refrigeration. The upfront costs of a walk-in installation can be substantial, especially with customization. In the long term, bulk purchases and reduced waste can offset the investment. Reach-ins, on the other hand, are more affordable for smaller kitchens and new restaurants. It’s worthwhile to invest in a quality reach-in unit that will offer long-term savings thanks to durability and energy efficiency.

Importance of Investing in Quality Equipment
Whether you go with the walk-in or reach-in, the quality of your equipment is absolutely crucial. You get what you pay for. It may be tempting to save on an older, used unit. Unfortunately, even slight damage can cause door seal failure, which significantly raises energy usage. Maintenance costs and repairs can quickly add up, making the initial “savings” not worth the long-term cost, hassle, and stress.

Avoid a Cold War: Operational Efficiency

Accessibility and Organization
Reach-in refrigeration systems offer great accessibility. Simply “reach in” and get what you need with easy access. With adjustable shelving and storage, it’s easy to keep a reach-in refrigerator nicely organized and efficient. Walk-ins offer more space, but with great space comes the great potential for disorganization. Frequent trips to search through the walk-in can clog up the traffic flow of your kitchen.

Energy Efficiency and Maintenance
Reach-ins are generally the more energy-efficient choice for kitchen refrigeration. Smaller space plus advanced insulation technology equals better cooling efficiency and lower energy costs (even for larger units). Maintenance is also typically less costly for reach-in refrigerators. Walk-ins can handle larger loads, but they have higher energy consumption and often tend to be higher maintenance.

The Cold Standard: Suitability for Different Businesses

Walk-in Refrigerators: Ideal for Large-scale Operations
Commercial walk-in coolers and freezers are a necessary solution for large-scale operations with extensive storage needs—think big restaurants, hotels, and catering businesses. Walk-ins offer all that extra capacity you need to store large quantities of ingredients and prepared foods. Even with a walk-in, though, you may still need a reach-in unit or two for easy access.

Reach-in Refrigerators: Suitable for Smaller Establishments or as Supplementary Storage
Reach-in refrigerator units are typically the go-to solution for every restaurant—either as the primary storage solution or as supplemental storage for larger businesses. A reach-in unit helps you organize and manage limited space in your restaurant, café, food truck, or other establishment. Reach-ins are accessible, energy-efficient, and cost-effective for most food service business owners. 

Don’t Be Left Out in the Cold: The Importance of Quality Refrigeration Equipment

In the hospitality industry, you very often get what you pay for, and high-quality refrigeration equipment is no exception. Reliable refrigeration isn’t optional; it’s a must-have to ensure your food stays fresh and safe.

It’s a worthy investment to get the peace of mind that comes with a high-quality unit. You’ll maintain consistent temperatures, reduce your risk of spoilage, and avoid spreading foodborne illness (and wrecking your reputation). A high-quality commercial refrigerator offers superior energy efficiency, durability, and long-term performance—adding up to lower costs in the long run.

We know it’s tempting to cut costs with a cheap refrigeration unit. But the risks far outweigh the initial savings. Used and discount alternatives lack the reliability and robust construction of their higher-end counterparts. A refrigeration breakdown can cost you a lot in terms of food spoilage, lost revenue, and repairs. Don’t put your bottom line on the line.

There are many reputable brands out there, and you’ll find them at Eleven36. We have a wide range of reach-in refrigerator sizes and solutions to help you (and your food) keep your cool.

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