This dining hall's transformation features a customized version of Aramark's Fresh Food Company that allows notable variety, flexibility and dining transparency in its three self-contained pods, which serve as mini-kitchens.
Danforth Dining Hall desperately needed a complete overhaul. Attached to the University of Rochester's Susan B. Anthony Residence Hall, Danforth was long overdue for a renovation not only to upgrade the building itself but also to bring the dining environment into the twenty-first century.After some 50 years, the 14,500-square-foot
"The old dining area contained a traditional serving area with serious limitations on how many food concepts we could offer," says Cam Schauf, director of campus dining services and auxiliary operations. "I wanted to transform the space so customers would walk in and say, 'Wow!' We all wanted more food preparation taking place in front of the customers and a more comfortable work environment for employees. We also wanted to be sure the new facility promoted a sense of community for our customers."
The answer to the vision is the Fresh Food Company (FFC), a brand developed by Aramark, the university's contract foodservice supplier, for its college accounts. "The brand is implemented on other campuses, but it isn't a cookie-cutter brand," Schauf says. "It has a style with some fixed parameters — for example, self-sufficient mini-kitchens supporting multiple food concepts — but each time it is introduced to another campus, it is adapted to that facility and its parent institution. The brand focuses on flexible equipment, which is important because universities don't do major renovations on facilities very often. We wanted to be sure that regardless of what we put in now, we can change food concepts when the time is appropriate."
In addition to Schauf and other University of Rochester administrators, the team remaking Danforth and customizing FFC included members from the architectural and interior design firm Mancini•Duffy/TSC and foodservice design consultants JEM Associates Inc.
The most daunting challenge in renovating the space was repairing the infrastructure. "The building wasn't air-conditioned," Schauf says. "We had to add air-conditioning for the customers' comfort, but also for employees' comfort. In order to accommodate FFC with distinct stations and exhibition cooking, we dismantled and rebuilt the hood and exhaust systems. Everything related to HVAC had to be redone."
In addition, like in all old structures, construction crews had to remove asbestos. "Luckily this wasn't an issue in terms of delaying the schedule," Schauf says. "We were still able to do this over the summer, but it was next to a residence hall that was occupied. We worked with residential life and kept the wing closest to the project vacant and set a schedule that we thought was reasonable. Fortunately, summer school students don't spend as much time in their rooms as students enrolled during the regular school year. Because the rooms are not air-conditioned, they often go elsewhere until the temperature drops. We warned the students what was going to happen and confined the mess, and sectioned off areas that they couldn't enter. And we killed the noise by 6 p.m."
Opening in August 2011, Danforth rapidly became a favorite campus dining venue. When asked about results of the renovation, Schauf quickly cites a few statistics: in March 2012, 56,084 customers ate at Danforth, compared to 17,840 customers a year before. Why the remarkable increase even though the facility is open for four fewer hours than before? "Over the years, people thought of Danforth as only a freshman dining hall. Our goal was to make this such a great dining experience that people wouldn't categorize it as just for freshmen. We've seen a large increase in faculty, staff and upper-class student business," Schauf says.
Participation and sales have also increased. "This is an all-you-care-to-eat operation, but with a check average of $7. Our weekly patrons have increased from an average of 6,000 per week a year ago to 18,000 a week this year," says Aramark's Robert Fox, foodservice director of Danforth Dining Hall.
No doubt, the new architectural and interior design and the variety of food selections help define the new experience.
"Since Danforth had become one of the campus' least desirable venues, our approach was not only architectural, but we designed an entirely new operational concept in residential dining," says Avery Miyasato Handy, IIDA, CID, senior associate and design director at Mancini•Duffy/TSC.
"Purposeful use of color plays a key role in reinforcing the architecture, and our design concept uses high-contrast juxtapositions and the play of light and dark to convey a sense of freshness," Handy says. "Materials such as simulated tree bark, rough river stone, and simulated wood flooring evoke the connection between food and nature. Strong accents of lettuce green and tomato red are picked up in such eco-friendly furnishings as brightly colored chairs made of recycled Coke bottles. Corrugated steel evokes shed architecture, while ceiling treatments such as a black 'halo' that marks the largest serving station and hanging chains that demarcate the central circular seating area provide added drama."
Mirrors perpendicular to windows increase views of the outside green spaces, augmenting Danforth's parklike setting. "To emphasize different dining zones within the 420-seat hall, we created multiple scales, from large to intimate. Seating options allow many scenarios, from dining with a large group of friends to studying alone over a meal," says Scott Harrell, LEED AP, senior associate and project manager at Mancini•Duffy/TSC. Various seating types intermingle among the food areas and include loose tables and chairs, booths, banquettes and a rock star table, a centrally located, round communal seating area where strings of metal beads hang from the ceiling above and light comes from large pendant fixtures.
