After numerous student tastings, Nardin Academy was able to confirm that its student body would eat healthier food options and try new items when given the opportunity. This was an important discovery for the team behind the school's efforts to embrace sustainability and informed the team's approach to remodeling, according to consultant Greg Christian in his ongoing project case study.

After numerous student tastings, Nardin Academy was able to confirm that its student body would eat healthier food options and try new items when given the opportunity. This was an important discovery and brought us back to our original suggestion: understand the expectations of the students and staff before making any major changes in the cafeteria. From there, start with the menu and build the new program and facility around that.

Melanie Smythe of Candacity, LLC is my partner on many design projects. Candacity specializes in real estate, architecture, and construction services for retail, foodservice, and other commercial operations. Melanie joined me in Buffalo in March 2013, assessing the equipment, service, layout, and operations of Nardin Academy's cafeteria. What I like about working with Melanie is that she addresses the systems of an operation, staff skills, and the customer experience to uncover what barriers exist before suggesting any solution. I've watched people in her position push services for general problems and promise the world. If Nardin Academy had redesigned their kitchen before considering its unique drivers and limitations they could have misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kitchens tend to be designed for any possible menu and before it even exists. Melanie understands the importance of starting with the menu and observes first how certain components will impact what the menu can look like and how a change in the menu will affect the people.

"What students are eating is just as important as how it is made and served, especially in a school setting. You have to ask if students have enough time to eat, if the food is enticing, how many students need to be served in a lunch period, and how the building impacts consumption, preparation, and socializing. Various studies say that students should have 20 minutes to enjoy their food and company. Operations and service need to be very efficient," Melanie says.

Timing was one of the main components Melanie observed during her visit to Nardin. She did a time study at breakfast and lunch to count the number of students that went through the lines, how long it took, how many seats were empty or full, and if students still had time to socialize and eat. She found that the position of the senior lounge and salad bar, right in front of the service lines, were creating a bottleneck but that most students had at least 10 minutes to eat except on days when a special meal was served to seniors, and then they had less time.

Behind the scenes Melanie addressed equipment and design. She did similar studies tracking staff through operations. "People often get into coping habits where they do not work in the most efficient or effective ways. It helps to understand if this is because the design of the building impedes efficiency, if it is a matter of retraining, or perhaps there is a shortage of labor," she says.

Melanie looked at the paths that the Nardin staff traveled when they were doing inventory, receiving deliveries, moving products to the prep areas, during prep, while cooking, and in serving. She also considered things like how long food was held before it was served and the storage space in relation to the number of students served.

"We try to minimize the number of steps for efficiency in operations, but there is also an opportunity to be more efficient with utilities to bring down the cost of operations," Melanie says. "If you are going to be redesigning the menu, that is a really great time to re-educate staff and consumers on methods that help reduce energy usage.

"Remodeling is an expensive proposition and is more difficult than new construction. You don't really know what you are going to find before you start taking down walls or remodeling the ceiling — especially with older buildings. Regarding kitchen design, I have found that a lot of kitchen designers tend to do a 'brush off the tablecloth' approach and say replace the old with the new. I don't think that is the most effective way for a food operation. One, it is a huge change and often an expensive change. If you don't necessarily have large quantities of cash, which can be especially true for school lunch programs, it is better to take a softer approach: add, replace, or completely redo the kitchen once you have lived with and understand the menu and skill levels. Build a gradual replacement plan if you are working on developing new skills with people."

Nardin Academy took this approach. They may consider remodeling in the future, but the idea is to best understand the new operation before spending dollars they may not need to. Because we spent time attending to the students and staff, we discovered there were spaces that could be addressed that were not part of Nardin's original design plan. Furthermore, because Nardin did not redesign in year one of the new operation they can build up funds from profits to pay for a good portion of future remodeling work and focus it confidently.

From Melanie's observations and expertise, Nardin was able to take some initial low-cost steps for the dining room in year one: implement a new POS system, rearrange service lines, move the senior lounge, and relocate an improved salad bar. Melanie also had input in the decisions made for the kitchen. I will share more in my next post about initial steps suggested for the back of house.

The graphic below illustrates the layout change proposal for Nardin Academy: 

Nardin Academy Interim Layout Option-WebNardin Academy Interim Dining Hall Plan, courtesy of Melanie Smythe at Candacity, LLC