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How to Choose a Bar Fridge That’ll Have Your Back

A Backbar X (foreground) and Backbar (background) at Casa Cibo, Gold Coast
A Backbar X (foreground) and Backbar (background) at Casa Cibo, Gold Coast

The right backbar fridge can be a powerhouse investment for bar entrepreneurs that your frontline staff will appreciate. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking every backbar fridge is the same. There’s plenty of choice out there in the marketplace but it often doesn’t look that way. And without an emphasis on food safety – because they’ll simply be used to present bottled beverages – the humble bar fridge is often seen as an easy, low risk purchase.

However, there can actually be vast differences between models and brands, and some risk involved when you consider how much of your business actually relies on having a reliable fridge on the frontline working for your bar staff. If beverage sales and satisfied customers are important to you, you’ll want to make sure you get a bar fridge that has your back.

Here are some things to consider.

Reliability

What would it be like working the bar on a day when you can only serve warm beer? It’s a horrible thought, but that’s what you need to think about when buying a bar fridge.

You’ll be waiting for parts and repair support while you suffer reduced business, and that’s often a timeframe so damaging that bar owners and managers feel they have no choice but to immediately go out and source a quick, cheap replacement.

The problem in that scenario is that it increases the likelihood of repeating a cost cycle of replacement every few years or so.

Look for bar fridges that offer:

  • Extensive long-term warranty and support backed by a network of technicians.
  • Designed cooling consistency – bar fridges that can’t maintain a consistent temperature create more condensation on the glass, which isn’t a good look.
A Backbar X at Hellenika, Gold Coast
A Backbar X at Hellenika, Gold Coast

Economy

Perhaps the widest difference between bar fridge models and brands is the power economy. That’s because bar fridges are often thought of as so inconsequential (at least in power terms) as to not have a significant impact on a business’s operational costs, so the market hasn’t necessarily demanded great economy from its manufacturers.

But – no pun intended - that assumption doesn’t hold water, especially in Australia where the country’s complex power distribution market is seeing electricity prices multiply every few years. This is putting increasing pressure on every cooling asset in a business to perform economically, no matter how small they are.

There are plenty of cheap imported bar fridges available out there, but few of them are designed to cope with the strains of Australian heat with any consideration of power economy. That’s why you’ll come across many product listings that don’t even reference the energy costs. But it’s information worth digging for because. Say the fridge costs you $300 to run annually today. In just a few years, and long before the expected life of the machine comes to an end, that yearly cost could be $800 or even $1200 – just for a small bar fridge.

If you put a bar fridge’s sticker price in that context, it’s really easy to see that whatever you save upfront on a low sticker price you give to the power company many times over.

Look for bar fridges that offer:

  • An upfront kWh/24 hrs power consumption figure. If the information is hard to find or unknown, that’s an indicator that the fridge hasn’t been designed with efficiency in mind.
Backbars at Scarborough Beach Bar, WA
Backbars at Scarborough Beach Bar, WA

Usability

As far as using a bar fridge goes, you simply have to open the door and reach in, right? Wrong. Like any commercial fridge, bar fridges need to be regularly cleaned and maintained to make sure they remain reliable and perform as expected. Especially with bar fridges as they are normally placed low to the ground where dust and detritus can be sucked into the vents from the floor.

But bar fridges are also typically fixed in place against a wall or the underside of a counter, meaning they need to be designed for easy access to the refrigeration system from the front. If you can’t easily clean or maintain your fridge, you’re looking at an asset with a shorter lifespan than expected.

Your fridge also needs to clearly display the fridge temperature in low-light conditions, and that’s not just because many bars have low ambient lighting. Bar fridges, like other types of display fridges, have their doors opened more frequently than storage fridges in the back of house. This more intense use places greater strain on the refrigeration unit, which means there’s more chance of temperatures fluctuating and, ultimately, your business serving luke-warm drinks.

Look for bar fridges that offer:

  • Easy access to the refrigeration unit from the front, for example vents and louvres which can be removed to clean condenser coils.
  • Clear temperature displays you can see in low-light conditions.
A Backbar X at The Roosevelt Lounge, Gold Coast
A Backbar X at The Roosevelt Lounge, Gold Coast

Presentation

At the end of the day a bar fridge is a merchandiser. It needs to effectively display the drinks for sale, just with the added challenge of doing it with your staff frequently interrupting the line of sight between the customer and the products.

Add in the low-light conditions of most bars and pubs, and your average bar fridge has quite a challenge displaying drinks properly.

For that reason, lighting effectiveness and options (such as colour changes) are essential ingredients, as is quality shelving design.

The space in a bar fridge needs to be flexible enough to incorporate different types of bottle shapes and sizes, and be designed in such a way to maximize visible display space. That means having a design that gives less space over to the refrigeration unit compared to shelving while using door frames that obscure fewer product.

Then there’s sound. Not a problem for a loud club, but if your front of house space needs to remain serene look for fridges that use low-noise fans.

But on top of that the fridge just needs to look good! A contemporary, streamlined frontage goes a long way in the modern bar setting, especially when the manufacturer can provide plenty of door, handle and finish options.

Look for bar fridges that offer:

  • More display real estate
  • Smaller refrigeration units
  • Thinner door frames
  • Quiet fans
  • Contemporary style cues – sleek design and finish options
A custom remote solid door bar fridge, Spirit of the Wild, Tasmania
A custom remote solid door bar fridge, Spirit of the Wild, Tasmania

Customisation

As well as the above, keep in mind that a good bar fridge should be easily customisable. Bar fridges are one of the most frequently customised types of commercial fridges out there because they are typically used in smaller spaces and more challenging layouts compared to most other types of fridges.

If customising the fridge is on the cards, choose a manufacturer with expertise in this area rather than having a third-party customise the fridge and void the warranty.

Colour and finish choices are important, but you may also want to consider things like tropical glass doors to minimise condensation, plinths that raise the fridge and stop spills and other things getting underneath, or pull-through doors so you can re-stock the fridge from behind.

Then there’s really practical small details you may be able to change, like punched stainless steel shelves instead of wire racks to provide a completely level and stable surface to display bottles on.

But one of the biggest customisations for bar fridges is also one of the most common. Remotely placing the refrigeration unit away from the display cabinet is very popular because it holds a number of great advantages. For one, it makes the fridge quieter because the moving parts can placed away from customers in the front of house area. However, it also allows you to power multiple fridges using one refrigeration unit, saving you lots on your power bill.

At the end of the day, there are more options out there than you think. It’s just important to gain expert advice from a manufacturer or an accredited hospitality consultant before you dive in. Never assume that all bar fridges are the same – because they’re not.

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