Commercial Countertop Food Warmers Buying Guide

Commercial Countertop Food Warmers Buying Guide

In a restaurant setting, it’s impossible to cook every piece of food to order. Even the fussiest of tweezer-wielding chefs prepares at least some components of a dish long before a guest sets foot in the dining room. But whether it is a hearty soup, a delicate sauce or a quick-serve pizza, every morsel must be kept at the temperature that will best preserve its flavours and textures—and, more importantly, prevent food-borne illnesses. 

What’s key is avoiding the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) danger zone. These are the temperatures between 41°F and 135°F (5°C and 57°C) where harmful bacteria grow, and especially between 70°F and 125°F (21°C and 52°C), where pathogens multiply most rapidly.

Health inspectors keep a close and wary eye out for foods kept for any length of time at these temperatures, and anyone who runs a food service business should do the same. No one wants to serve something that could lead to illness or even death. 

This is where commercial food warmers come into play. These are designed to keep foods above the HACCP and at the same time preserve all the things that make it delicious. But not all warmers are created equal. Here’s what you need to know before you go shopping. 

Colourful soup kettles on a countertop

Types of commercial countertop warmers explained

There are two different types of equipment that keep food at temperature—food warmers and rethermalizers—which use two different types of heat (wet or dry) and are controlled by either a thermostat or rheostat. 

So which is the best for your kitchen? It depends on what you need. 

Food Warmers vs Rethermalizers

Food warmers keep food warm.  Meaning prepared, hot food can be transferred to a food warmer and kept at a consistent temperature. However, warmers are not capable of heating up cold food safely.

Commercial countertop rethermalizers, on the other hand, can heat chilled or frozen foods right up through the danger zone to a safe holding temperature. All rethermalizers can also be used a food warmers. Rethermalizers are time savers in busy kitchens, allowing operators to prepare food in bulk (and even freeze) drop it in the rethermalizer and the unit will thaw and heat keeping staff available for other tasks.

Wet vs Dry Heat

Most countertop food warmers use indirect wet heat (also known as a water bath or bain marie) and come in a variety of shapes and sizes from round soup inserts to fractional-sized rectangular pans. This method is ideal for any item where retaining moisture is important.

But if you’re serving French fries or taquitos, it’s better to use a dry heat, which will preserve their crisp texture. Heat lamps are a classic source of dry heat, but induction, which creates heat through oscillating magnetic fields, is more energy-efficient and growing in popularity. 

Thermostat vs Rheostat Controls

Thermostatic systems are similar to home heating systems—set the temperature and the system automatically corrects to keep food at that temperature. A rheostat control is, essentially, a manual control. Set the dial and the warmer stays at that temperature, which means you need to adjust as needed to avoid scorching the food. 

Each system has its place in a commercial food service business. Rethermalizers, for instance, are ideal for caterers, allowing them to prepare a dish a day ahead and reheat it quickly for an event. Meanwhile, countertop warmers save space and time, allowing cooks to prepare other foods and plate dishes quickly. And different warmers have their uses in front or back of house. 

Countertop food warmers for back of house 

Out of sight of guests, things don’t have to be pretty, but they do need to be functional. Here are some of the best warming options for the kitchen. 

Food Warmers

These compact, lightweight and transportable units are convenient and versatile for food trucks, caterers and fast-casual restaurants. Countertop food warmers are made to fit full-size or fractional pans

Round food warmers, also known as soup warmers or soup kettles, these are ideal for keeping chowders, chilis or melted cheese warm. They will hold food at a safe warming temperature for several hours using removable round inserts.

Food specific warmers are also available like one of keeping syrup warm for a busy breakfast place.

Commercial Food Warmers

Rethermalizers

These come in both moist heat and induction varieties, and can quickly bring cold food items up to safe serving temperatures without them lingering too long in the danger zone. Remember all rethermalizers can also be used as food warmers.

Rethermalizers are available in rectangular and round shapes and also as soup kettles.

Countertop Rethermalizers

Heat Lamps 

These straddle the boundary between back and front of house. Heat lamps are designed for keeping food warm for short periods of time—such as the gap between a cook placing it on the pass and a server swinging by to pick it up. They use incandescent bulbs to keep food warm from above.

Food heat lamps

Strip Heaters

Strip heaters are also designed to keep food warm for short periods of time.  They use an element wrapped within a heat reflector to evenly heat food from above over a holding area. 

Strip heaters for food

Drawer Warmers

Countertop drawer warmers allow kitchens to keep several food types warm at varying temperatures, without concerns about flavour transfer. Some versions are specialty in nature - designed specifically for hot dog buns for example. Freestanding drawers can be stacked on countertop in configurations that suit your operation. 

Bun warming drawer

Countertop food warmers for front of house 

These front-of-house food warmers not only keep food at temperature, they provide a means of showcasing it.

Countertop Food Warmers

These compact, lightweight and transportable units are convenient and versatile for food trucks, caterers and fast-casual restaurants. Countertop food warmers are made to fit full-size or fractional pans and sometimes round inserts, and most require water to provide gentle, even heat. 

Warming Shelves

These thermostatically controlled heated shelves are available in rectangular and round shapes, a variety of sizes, and materials such as metal, stone or glass. They are designed for wrapped items like burgers and hot dogs, and are ideal for concession stands, convenience stores and food halls. 

Warming shelves

Hot Food Display Cases

These heated countertop merchandising units display food like pizza, samosas, pretzels and the like. Pass-through units allow customers to serve themselves, although these days you’re more likely to see cabinets with fixed glass across the front to prevent food contamination. They are ideal for self-service convenience areas. 

Hot display cases

Other considerations when purchasing a countertop food warmer

Once you’ve planned for what kind of food you’re serving, and where the warmer is going to be, there are other things you’ll want to consider as well. 

Get out the measuring tape. Countertop warmers are available in various sizes, and you will want the size that best fits your needs and the space it’s going into. When looking at space also think about power; is there power within a cord length?  Can the electrical panel handle the additional load?

Configuration of the units should also be considered.  Left or right access, how far back on the counter are the units for staff to be able to reach. 

What kind of capacity do you require? 

This is, perhaps, the most important factor to consider with food warmers. How much food do you need to keep warm? Will you be using the warmer for just one item or for different ones at different times of day?

Soup kettles can range from four to 22 litres, while countertop warmers are usually classified by the size and number of pans they hold. Rethermalizers and countertop warmers can fit one, two, or more heating pans or a combination of different size pans and insets. Pan depths also vary, from ¾ inch to eight inches or more. 

Written by Joanne Sasvari 

Shop our entire collection of Food Warmers, Rethermalizers, Soup Kettles, Heat Lamps and Heat Strips

Soup Rethermalizers lined up on counter