Most foodservice operations need some form of food warming equipment to keep the product at a safe temperature until it goes out to the customer, and if you operate a buffet, where large quantities of food are always kept on hand, proper food warming becomes even more vital. Because there are so many options available to you, it's important to know which is the best fit for your business.
Choosing the Right Warming Equipment
Overhead warming equipment can be divided into two basic types, strip warmers and bulb warmers. Which one you pick will largely depend on where and how you plan to use it, but it's important to first understand what these units are intended to do:
- Keeping foods warm over short periods of time.
- Holding items with a fairly small surface area like French fries, chicken, breads, and veggies.
- Long-term holding. They emit a dry heat which can rob your products of the desired taste and texture if left under them for too long.
- Really dense foods like a casserole or a pan full of mashed potatoes. The heat can't penetrate deep enough to effectively maintain safe temperatures, so in these cases a drawer warmer or holding cabinet might better suit your needs.
These units consist of one or two rows of infrared heating elements in a long metal housing, often with reflectors to enhance the heat and direct it down onto the food below. Typically strip warmers are used when you need to generate more intense heat than a bulb warmer, and their frames give them added durability.
Most of these units (with the exception of some free standing models) also require a hard wired electrical connection; they're designed to stay in one place, so you will probably need a qualified electrician to aid with installation.
Front of the House: Lighted strip warmers are perfect for use on buffet lines, producing top heat to keep the product at the right temperature, and light to merchandise it. And because buffet lines come in a wide range of sizes, strip warmers also feature plenty of different lengths to fit most any need.
Back of the House: When mounted above a pickup shelf or staging area, a strip warmer is great for keeping plated food warm until it goes out to the customer. They also work equally well on fry dumps and similar applications.
Metal Sheathed / Calrod:
The most common type of strip warmer and the most economical choice, these are great for applications where you need a bit more heat than a bulb warmer, but not quite the level of output that you get with a ceramic element. Generally they need to be placed closer to the food than a ceramic unit (about 14" to 18", check the manufacturer's recommended mounting height) to provide proper heating.
Shop by Metal Sheathed / Calrod Elements:
These elements generally have a larger surface area, higher wattage, and generate more intense heat than a standard metal sheathed unit. Because of this, ceramic warmers also need to be mounted a bit further above the food (about 18" to 24", check the manufacturer's recommended mounting height).
Shop by Ceramic Elements:
Operating temperature is usually managed by either a toggle (on/off) switch or an infinite (variable temperature) control. These come in several configurations:
Side Mounted Controls:
Since the control box is mounted on the side of the unit or built into the housing, installation is usually easier than a remote model. However, the control box is also more exposed to the warmer's heat, and can experience shorter product life.
Shop by Side Mounted Controls:
This configuration allows the user to place the control box wherever he/she desires, though this requires more involved installation than on a side mounted unit. However, the controls are located further from the main heat source and generally last longer.
Shop by Remote Controls:
Accessories / Mounting Options:
Not every restaurant will use a strip warmer in the same way, and many manufacturers offer a number of accessories to give you more versatility:
Typically, mounting brackets are used for mounting on an overshelf, above a food pickup area. Some units come with these while others are sold separately, so make sure to verify before purchasing.
When a warmer can't be mounted flush against another surface, support chains let you hang it from the ceiling.
Some warmers can be turned into freestanding units with a set of compatible legs. We also offer units that come with a stand already included, great for catering services that need a mobile strip warmer they can take to various functions.
High Wattage Units:
Drafty and heavily air-conditioned areas are not ideal for strip warmer installation, but some high wattage units can help to offset the faster heat loss that comes with these conditions, if they must be used in such a location. These units usually come with ceramic elements.
Bulb warmers, or heat lamps, are the most economical choice in overhead heating and are used primarily in merchandising applications because in addition to warming, they produce light to present the product. The tradeoff is that bulb warmers generate less heat compared to strip units and can only cover a small area effectively, but for something like a carving station where the product just needs a little boost to keep it at a proper temperature until it's gone, this works just fine.
One other advantage of food service heat lamps is that most of them can be plugged into a standard outlet, unlike strip warmers. This makes it easy to quickly change up a display area, or to move the warmer as needed.
Front of the House: A food heat lamp can be used in a wide range of applications, from carving stations to buffet lines. Free standing units are perfect for catering operations, as you can easily transport them from place to place, while lighted display stations let you hold warm bags of French fries and other sides at concession stands and carnivals.Back of the House: Generally speaking, food heating lamps are not as common back of the house, as strip warmers provide more durability, greater coverage, and higher heat intensity. However, they can still be used for holding small portion items, and food like a pan of French fries or chicken.
One point to keep in mind about bulb warmers is that the bulbs can break. Teflon-coated, shatter-resistant bulbs are a good way to combat this (and many health code inspectors will only accept this kind), as they don’t allow shards to fall all over the food when broken. We offer coated heat lamp bulbs in both red and clear options depending on your preference.
There are several different ways to mount your bulb warmer:
Clamp On / Screw On:
Some bulb warmers can be mounted to a table or countertop using a clamp or screws. This is great if you want to create your own customized display area or carving station, and we also offer several models that come with a base included.
These types of warmers come mounted on a stand to give stability. Often, the stand is designed so that you can slide a pan of food right under the bulb.
Suspended units are generally used on buffet lines and self-serve areas in cafeterias and banquet halls. "Suspension bar" models feature multiple bulbs and cover a longer area, but like strip warmers, they usually need to be hard wired at installation.