Bye Bye Cafeteria --Hello Restaurant-Style Dining

Food cooked to order before your eyes and served with a smile. Tables overflowing with pleasing china and silverware. Help-yourself buffets without a scrap of stainless steel in sight. If you think this sounds like a nice new restaurant in your town or even a meal back at Mom’s, think again. Today’s colleges are retooling their cafeterias and dining halls, and the trend looks less institutional and more “Martha Stewart.”

While Stewart would certainly deem the shift “a good thing,” it is perhaps her prevalence in our everyday life that exemplifies this transformation in thinking. “Students today are the most savvy, refined consumers I have seen,” says James Korner, president of the National Association of College & University Food Services and executive director of University Services at Seattle Pacific University in Washington. Not only are their palates more sophisticated, they have more expendable income and seemingly unlimited food choices around campus.

Of course, on-site dining halls want those customers and that income. But the old, very un-Martha-Stewart-model of tired-looking food wilting away on ugly steam tables just doesn't compete. “We realized that we were either going to stay behind the food trends or catch up quickly,” says Korner. They decided to catch up, as did the food services unit at Harvard. While the two schools started and finished with different models, they both share the same fresh, new attitude.

Welcome Home

Harvard’s housing models itself after the small living pods found at England’s Oxford University. So, instead of one or two dining halls, they had a whopping 12 kitchens to take on when they decided to remodel their food services. Even though the job was huge, they stuck to their original idea. “We wanted to create an open kitchen that feels more like living in a big house than a dorm,” says Lenny Condenzio, associate director of design development, renovation and compliance for Harvard University Dining Services.

Students can help themselves from large refrigerators, heat items in microwaves, graze at the attractive salad bar or choose the hot item of the meal. If nothing whets his or her appetite, the student can ask the cook, who is right there, if he or she can fix something special. “Having the cooks up front takes the hassle out of asking for a custom order,” says Condenzio. “Lots of students are uncomfortable walking into the kitchen to make a request.”

To allow all 12 small dining halls this freedom, Condenzio and his team created a large central kitchen called “culinary support” that prepares all of the major entrees. Using various chilling technologies, the food is then sent to the 12 smaller kitchens. This “mise en place” (French for “everything in its place,” a cooking term that implies having all the necessary ingredients ready and at hand) frees up the cooks, who no longer have to worry about prepping the next meal. “We consider the meal ‘Show Time,’” explains Condenzio. “So all the props and tools are ready to go.”

Out to Lunch

While Seattle Pacific University had only one kitchen to remodel, the results look nothing like a typical university dining hall. “We created an open restaurant atmosphere,” says Korner. “Students see pizzas coming out of the ovens, fresh vegetables stir-frying and custom sandwiches being built.”

The school’s restaurant-style dining hall goes beyond the open kitchen concept. Seattle Pacific invested in new china, serving vessels and cutlery otherwise known as “small ware.” The kitchen staff boasts bright new uniforms. Even the dining area has been revamped.

Instead of one large room filled with the same tables and chairs, the dining hall has been broken into four different zones. One zone features single stools looking out over the windows, another has the same high stools grouped around high tables, the third zone features standard-height round tables that seat eight and the last is a living-room-like area centered around a large fireplace.

“You can’t expect a student to eat three meals in the same place every day for very long no matter how fantastic or inexpensive the food is,” explains Korner. Four different seating choices shake up the mix and keep students coming back.

Is Your School Next?

If these examples make you hungry for more, both Condenzio and Korner offer some advice on how to turn your plain vanilla dining hall into something with a bit more spice.

Study the menu. Both directors looked around at what other schools did in their dining halls and fused the findings into something that works for their institutions.

“We looked at several schools, poured over food trade journals and even took students out to restaurants to get their input,” says Korner. “The whole process took a few years.”

Check the prices. The cost for this kind of renovation is not trivial. Condenzio would not offer a price for his school’s renovation but Korner revealed that Seattle Pacific spent upward of $4 million. “Actually creating the open kitchen didn’t cost that much,” he says. “A fryer is a fryer no matter where you put it.” He says that most of the cost went into the eating area redesign and the small ware upgrades. “But the cost is worth it. No one would be happy with just doing 80 percent of the job.”

Special orders don’t upset us. With food trends fluctuating like hemlines on the runway both directors realized that their open kitchens had to remain flexible to keep up. “The elements inside the kitchen, like the salad bar or fryers, can be moved around or replaced as needed,” says Condenzio. “Yet the space doesn’t look or feel temporary at all.”

Make reservations. With kitchen renovations taking several months to complete, finishing the job during the summer may not be feasible, no matter how fast track the program is. How will you keep students fed? If your school has more than one dining hall, extended hours and more staff are probably the answers. Seattle Pacific, however, has only the one facility, so they had to rent temporary space and build a temporary kitchen until their job was completed.

Impeccable service. Cooks and prep chefs who used to spend their time behind the scenes will now be front and center. Prepare and retrain you staff for a new, service-oriented approach. “They are the ambassadors of your new dining hall,” says Korner. “Some may not like the change, but others will really enjoy the contact.”

With the beautiful new dining halls and fresh new approach to food, both directors agree that the “freshman 15,” that stubborn weight traditionally gained during freshman year, may become a thing of the past. “Because all of the tempting choices we offer, we may see a ‘freshman 25’ take hold,” says Korner with a smile.

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