Like their retail peers, non-commercial operators continue to adopt smaller, more flexible formats as they strive to marry speed of service with quality menu items.

Ft.-LewisFt. LewisFast casual remains the foodservice industry's favorite segment today, and with good reason. The operators in this segment continue to take the best quick service has to offer, consistency and speed of service, and pair it with the menu quality and romance normally reserved for fine dining restaurants. The net result of these efforts is an engaged and value-driven customer base that continues to flock in droves to fast-casual dining establishments, while these operators turn that brand loyalty and smaller, more flexible footprints into foodservice juggernauts.

From a consumer perspective, though, the marriage of quality and speed should no longer be the exclusive domain of the fast-casual segment. And nowhere is that more evident than in the continued evolution of non-commercial foodservice operations. For the past 15 years or so, non-commercial operators such as schools, colleges and universities, and hospitals have diligently worked to break down the barriers that clearly separated their restaurants from other segments.

They did so by replacing traditional traylines or tray service with scatter systems, marketplace concepts and others that emphasized variety and freshness by bringing food preparation out from behind closed doors and in front of the customers' watchful eyes. Doing so only seemed to energize the operators in this segment, who continue to develop their style of service and menus to meet the evolving expectations of their customer base.

Smaller, More Flexible Dining Options

While each segment approaches things a little differently, they still tend to feed off one another. "If you want to know what's going to happen in high school dining in the years to come, look to college dining," says Doug Huber, principal at the Foodservice Consultants Studio. "And it goes on down the line to middle schools. So we are trying to make high school foodservice feel like what students experience when they go to the mall. That's where students hang out a lot and if you can emulate that they will participate more."

And in many instances, the non-commercial operators are not afraid to learn from the successes of their commercial peers. For example, just as many commercial operators continue to explore new dayparts to avoid too many peaks and valleys in foot traffic, non-commercial operators have traveled a similar path. Colleges and universities have experimented with late night dining and breakfast options, for example, to accommodate students' round-the-clock lifestyles. The challenge they faced, though, was accommodating traffic levels that were a fraction of peak demand in very large facilities.

Virginia-Beach-Middle-SchoolBecause students, like those at Virginia Beach Middle School, in Virginia Beach, Va., only have a certain amount of time, it is important to carefully examine every detail of a station to ensure they move through efficiently. Photo Courtesy of Foodservice Consultants StudioOperators tinkered with a variety of approaches to meet evolving customer demand over the years. For example, some extended the hours of their entire operations. Others, in contrast, would open only a portion of their serveries, making a limited menu available and cutting back on the personnel running these areas. Today operators seem to be applying the lessons they learned from these experiences by opening individual restaurants that are more appropriately sized based on the daypart they are purusing, says Lenny Condenzio, partner and designer with Ricca Newmark Design. "That then gives you the flexibility to open late at night or early in the morning, you can choose which part to use without opening everything. And those individual restaurants are connected to the back of the house, which offers operational efficiency."

In creating themed dining experiences, it is important to be both complete and detail oriented. "If you are in that particular restaurant or themed-concept, in order to complete that meal you have to think about all of the components, including beverages and desserts. Doing so really ties in that retail look that we are seeing more today," Condenzio says. "There also needs to be some take away or grab and go options the customers can select. It does not need to be something that's made too far advance. They just need to be clearly freshly made and ready to go."

Everything has to support the theme, too. From the service medium, including the crocks and pots to the décor, no detail is too small to consider because food presentation is more important than ever before. "The best food from an average presentation is a hard sell but average food from the best presentation is an easier sell," Huber says.

Because of this emphasis on presentation, lighting represents an even more important factor than before. "Things like lighting and food shields should not limit the access to food but enhance it and draw you to the food," says Jim Webb, principal of Webb Food Service Design. "So when a person walks up to the counter they are immediately drawn to the freshness of the food product and the staff working there. It is a dramatic difference in the visual experience. Every inch counts in the visual display. The way we design, the materials we use, the accessories we use — everything we use to bring food forth to ignite the customer's experience makes a difference."

As a result, interior design is playing an even more important role in creating a themed environment. "Interior design has become incredibly sophisticated. It is about the subtleties and not in-your-face theming. And the décor now has some flexibility to it and is being done more tastefully with materials and texture," Condenzio adds. "Because these restaurant-style concepts are smaller we can refresh one in five years, if needed, and the others can still function. So you can renovate one and the others will not look any less adequate and this gets more affordable. I think that is the most exciting part about the positioning of these restaurant-style concepts."

Because most customers, whether in colleges or business and industry operations, have a finite amount of time, speed of service is of growing importance and an aspect that non-commercial design needs to address up front. "How do you make it so they come in to see what's available, order their food, get their beverage, pay and eat it all in an hour? You have to work every detail of every station," Huber says. "Let's say it is a barbeque station. You have to know where the protein, coleslaw, sauce, plates and other serving utensils come from and if you don't think of those details you are in trouble."