"The key to FFC is a kitchen-less concept with virtually all prep and production happening in front of the customers," says Jennifer Safran, senior designer for JEM Associates and one of the approved designers for the FFC brand. "Each pod is considered a mini-kitchen and, therefore, generally self-sufficient. The equipment layout was planned with minimal time for food travel in mind. We made our kitchen design selections in keeping with the FFC's mission, which says, 'Our commitment is to provide the highest quality foods, prepared right in front of your eyes by friendly, energetic people in an open and relaxing atmosphere. We made great food fun!'"
Danforth's FFC contains three pods, each featuring multiple food concepts: 1) produce market, deli, Mongolian grill and drinks; 2) sauté, brick oven, vegetarian and vegan, and drinks; and 3) home, grill and dessert. No signage marks the pods or their stations. The equipment supporting each pod includes a dedicated walk-in cooler, prep area and production equipment appropriate to the food offerings.
"With the exception of the produce market, all stations and cooking styles change at each meal period," says Aramark's Robert Fox, Danforth's foodservice director. "Sometimes menu items might be prepared at one station during a three-week period and at another during another three-week period. The fact we can easily change the style of service as well as the method of preparation helps keep our menu exciting. This facility is really a game changer on campus, affecting the way customers and employees view food on campus. The employees have done an exceptional job to keep standards high. Erik [Mack Davis, the executive chef with FFC] conducts a daily preservice shift meeting. Staff members from each station bring a tasting plate from their areas to the meeting, and we look at presentation and taste the food to ensure quality and consistency."
Customers can see all of the equipment and preparation activities at the pods. The only facet of the operation not visible to customers is a small back-of-house area for limited rough prep, pot washing, ice, storage shelving, a mop sink, an office and a dishroom. This space resides in the back kitchen where staff receive food and supplies from a freight elevator that comes up from a loading dock/receiving area one level below FFC.
The 1,650-square-foot pod containing the produce market, deli, Mongolian barbecue grill and drinks station sits in the northwest part of the dining hall. The station is designed around a walk-in cooler that supports the three food concepts. Hidden behind a low wall and drinks counter, a fully developed prep area includes a worktable, sinks and prep equipment such as a slicer, food processor and mixer. "The pod's design features undercounter refrigeration and storage throughout," says Safran.
The service counter for all three food concepts acts as the perimeter of the pod.
The produce market features an open-air screen refrigerator that displays fresh greens and veggies that staff use to prepare salads and sandwiches. FFC offers three soups daily — one vegetarian, one vegan and one meat-based — along with soup toppings and bread. This area also features a yogurt and fruit bar at breakfast.
To the right side of the pod, staff use a 48-inch round Mongolian grill that is tucked behind a round wall with a custom glass vertical shield. Allowing for versatile food production, the Mongolian grill assists staff in preparing stir-fries, grilled fish, jambalaya, ginger sesame beef lo mein, and omelets for an omelet bar. "On weekends students select ingredients that staff use to make omelets," Fox says. This area is always gluten-free as well.
The deli station serves made-to-order and premade sandwiches. Versatility at this station comes from the introduction of a multiuse section. "Sitting under a hood that is sized for a variety of cooking equipment is an area notched out of the serving counter where staff can roll in and out various pieces of cooking equipment," Safran says. The equipment includes a conveyor oven, panini grills, induction cookers and a rice cooker. "This allows for the deli station menu to change from day to day or meal to meal as the operator sees fit." For instance, changing menu items here include the Southwestern chipotle chicken salad, classic Cuban sandwich (also at the home suite station), crazy Cobb salad (also at the sauté pod) and cheddar roast beef ciabatta (also at the brick oven station).
"We have cold wells to hold ingredients for preparation and finishing of sandwiches, panini and flatbread pizzas," Fox says. "We store the equipment [that is] not in use in the basement and transport items up and down through a freight elevator. Staff place the equipment on a mobile cart, making the items easy to move from place to place."
The shape and flow of the 1,605-square-foot pod featuring the brick oven and vegetarian and vegan options is similar to the produce market, deli, and Mongolian grill pod. Again, the prep, production and serving counters are wrapped around a walk-in cooler, and the station features ample undercounter refrigeration and storage throughout.
The pizza station features a brick oven, supported by a pizza prep area along the service counter. Ample countertop shelves with heat lamps above allow for an abundant display of whole pizzas as well as slices. In addition to pizza, which is offered about 20 percent of the time, this station offers large sandwiches, calzones, shepherd's pie and other casseroles, and desserts. "The brick oven menu items are always among the star menu items, and customers can see the flames shooting up as they enter and come to see what is baking," Fox says.
