What looks best — leopard print or polka dots?’ It’s the sort of question you might expect to hear in the swimwear section of a clothing retailer or the home furnishings aisle of a department store. But don’t be surprised if something similar is being said between chefs in commercial kitchens now that operators are beginning to pay greater attention to the visual appearance of their equipment.
Refrigeration cabinets have gone from being innocuous-looking stainless steel boxes in the corner of kitchens to statement items that make customers look twice. Manufacturers have spotted that operators are increasingly keen to ‘pimp their fridges’ and they are only too happy to oblige.
“There is a growing appetite for this sort of product,” says Scott Jones, sales and key account director at True Manufacturing. “Everybody wants something to fit their space — so we’re working to offer that solution in addition to the volume we specialise in. We can offer customisation and vinyl wrapping, which we call the ‘decoral’ process. Alternatively, we can offer powder coating for a more robust solid colour. We have an in-house graphics team to support clients with bespoke solutions.”
Williams, too, has nailed its colours to the customisation mast. The launch of its ‘Chameleon’ range earlier this year is a reaction to the growing number of customers that are looking at ways to differentiate themselves and refresh their brands through the use of colour or unique designs.
Making use of food-safe vinyl wrapping, Williams can provide completely bespoke designs, explains marketing manager Martin Laws. “It allows operators to personalise their refrigeration. There are virtually no limits to what Chameleon can achieve; it can be used to cover just about any Williams model with any colour or pattern and can even be textured to create a truly realistic finish.”
Laws insists the best thing about such a service is that the options are “almost limitless”, effectively giving foodservice operators a blank canvas when it comes to exterior refrigeration design.
Just down the road from Williams in Norfolk, Precision Refrigeration is also tapping into the customisation trend. It can now paint a fridge’s finish to match a site’s décor if the RAL number is supplied, and it also offers a full range of coloured and textured metal finishes. And for operators that want to go one step further, it is even possible to choose units clad in real wood. That applies to bottle coolers too, should the “warm, rustic designer look” need to be achieved.
Precision was one of the first companies to spot an interest in unconventional-looking fridges. Two years ago it introduced its ‘Retro Refrigeration’, which takes inspiration from large, heavy duty fridges of the fifties but features all the energy-saving features of a modern-day system. “It makes a statement, with heavy-duty hinges and large handles adding to the retro feel. It’s a revolutionary concept in refrigeration. There’s nothing else quite like it,” insists managing director Nick Williams.
The customisation trend is also observed by suppliers on the counter side of the business. Kurran Gadhvi, marketing manager at Valera, has noted a “major” shift away from standard modular counters, especially in London.
“We have had a record-breaking summer due to the bespoke counter side of our business. Straight glass, bespoke decors including vinyl, lacquered and industrial-style finishes are the best sellers with work surfaces at the top of the counter to match.”
Operators can now personalise their refrigeration. There are virtually no limits to what can be achieved”
In developing the ability to produce customised designs, manufacturers have either adopted specialist techniques or outsourced it to those with the requisite skills. Williams employs graphic designers to create its customers’ vision and, before the manufacturing process takes place, issues a 3D rendered image of how the product will look. “We ensure that any secondary coat/wrap does not affect the performance of the appliance and that the quality of the finish is what the customer would expect from a market leader,” explains Laws.
Williams claims to have supplied Chameleon to a range of customers so far, including brewery groups, casual dining chains and single-operator caterers. “All of these have placed our products front-of-house so their customers are attracted to either colour or design, as opposed to stainless steel,” he says.
As far as True Manufacturing is concerned, the growth in customised designs is being driven by operators in search of a high-end, front-of-house look. One of its more recent success stories was a bespoke design for a London-based champagne bar.
With regards to production, painted units are sent to an external paint shop but different metal finishes are produced in the same factory as the standard stainless steel models. “We tend to be led by the customer’s interior designer on colour; we aim to supply exactly what the customer wants,” says Jones.
Any sort of bespoke manufacturing typically brings with it a higher capital purchase cost and with refrigeration design this largely comes down to the complexity of the graphic and the final finish. Fancier textured, patterned and coloured Rimex steel finishes are likely to cost several hundred pounds more than a basic standard finish, for instance.
As a rule, you can probably expect to see an extra 20% on the cost of a customised design, suggests Valera’s Gadhvi, although he insists this isn’t putting customers off. “There has been a 50% increase in sales of bespoke counters — many of our retail and design/project distributors have embraced these bespoke counters and worked with us with colourful designs.”
A number of major refrigeration manufacturers operating in the UK haven’t yet ventured into bespoke designs and it remains to be seen whether they will do, particularly given the niche aspect of the market.
IMC has had some success with individual customers, but commercial manager Gary Barnabas says it is never going to be its core business due to the nature of the market.
“The uptake has been primarily from high-end clients wishing to create an individual look, rather than major chains,” he argues. “I still believe this is more of a short-term trend. A good bottle cooler is an investment and should last many years. Furthermore, by completely wrapping the unit you are restricting any future changes rather than creating a solution that can be adapted or added to. As materials and coatings develop I believe that this, rather than the wrapping route, will prevail. Wrappings are easily damaged and have a short life whereas offering alternative base materials gives the option to change as the bar adapts and updates.”
It’s a revolutionary concept in refrigeration. There’s nothing else quite like it”
Barnabas does note, however, that IMC has registered a significant increase in demand for more substantial cladding of bottle coolers. “Wood and bespoke material doors that complement the bar area are far more popular and offer a more integrated solution,” he says.
While it might never be a burgeoning market, the pressure on restaurant operators and caterers to stand out from the crowd almost certainly means that demand for more colourful refrigeration isn’t going to subside.
As far as True’s Jones is concerned, the future will be defined by just how far customers want to take things. “Easy-to-clean, durable stainless steel will always be popular in kitchens behind the scenes, but these bespoke front-of-house solutions are certainly increasing in demand and popularity as designers come up with more ideas to customise their refrigeration.”
It falls to operators to decide just how much they want to stand out.