That's because every detail contributes to the way customers perceive the operation. "From an operator standpoint, you need the equipment to support the show you are putting on, provided you understand you are putting on a show," Huber adds. "If the employees don't recognize it is a show, then the customers will be unsatisfied. But if you realize this and can execute it right and equip it right then they will be really happy."

The good news is that introduction of exhibition-style cooking to the various non-commercial segments already had designers and operators paying attention to many of the details that make these stations self-sufficient during meal periods. "The latest layouts have more refrigeration at the point of service to reduce the number of steps staff have to take," Condenzio adds. "And people are placing a walk-in next to that restaurant's cooking platform."

The way operators use their cooking equipment continues to become more creative, which, in turn, makes them more flexible and limits the amount of ventilation required. "Countertop equipment, such as Panini grills or rapid cook ovens, or even items like cook and hold ovens, give us more flexibility so we are not tied down to mechanical issues," Condenzio says.

And operators continue to look for new uses for traditional pieces of cooking equipment, like hearth ovens. In the past, operators have cooked only pizzas on these ovens but are discovering they can bake sandwiches and casseroles, among other menu items. "There are lots of possibilities because these ovens create some wonderful entrees," Condenzio says. He points out that some operators can use these ovens to anchor stations or restaurants that offer anything from Italian food to Mediterranean to North African. When that happens "the platform can help that restaurant evolve into something more than a pizza place," he says. "It has a great atmosphere. Add a few pieces of equipment around that oven and you can have a full service restaurant. Restaurants got this a long time ago."

The same thing applies with other types of cooking equipment. For example, the smaller footprint may allow the operator to replace a gas range with a wok range, transitioning a sauté station to an Asian concept. "I think the smaller footprints give the operator more flexibility to evolve over 10 or 15 years," Condenzio says.

Still behind most good exhibition-cooking stations or micro-themed restaurants tends to be a high performance prep kitchen. "They are common prep areas to get rid of the boxes and get the food ready for preparation out in the servery," Condenzio says. "Some things, such as handling raw chicken, pre-cooking or dishwashing, are not pretty to look at and will get handled in the back of the house. It is all done in the name of speed of service. You don't have to cook everything at once. You have to be ready to deliver in batches."

While much of the cooking now takes place under the customer's watchful eye, there remains a place for some back of the house cooking facilitated by a well-thought out equipment package. "Take a look at a blast chiller, for example. You can produce a certain item, say a soup, in the central kitchen, and blast chill it so the smaller café can offer a nice meal later," Condenzio says. "Isn't that what restaurants do? They don't make every sauce

every day. So colleges and universities are adopting that approach and using that technology so they can have a smaller café with consistently high quality product."

The Social Network

Also shaping non-commercial foodservice operations are customers' desire, or lack thereof, to socialize with their peers. As a result, most seating areas now feature a variety of options, ranging from communal tables, to more intimate two-tops to bar seating for one. And the way the servery transitions to the seating area continues to evolve, too. "The root of it is to create a pleasant dining experience for the customers. That's why you don't see the disconnect from the servery to the dining room anymore. It's all woven together," Condenzio says.

But the transition goes beyond the choice of tables and chairs. "This is shifting to a more organic, food-focused format," Webb says. "As a result, people are socializing and creating community through food and they expect a more authentic experience when they go to the hospital cafeteria or a B&I café."

This desire for a truly authentic and communal experience manifests itself in two ways. The first is to understand the way the culinary landscape evolved during the past 10 to 15 years and how that applies to food preparation. The second way is to understand the different ways non-commercial operators use foodservice to create a sense of community today.

"Our taste profiles have changed considerably," Webb says. "As people from other cultures have come into our culture, they have introduced us to their authentic foods. As a result, the way we define comfort food has redefined itself. For some it is Mexican but that area is no longer the exclusive domain of meatloaf. When it comes to foodservice that means we expect that the ethnicity is reflected in an authentic manner in our culinary offerings."

Along those lines, how the culinary staff executes the menu is almost as important as the actual menu. For example, both Condenzio and Huber discussed customers who included Indian food in their new operations. To lend an aura of authenticity, both insisted on having a tandoor oven out in the customers' view when making flatbread, despite the fact that they could have opted for other equipment like a combi oven to accomplish the same task.

Still, operators continue to discover new ways to turn these authentic items into multi-use pieces of equipment. For example, Condenzio points to one customer that took an Indian station with a tandoor oven flanked by flattops on either side and updated the space to serve yogurt-based breakfast smoothies with naan. "No matter where you go in the world, with its unique food and preparation, you can make it work in that particular environment," he says.

Non-commercial operators continue to tinker with the way they use foodservice to help create a sense of community on their respective campuses. Features, such as chef's tables and cooking demonstrations and classes, continue to become more common among non-commercial operators in most segments. "It can serve a multitude of social interactions but it is centered on food and the cooking experience and creates something intimate," Webb says.

For example, these operators can use these communal features to facilitate employee recognition, celebrate birthdays and more. "Bringing people together for a cooking demonstration or to dine at a chef's table can really help build community and team," Webb adds. "The social aspect is being explored further and people want to participate in the experience more."