One of the most important areas of the restaurant is the walk in cooler. It should be considered the heart of the kitchen since it’s the main location for cooling and storing food. If things go wrong here, they can affect every part of the operation. If it does not cool food properly, the restaurant will face a crisis management situation—an imminent health hazard. It’s important to have strict policies on organization, food storage, temperature control, labeling, and cleaning for every walk in cooler. If policies are not in place and followed daily, food quality suffers, and the chance of foodborne illness increases.
Follow this guide to make sure your restaurant walk in cooler is managed and maintained properly.
Verifying and recording temperatures in a restaurant walk in cooler is very important. This should be done in two ways: probing TCS food (food that requires time/temperature control to prevent the growth of microorganisms) and monitoring ambient (or air) temperatures. Multiple times a day, product should be checked with a probe thermometer and recorded on a temperature data log. All food in the walk in cooler should have an internal temperature of 41ºF or below. There are many systems available to do this electronically to avoid all the paperwork but using a paper log sheet is acceptable. The ambient temperature should also be checked and recorded. This can be easily done by visually checking the internal thermometer but again can be done automatically with a temperature-monitoring system. These systems are very effective and will send an email or text if the temperature is out of the required range. The ambient temperature of a walk in cooler should be 35ºF to 38ºF.
Having a food storage plan is essential. The most important part is raw meat storage. Raw meats should be stored according to the appropriate hierarchy to ensure there is no cross-contamination of ready-to-eat foods and raw meats. The best way to ensure this happens is to have different storage racks for each different raw meat type. So, raw fish, beef, pork, and chicken have their own rack. If you don’t have a big enough walk in cooler for this, store your raw meats this way, from bottom to top: raw chicken, raw beef/pork, raw fish, and ready-to-eat foods above all raw meat product. Also, make sure not to store any food on the floor.
All prepared food that is stored in the walk in should be labeled. Each label should have the product name and the date it was prepared. It’s also good practice to label produce and other raw products to make sure it’s rotated properly. First in, first out is always good practice. The best way to make sure this happens is by posting dates on the product and having a staff member rotate and organize the product to make sure the oldest is in the front, followed by fresher product in the back. Keep in mind that any prepared TCS product is good for only seven days and should be discarded if it exceeds this time frame.
Every area of the walk in cooler should be cleaned and sanitized regularly to prevent the growth of mold or accumulation of debris that can affect the safety and quality of stored food. Cleaning schedules should be created to address the cleaning of shelves, storage containers, condenser fan covers and coils, floors, walls, and ceilings.
Always keep your walk in cooler organized. Have designated storage areas for produce, raw meats, prepared foods, and cooling. Any cooling or TCS product should be stored in the coldest area of the walk-in cooler and any non-TCS product such as raw produce in the warmer area. By properly organizing your walk in cooler, you can make it easier for product ordering, rotation, temperature control, contamination prevention, and quality improvement.
Restaurant walk in coolers also need regular maintenance. The condenser box should be checked by an equipment specialist, and coils cleaned with a brush and Shop Vac to make sure it can work at the optimum level. Floors, walls, and ceilings should be cleaned and maintained to prevent rust damage.
A properly maintained walk in cooler will hold temperatures, limit mold growth, and help prevent the contamination of food. The walk in cooler is the most important piece of equipment of any restaurant operation. Use the above guidelines to implement a food safety plan to limit food safety challenges. If the walk in cooler is organized correctly, maintained, and cleaned, it can ensure top quality and safety of all the food a restaurant serves. In turn, this will benefit the brand and protect customers.
For more information, check out the Restaurant Walk In Cooler Food Safety video, where you can get firsthand information and tips from me on better managing your walk in cooler.