Top 3 Ways to Save on Inventory Costs and Increase Food Safety with Walk-In Coolers

28-35% of a quick serve restaurant’s (QSR) budget is spent on ingredients. To promote profitability, it is important that QSRs take steps to protect this inventory. Proper storage of refrigerated and frozen stock is key for managing inventory. The three most common factors that operators consider when planning walk-in storage are: the placement of bins and shelving within a walk-in unit, the organization of ingredients based on ingredient characteristics, and method of inventory management.

A properly organized walk-in cooler can prolong the shelf life of perishable goods, and better preserve food quality over time. Occurrences of food spoilage can be greatly reduced when items are stored correctly. In addition to reducing losses due to expiration, an effective walk-in cooler strategy reduces the risk of foodborne illness to customers. Foodborne illness risks can occur when poor air flow or cooler malfunctions prevent even cooling, or when cross contamination introduces new bacteria to a set of ingredients. Thorough and consistent labeling ensures that ingredients with the nearest expiration dates are easily identifiable. This increases the chance that all ingredients will be used before their expiration date, and in the event that something does expire, the chance of it being served to customers is minimal. 

In this blog we discuss tips for how to organize a restaurant walk-in freezer or refrigerator, decreasing the risk of cross contamination within coolers, implementing a successful first-in, first-out inventory management system, and incorporating a remote temperature monitoring system. 

Organize your Walk-In Cooler with these Food Safety Guidelines

Proper walk-in organization can protect food from a number of food safety hazards including over or under cooling, pests, and contamination from spills or leaks. 

Food may experience uneven cooling if there is inadequate airflow within the cold storage area. As a result, foods may take longer to cool than intended, creating an increased risk of foodborne illness to consumers. The temperature “danger zone” for high bacteria growth in perishable foods is considered to be between 41° – 135° Fahrenheit. Time spent in this zone should be minimized. The FDA Food Code recommends a two-stage cooling process. First, food must be cooled from 135° to 70° Fahrenheit within two hours or less. In the second stage, food must be cooled from 70°  to 40° Fahrenheit within four hours or less. Total cooling should not exceed six hours, or else food should be considered unsafe and discarded. When crowding prevents proper air circulation, Some foods may take too long to complete the first stage of the cooling process, resulting in high bacteria growth. On the other hand, foods crowded too close to the freezers cooling vents are at a higher risk for freezer burn, which occurs as frozen foods lose moisture over time. Over-cooling results in discoloration and quality degradation. Follow this guide to determine if your food is still safe to serve: 5 Food Safety Tips and Red Flags

To avoid inventory loss from inconsistent air flow, items should be spaced so that air can move freely between all boxes and shelving units. A good rule of thumb is to leave three inches of space between items. Ensure that space is also left between shelving units and cooler walls. Strategic spacing of walk-in cooler and freezer items allows for proper air flow and ensures even distribution of cool air.

Additionally, stacking food on cooler floors puts items at a greater risk of being contaminated by pests, leaks, and other ingredients that have dropped or spilled. For this reason, the lowest food storage rack should be at least six inches off the ground. In addition to promoting air flow, this space allows spills to be cleaned quickly, without contaminating other foods, or molding in hard to reach places. In all areas of a restaurant including storage areas for shelf stable ingredients, storing food on the floor is considered a health code violation. The risk increases in cooler units where many perishable ingredients are either liquid or contain juices. 

Prevent Cross Contamination in your Walk-in Fridge or Freezer

Cross contamination poses another great risk for bacterial overgrowth and foodborne illness. Cross contamination can occur in several scenarios: between two ingredients of different varieties, between unwashed and washed ingredients, or between spoiled and fresh ingredients. As a first step, foods that will not be cooked, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, should be separated from items that require cooking before eating, such as poultry and other meats. Any bacteria that would be eliminated from the poultry or other raw meats during the cooking process poses a risk to consumers of the “serve as is” food, which will not be heat treated. 

American Cooler Technologies recommends that raw animal products always be stored on a lower rack than produce. This removes the possibility of liquid from raw meat containers leaking onto fresh goods. Further, uncooked meats should be arranged according to cooking temperature, with items that will be cooked at the highest temperature on the lowest shelf. This ensures that any bacterial contamination that occurs between raw meats will be cooked off.

To further avoid contamination of foods that will be served fresh, unwashed produce should not be stored in the same containers as washed fruits and vegetables. Unwashed produce may contain harmful bacteria that was present in the soil it was harvested from, or residual pesticides applied in the field. These contaminants can be easily transferred. In the event that fresh produce is not used before it begins rotting, any fresh produce suspected to have gone bad should be discarded. As produce goes bad, it produces bacteria and mold at a high rate. Given time, mold spores tend to affect adjoining produce as well, resulting in greater inventory loss. Check produce bins regularly, and use inventory management software to avoid over-ordering fresh produce.

Lastly, it is critical for QSR employees to use tools such as opening and closing checklists to prevent cross contamination by tracking whether or not food has been stored according to restaurant guidelines. 

Use Food Date Labels to Enforce a “First in First Out” Inventory Management Strategy

To prevent ingredient expiration, restaurants most often default to the first in first out (FIFO) inventory management method. FIFO prioritizes using the earliest purchased ingredients with the nearest expiration dates first. This is intended to reduce inventory loss of spoiled ingredients, and save money. A restaurant manager can implement this method by training employees to stock new items at the back of the storage shelves, and shift older items towards the front. This way, the ingredients closer to expiration will be the most easily accessible, and will be used first. This act is known as stock rotation. 

However, with many ingredients that get used at different rates and have varying shelf lives, some goods are lost in the shuffle and can be pushed aside and forgotten. One solution is to orient packaging so that expiration dates are facing outward. Or, clearly mark each package with the date the goods were received. This can be done manually or by using a food label printer equipped with food labeling software. “Use first” stickers placed on food packages or storage bins are another common solution for identifying the goods closest to expiration.

Clearly labeling inventory is important because looks of freshness can be deceiving for plenty of common restaurant items. For example, eggs may look fresh after they have gone bad. Strict labeling protocol is essential for upholding FIFO, because employees must know when a good was received, and its expiration date to determine the freshness of an ingredient compared to the rest of the stock. Additionally, extending labels to include ingredient names and possible allergens can help employees avoid mistakes that may lead to food waste or allergic reactions among customers. Include labeling protocol in your daily shift management checklist, and add an example label in each food storage area.

Reduce Restaurant Inventory Loss and Promote Food Safety

Walk-in fridges and freezers protect a restaurant’s most valuable resources. Making slight adjustments to the organization of your walk-in cooler  can benefit restaurant profitability by reducing inventory loss. Careful structuring of your restaurant’s fridges and freezers can also benefit consumers by reducing the risk of foodborne illness. Proper walk-in organization decreases the risk of cross contamination within coolers, and promotes an efficient first-in, first-out inventory management system. However, the success of these tips is dependent on a reliable walk-in fridge or freezer. It is easy to implement a new walk-in cooler temperature monitoring system for your store, tools such as Squadle’s remote temperature monitoring platform are easy to implement and have a quick payback. With this program, foodservice operators are able to check the internal temperatures of walk-in coolers remotely, and receive alerts if the temperature has experienced a sudden or unsafe shift. These digital temperature logs are maintained to show changes in fridge/freezer health over time, and predict cooler failure before it threatens food inventory.