Sandwich Prep Tables
Foodservice refrigeration manufacturers make a wide variety of equipment that not only stores cold food but keeps food ingredients cold while they’re being assembled for consumption. In general, these refrigerated worktables are called cold food prep tables. But there are several variations on the theme: pizza prep tables, sandwich (or sandwich/salad) prep tables and mega-top sandwich units. Pizza prep tables have a raised, refrigerated well along the back that holds cold bins of ingredients angled toward the worker. The work counter in front of the rail usually is topped with a cutting board, and there’s refrigerated storage underneath. The raised rail often is cooled with its own refrigeration system; it’s separate from the one used to cool the storage cabinet below.
Like raised-rail pizza prep tables, flat-top sandwich prep tables include a refrigerated ingredient rail, but instead of sitting on top of the unit, it’s recessed into the top. Because the food well is recessed into the storage compartment(s) below, however, most—though not all—of these tables use one refrigeration system to cool both the ingredient-bin well and the refrigerated cabinet.
You can use any of these different types of tables to prep sandwiches, salads or pizza because they all can hold a variety of food products at proper temperatures. Sandwich prep tables tend to have narrower cutting boards/work spaces of around 10-15 in. in depth, while pizza prep tables usually have larger ones 17-20-in. deep to accommodate large pizzas. Sandwich prep tables also tend to be designed to hold 1/3-size food pans, while units designed for pizza are set up for 1/6-size pans. But more on that to follow.
For this article, note that we’re focusing here on recessed-ingredient-bin sandwich prep tables, but you should get the general gist of what to look for if you’d prefer a raised-rail pizza prep table.
Sizing It Up
Three primary factors come into play when you’re looking at what size unit to spec. First and foremost is the amount of space you have in your store. The smallest units start at 27- or 28-in. wide, and larger ones grow in about 1-ft. increments up to 90 in. or more. Depth, while not standard, is typically about 31 in., and height is generally around 37 in. (You also can specify ADA-compliant tables that are shorter.)
Second is the number of ingredients you need at the ready. What you’re prepping impacts the size of the unit you choose and the number of bins you’ll need. A 48-in. prep table—probably the most commonly used in the industry—typically holds 12 1/6-size pans. Standard pan grids on most prep tables accommodate full-, 1/3- and 1/6-size pans. You may have to purchase special dividers for 1/2-, 1/4- and 1/9-size pans, although many manufacturers offer them as options on most units. (Pans, by the way, are usually 6-in. deep.) If your sandwich menu comprises more than a dozen ingredients, you can choose to use a wider prep table or smaller pans. Here’s where the third major factor—volume—comes into play.
Say your menu—be it sandwiches, salads or pizza—calls for 12 ingredients, but one or two of those ingredients are used more quickly than any of the others, such as lettuce for salads or turkey breast for sandwiches. You may want a 1/3- or 1/2-size pan for that ingredient, which gives you less space for your other ingredients. Again, your options are to cut the number of ingredient pans, choose smaller ingredient pans or spec a wider prep table.
Another option is to specify a “mega-top” unit offered by most manufacturers. Mega-tops are deeper, letting you add another row of pan inserts, but have the same width as a standard model, giving you 50% more pan capacity. Because these models are deeper than standard models, make sure you have aisle clearance before you buy, especially if the cold storage below is accessed by doors rather than drawers. Some manufacturers even offer dual-sided mega-top tables with work counters on both sides that allow staffers to pull ingredients from a central, mega ingredient well.
Doors Or Drawers
Most models are available with either doors or drawers to access refrigerated storage space under the food pans and workspace. A small, 27-in. unit will have a single door or two drawers. More typical 48-in. models come with either two doors, one door and two drawers or four drawers. Some models even have a small door over the side-mounted compressor chamber, giving you a small amount of additional storage.
Models with doors typically have adjustable slides for rack shelves or to hold sheet pans so you can decide what ingredients to store and in what types of containers. You may choose to store fast-moving ingredients in bulk in larger hotel pans or plastic containers or arrange smaller backup pans of ingredients ready to go into the ingredient spots on top.
Drawers can hold full-size hotel pans but often are designed with a grid layout that mirrors the food pans in the well, so you can store backup pans of ingredients in exactly the same manner. That type of setup makes it easy for employees to grab whatever they need and drop it into the well. This design reduces the amount of total refrigeration space you have for storage, but if convenience is more important to you, the lost space will be negligible.
If you spec drawers, be sure they slide out in a way that lets employees clean the inside of the lower refrigerated cabinet whenever regular cleaning is scheduled. Some makers have designed their drawers as a module that slides completely out of the table to make cleaning easier.
Doors also should be self-closing. Some manufacturers use spring-loaded closing mechanisms. Most use cartridge-type hinges that allow the doors to close under their own weight. The latter are less prone to malfunction, but may be slower to close. Doors also typically have a stop that holds them open for loading or unloading.
The Perfect Build
Base the type of construction you specify on how you plan to use the prep tables and how quickly you plan to depreciate and replace your equipment. All-stainless construction is the most durable—and expensive—type and is especially good when working with high-acid foods, such as the tomatoes often used in salads, sandwiches and pizzas. Typical construction uses stainless on the front, sides and top and galvanized aluminum on the back, bottom and, occasionally, interior of the storage compartment. Some models use molded ABS-plastic interiors and door liners.