The pasta and dedicated vegetarian/vegan stations are mirror images of each other. With recessed gas burners in the front counter and refrigerated ingredient displays, these two stations offer made-to-order sautéed options. "For example, we'll build quinoa cakes ahead of serving time, hold them in the cold well, grill them up on the flat skillet during service and plate them with greens and finish the plate with a red pepper sauce," Fox says. Vegan favorites also include grilled hummus vegetable wraps and quinoa salad with mangoes and curry.
Also at the sauté station, culinary staff make egg with cheese and bacon panini (also available at the grill), blueberry-filled crepes (also at the grill), and Asian chicken wraps. Staff use woks and bamboo steamers to make pot stickers. "A staff member plates up dishes at this and nearly every station except at our produce market," Fox says.
"On Saturdays and Sundays we offer halal meat from the sauté station," Schauf says. "We're testing this menu offering to determine if we should keep it as is or expand it."
The third area, the 1,700-square-foot home and grill pod, sits adjacent to the back-of-house area. "This pod includes the most robust production area and supports the other two pods as required," Safran says.
At the back of the station a walk-in cooler holds chilled food. Adjacent to the cooler, a full production line includes a combi oven, a convection oven, steamers, tilt kettles and a tilt skillet. The main feature of this pod is a cooking suite located front and center. Comprising a fryer, range, charbroiler, griddle, carving station and hot/cold food holding wells, the suite ends with a plating station at the entrée serving counter. This station also includes a fully developed dessert station offering warm and cold options. Cookies and brownies are also part of the regular menus.
"At the home suite, we offer comfort-style food," Fox says. "We plate it differently for each menu item offered. For instance, with pulled pork and polenta, the pork is pulled in the back, the polenta is placed in a martini glass and topped with pork and polenta sauce. Or, we'll offer carved items such as barbecued chicken. If we fry or sauté chicken, we'll set it out in small batches. Customers are watching the entire process and see the plating, as well." Staff working this station also make individually prepared scrambled eggs, corned beef brisket, braised cabbage and steamed carrots, in addition to the items mentioned previously that are prepared at other stations.
The featured vegetables of the day are presented for self-service, but staff prep — sautéing, grilling, roasting or steaming — these food items in small batches throughout the meal period. Some desserts served at this pod are also prepared while customers watch.
At the grill station, "all the cooking equipment is situated so the staff members are always facing customers," Safran says.
Also at home suite, staff use the combi and convection ovens to bake bread for this and other pods.
Keeping traffic moving through the pods in order to avoid long lines presents an ongoing challenge. "We use our history and data for meal trends," Fox says. "The staff members know when to expect rushes and which stations and which items are more popular. At the grill, for example, staff members know many must be continually made to keep up with demand. Usually, plating remains the same each time burgers are offered, but we'll customize for a customer who wants different sauces."
Though the operation has eco-friendly features, such as energy-efficient equipment, the university does not plan to pursue LEED or other green certification. "We were asked to keep a green eye," Safran says, "but so much had to be done to the infrastructure that a lot of the budget had to be allocated for that." The facility is trayless, which helps reduce costs of dishwashing and reduces plate waste.
According to Schauf, several other green features characterize the operation:
When customers finish eating, they bring their plates and other dishes — the operation is trayless — to an accumulator. The dishroom contains a flight-type dishmachine, which is not visible to customers. "In the early design phases, there was only a small dishroom, and it was in an inconvenient location," Safran says. "At first this area was going to remain as is. But we felt it would be remiss to upgrade everything without addressing this undersized, poorly located dishroom and accumulator. So it was moved to allow this operation to work efficiently."
With the operation now one year old, Schauf looks back and recalls the early design days. "I was a little nervous when I first saw the design because it is so modern," he says. "But this places a lot of emphasis on the food, which is good. Interior colors are strategically placed so they stand out. Another very good touch was to build a stone wall around the utility chase so it looks like a key element versus a place to cover utilities."
One primary focus to making Danforth successful is training staff to interact with customers throughout prep and production. "Employees know that their job is to keep customers happy and help make students' experience a positive one," Schauf says. "They feel good about what they are doing in this air-conditioned space and are, in turn, communicating that to customers."
Learning what customers want also challenges the staff. "One of the interesting things about this generation of students is they don't like to ask for things, so we've had to offer options like gluten-free and see how it works for them. We also pick up clues on Facebook and Twitter."
As the discovery process continues, staff will adapt the menu to meet the changing desires of increasingly sophisticated customers. The versatility of the design allows changes to be made easily and efficiently. That's a wow to be noted.