Despite a tight budget, this new design will become a model other schools in the district follow as they look to enhance the quality of food and service they offer students and faculty.
Students waiting in long serving lines and having only a few moments to gulp down lunch are all-too-common problems in America's schools. A major renovation at Larkin High School in Elgin, Ill., remedied that situation and many other challenges. As a result, satisfaction is higher than ever, and this remodel will serve as a prototype for other district renovations to follow.
Like most districts in the country, District U-46 faces difficulty securing funding for much-needed facility renovations. "Many of our schools need cafeteria improvements, and getting funding is a challenge," says Claudie Phillips, the district's director of food and nutrition services. "Larkin High School was selected first because the entire 51-year-old school was undergoing a renovation in order to improve the infrastructure, including the energy systems such as HVAC, plumbing and life safety. The cafeteria was also in desperate need of improvements in the areas of production flow, food safety, equipment upgrades and overall productivity."
"When assessing the situation, we discovered that the budget and accompanying fiscal responsibilities were as important as the design," says foodservice consultant and designer Kristin Sedej, FCSI, principal of S2O Consultants. "Whatever improvements we made had to last at least 20 years, so the design had to allow for changes in menus and possible production processes. We used existing equipment if possible, specified quality equipment with the budget in mind and provided modular equipment that can be moved around as needed to give flexibility to the operation."
Larkin High School enrolls approximately 2,000 students, 72 percent of which participate in its meal programs; 57 percent of those students receive free and reduced-price meals. At each of 4 lunch periods, 500 students come to the cafeteria. At breakfast, 430 students participate during a single meal period.
Before the renovation, the cafeteria contained three traditional serving lines and a small à la carte/snack shop area. One server worked each serving line, and two additional employees restocked the serving lines. Students entered the cafeteria and could stand in line for as long as 12 minutes before receiving their food. Due to delays between the service points and cashiers, some students had only five or six minutes to find a seat and eat.
"In addition to the long wait times, the difficulties before the renovation included cold items on the serving line that weren't staying cold and an institutional-looking design that only allowed limited food offerings. Plus, the employees had to maneuver around each other because of the lack of flow from the cooking area to the hold and serving areas," Sedej says. "Also, the cash counting wasn't secure."
Following the renovation, food continues to arrive in the back of the house where staff store it in a walk-in cooler, walk-in freezer and dry storage area. Most food items arrive refrigerated or frozen, and staff reheat them for serving. However, staff wash, cut and assemble fresh fruit, salads and sandwiches in a cold food prep area that includes a sink, a reach-in refrigerator and prep tables. This L-shaped area also contains a space for washing utensils and pots with a three-compartment sink and mobile drying racks.
In contrast to the original layout in which two walls separated the various prep and cooking stations, now only one wall separates the back-of-the-house areas from the front-of-house stations, which are visible to student and adult customers dining in the cafeteria.
Along the cookline, from left to right, sit a double-stacked combi oven, two double-stacked convection ovens and two double-stacked steamers. The lineup no longer contains fryers.
Staff in this area use the equipment to heat pasta, vegetables and various entrees and side dishes. "They have independent work stations to prepare and unwrap packaging containing foods and place them in the cooking equipment," says Richard Reed, equipment manager and supervisor of middle and high schools. "Staff then can simply turn around and place the warm food on the serving lines, so the workflow is very efficient."
"Before the renovation, two stations were situated on a double-sided island with a full-height wall separating them," Sedej says.
Mobile hot carts hold hot food for refill on the lines. Additional carts hold ambient food needed during meal periods. On the serving lines, worktop refrigerators with pan slides serve as counter space. The bases store backup foods for the air screen cases on the line. "Staff no longer have to walk around the kitchen to bring products to the line, which contributes to overall efficiency," Sedej says.
A new low-volume exhaust hood replaces the underutilized island-style hood. "The new hood reduced the CFMs required by two-thirds of what was originally required," Sedej says. "This also allowed the HVAC system to be addressed to remove the excess heat from the space."
A significant factor in the operation's efficiency has been the addition of a fourth serving line, which increased the speed of service. "We also added two cashiers — now there are four — to speed up service," Phillips says.
The addition of a dedicated à la carte/snack area, which sits adjacent to the servery line, contains a heated display unit, a pretzel cabinet, an ice cream novelty chest, a nonfat soft-serve yogurt machine, coffee machines and refrigerators holding grab-and-go salads, sandwiches and beverages. Two vending machines sit in the seating area between a serving line and snack station. À la carte sales contribute about 10 percent to 12 percent of the operation's bottom line.
"There is ample space in this area, as well as in the main production and serving areas to add more equipment to accommodate future menu and à la carte developments," Reed says.
After students go through the serving lines, they sit in a large, 500-seat dining area. This area was not renovated, but is decorated with school flags and other signs and graphics. "Each school has its own colors, which contributes to building school spirit," Phillips says.
Phillips and Reed report that students are appreciative of the new servery. The new colors and additional serving lines, as well as views to the cooking equipment, contribute to students' acceptance of foods offered as part of the new federal meal standards.
Larkin's design will serve as a prototype for other cafeteria renovations in the district. Two middle school renovations are on the books, including one for this summer and the other for the summer of 2015. The renovated kitchens will use most of the same types of equipment as Larkin with the exception of the combi oven. "These ovens are great, but our menus just don't justify the use of this type of expensive equipment," Reed says.
"We'll continue to work within a tight budget," Phillips says. "And each renovation will inform us how to proceed with the next one. The changes are well received by our customers and staff members. That makes all our efforts worthwhile."