Most manufacturers use at least 2 in. of foamed-in-place insulation to meet minimum R-values and help the refrigeration system work more efficiently. However, most models have a simple stainless lid to cover the ingredient pans on top of the unit, which works fine to shield foods and hold food temperatures during slow periods.
If the lid is a simple stainless cover, make sure your employees are trained to move the food pans from their wells at night and put them in the refrigerated storage underneath. If the food is going to sit in the ingredient well overnight, however, you’re going to want to specify an insulated cover. Otherwise, your energy costs will be higher as the unit will have to work that much harder to maintain those proper food temperatures.
Door and drawer seals are critical to refrigeration performance. Magnetic gaskets tend to offer a good seal. However, gaskets are the parts most likely to wear out, so check to see how easily they can be replaced—with or without tools—before you buy. Some manufacturers design doors so that gaskets are a bit recessed, keeping them out of the easy grasp of employees when they open doors/drawers, in essence protecting them from wear, oil and dirt.
Baby, It’s Cold Inside
Most sandwich-prep-table manufacturers offer models with refrigeration systems on the side or along the back of the unit. Back-mounted systems, most common on sandwich prep units, are designed to “breathe” through front-mounted vents on the bottom of the unit as well as from the top and sides if not tightly enclosed, so they tend to work as well and efficiently as side-mounted systems (side-mounted systems are most common on pizza prep tables). Side-mounted systems can be serviced without having to move the entire unit, but because most prep tables are on casters, even back-mounted systems are relatively easy to service if something needs attention.
Virtually all flat-top sandwich prep tables are air-cooled. That is, the refrigeration system chills the air in the cabinet, which is circulated around the food pans, usually with the aid of an evaporator fan. The air is forced through vents and directed both underneath and between the food pans to keep ingredients cold.
Some units also direct a small amount of air over the food. Although critics say airflow tends to dry out food ingredients, makers of these systems say the airflow is too gentle to dry out food and instead creates a barrier against warm, ambient air that would be a more likely culprit.
Sandwich prep tables most often rely on capillary-tube-system refrigeration. Defrost cycles are timed using a digital controller usually set for three times a day. During defrost, the refrigeration system simply turns off to let ice on the evaporator melt naturally. NSF/ANSI 7, “Commercial Refrigerators and Freezers,” with which all refrigerated prep tables must comply, makes sure the box temperature during defrost remains food-safe. However, defrosting during peak hours with constant door openings makes the unit work that much harder to maintain food-safe temperatures, which is why off-peak-hour defrost is recommended.
Also, the most basic capillary-tube systems must be positioned over a floor drain to catch condensate from the evaporator unless they’re equipped with a drain pan. You also can look for models with an “automatic condensate evaporator.” There are two types: an electric heater that evaporates the condensate before it drips and an energy-saving, non-electric evaporator that essentially routes the refrigerant line running between the compressor and condenser through the drain pan. The gas in the line at that point is hot enough to evaporate the condensate.
Interiors and exteriors of these units should be wiped down daily; take special care to clean gaskets and replace them when worn. Condenser coils must be cleaned regularly to keep your units operating as efficiently as possible and reduce strain on the compressor. The units cannot dispel heat from condensers coated with dust and debris. Prices for new refrigerated prep tables start around $1,000—about $2,000 for a 48-in. model—and run up to as much as $25,000 for a large 96-in. unit with bells and whistles.
As always, check manufacturer warranties and service networks before you buy.
What's Liquid Cooling?
You may have heard a lot about glycol prep tables, and now you’re wondering if the extra expense is worth it. A few manufacturers use glycol or another “eutectic liquid” as a cooling medium in their prep tables but almost exclusively in raised-rail models. (Although at least one maker will build custom flat-top sandwich prep tables with glycol cooling.)
Liquid cooling is just one form of “proximity” cooling technology that prep-table makers use to keep food pans cold. The other type is mechanical refrigeration, i.e., actually running refrigeration lines between the food pans, cooling them through conductivity.
There also are two ways in which different manufacturers accomplish liquid cooling. In one case, refrigeration lines are run between the pans just like the mechanical refrigeration cooling technique, except the space between the pan dividers is filled with glycol or another eutectic liquid. The refrigerant lines cool the liquid, which in turn chills the pans on all sides.
The other type of glycol system uses a flat evaporator plate to quickly chill glycol to 33°F or below. The glycol then is pumped through the pan dividers, again chilling the pans all the way around. At least one manufacturer, in fact, uses glycol to cool the entire unit—both pans and the storage below.
These systems are more expensive but much more efficient than air-cooled prep tables. Because prep tables work harder and are less efficient than standard refrigerated storage units (regular reach-ins, etc.), gaining energy savings can be a very good thing.
Refrigerated Sandwich Prep Table Makers
Blue Air Commercial Refrigeration Inc.
Franke Foodservice Systems
Hoshizaki America Inc.
Marlo Mfg. Co. Inc.
Maxx Cold/The Legacy Cos.
Tor-Rey Refrigeration Inc.
Turbo Air Refrigeration
N. Wasserstrom & Sons