Rack ’Em Up Rack And Roll

A rack is a rack is a rack, right? Wrong! As with most things in foodservice life, you need to do your homework before you place that order for your back-of-house food-prep storage racks. Read on for ideas on how to choose the right ones.

For purposes of this story, we’ll focus on storage racks that are designed to store and sometimes transport product held in specifically sized containers—sheet pans, hotel pans, plastic bins and so on. You’ll often see these racks listed as “bun pan racks” or “pan and tray racks. (We’ll save the topic of shelving, which can also store product but lacks the specificity, and generally stays in one place, for another article.)

What Fits The Job?

So how do you go about finding the right rack?

First, do you need a rack? Or do you need a RACK? If you’re only looking at light weights and/or occasional use, maybe all you need is a lighter weight rack assembly, and for space-efficiency, maybe it should be a knock-down model. Or on you on the opposite end of the spectrum? If you’re a high-volume hotel or correctional facility, you’ll probably be looking for heavier-duty construction.

After you determine that, turn your attention to the storage containers that will have to sit in the racks. The size and shape of the containers will dictate the measurements and shapes of the rack.

Once you know you’re looking for, say, sheet-pan storage, the next question is what materials you might consider. For walk-ins or for humid storage areas, aluminum is a standard for strength, light weight and corrosion resistance. For more strength, you might go uptown, and up-budget, with stainless steel. Or to keep the weight and price down, you might look at a polymer. Poly sometimes isn’t as durable, depending on how you actually use it, but it gives you the flexibility of including some antimicrobial treatments embedded in the material.

How Strong Is Strong?

Durability and strength of each rack are determined not just by the construction material, but also by the number/spacing of welds used. If angles and rails are attached with single rivets or welds, for example, figure lighter duty. Such a unit is fine for lightweight products such as buns, but don’t bet on it holding 50-lb. trays of burger for very long.

Total weight capacity is trickier than just adding up the combined capacity of the racks. Total capacity very often comes down to the strength of the casters. An overloaded stem-type caster will start to bend, rendering the rack unstable. A plate caster, by contrast, can handle loads ranging from 125 lbs. to 250 lbs. Speaking of casters, you may also want to consider the noise they make. If you’re delivering meals in a hushed hospital setting, opt for medical-style casters that are quiet and won’t mar floors.Another differentiator is your choice of rack slide.

Slides come in two basic configurations—channel or runner—and each lends itself to different kinds of food-product holding. For heavier or higher-profile food products such as sheet cake, breads, mashed potatoes or gravy, channel racks feature an L-shaped slide that offers the advantage of supporting the bottom of the pan. Otherwise, lighter and shorter-profile loads do fine in runner racks, in which the rim of the pan rests on the slide.  

Finally, as a low-cost “insurance policy,” manufacturers strongly recommend spec’ing tray guards, also known as pan stops. This optional add-on will prevent that crashing sound you sometimes hear when the tray slides all the way through the rack and lands on the floor on the opposite side.


As you probably gathered already, storage racks come in almost all shapes, sizes and materials. Here are a few specialized versions that are either relatively new to the market or worth considering for their utility and design.

  • Fish rack: This one’s designed to hold fresh fish on beds of ice in polycarbonate perforated containers. The melt water drips out the holes, onto a tilted tray under each container, then down to a removable drip pan at the bottom.
  • Folding rack: For operations where space is at a premium, consider a prep cart that actually folds away for storage. This all-aluminum folding sheet pan rack combines strength with space-saving design and is rustproof as well.
  • Heavy-duty dock-to-storage rack: At least one supplier offers an all-welded aluminum rack with 3,000-lb. capacity and big 6″ casters. The unit saves labor and product handling: You load it up at the dock, then wheel it directly back to the walk-in.
  • Lifetime guarantee rack: When purchasing racks for the long haul, lifetime guarantees are worth asking about. One extra-sturdy model with such a guarantee combines a welded frame with square aluminum tubing and non-marking, swivel-plate casters.
  • Lid-locking polycarb food box rack: For operators who pre-prep large amounts of vegetables and store them in polycarbonate food boxes, one supplier makes a rack that actually locks the lids into place. This feature increases food safety and lowers chances for cross-contamination.

Storage racks come in an almost infinite variety of permutations, with mix-and-match features enough to keep you overthinking for days. But these are the basic factors you’d want to include in your decision process.

For more information, go to fermag.com, click on the Buyers Guide, pull up racks, and you’re ready to go. You’ll see a listing of all the current rack makers, complete with links to go straight to their sites. Happy hunting.

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