Ask these 4 questions to determine what your cafeteria remodel needs are

January 5, 2022

When it’s time for a school cafeteria renovation, planners tend to start by thinking about the equipment they need or want. But the best results might actually come from approaching the project from a different perspective.

Instead of starting with the equipment, start with the need.

First, set a goal for the renovation. For many schools, that would be increasing participation. Whatever it is, keep this objective in mind throughout the process and filter all decisions through the lens of meeting that goal.

Next, consider a series of questions about your serving needs and desires and what you want your end result to be. The answers will provide guidance on what kind of equipment and design choices will best serve your cafeteria’s needs.

Question 1: What are my meal times like?

Consider first and foremost how many students you’re feeding and in what kind of timeframe. This basic information serves as the key framework for designing a cafeteria that functions well.

It’s typical to increase meal participation by about 15% with a renovation, so be sure you’re taking that future need into account.

Answers to these questions may help determine the number of points of sale that are needed and how much staff will be required to keep the cafeteria running smoothly.

Question 2: What am I serving?

Look not only at your current menu but also any potential changes in the future.

Are there popular foods that you would like to incorporate into daily offerings — potentially a pizza line or sandwich bar? How would the lines need to be configured to support that?

Be careful that you don’t rely on assumptions or past behavior.

For instance, milk has long been a school cafeteria staple, but with the increasing popularity of flavored waters and sports drinks, milk consumption may be taking a hit. Check your records to determine how much milk is really being drunk. Consider the trend and where you might be in two, three or five years. This data will help you plan for beverage coolers accordingly.

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It’s also important to build with flexibility in mind to accommodate future changes that may not be predictable. The serving station that has a designated purpose now might need to take on a different role in the future. Prepare for that possibility with equipment choices that support flexibility.

Equipment like QuickSwitch wells and QuickSwitch Ceran glass shelves from LTI can help by building in serving flexibility from the start. QuickSwitch temperature-changing equipment can be hot, cold or frozen and can switch between temperatures in an hour, avoiding the lasting limitations of set hot or cold serving equipment.

Other options like convertible foods guards or equipment with interchangeable accessories can also help support changing needs.

Question 3: What kind of serving arrangement do I want?

The answer to this question will determine the basics of how a cafeteria is designed.

Do you want a straight serving line or a scatter system? Do you want meals to be assembled to order or grab-and-go?

The trend, especially in high schools, has been to create serveries that resemble those in colleges. Visit a local higher education institution, particularly one that has undergone a renovation in recent years, and see what’s going on there. Scatter systems are popular choices because they help avoid the long lines that can form in traditional straight line arrangements and provide students with a greater sense of freedom in their meal choices.

Deciding between assembled meals and prepackaged ones may necessitate some compromise. Assembled meals are often more appealing to students since that’s the service style they’re accustomed to in fast casual dining. But it typically takes longer per student and can potentially lead to long lines.

A mix of both serving styles may be ideal but will need to be planned carefully to ensure that traffic flows readily in and around different kinds of stations, avoiding bottlenecks or confusing pathways.
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Try this: change one existing station to assemble-to-order — make it burrito bowls or sub sandwiches or whatever you like — and use it as a test case. Conduct a time study to determine how long it takes to feed each student.

Once you establish how many students one line can feed, you can determine how many similar lines may be needed.

Question 4: How do I want the cafeteria to look?

Finally, consider the aesthetics of the entire cafeteria, looking carefully at every space students will encounter from the moment they walk in the door to the time they pack up and head back to class.

Walls, windows, furniture, serving lines, signage, drink coolers — all of it impacts how students perceive their meal experience. An enticing, engaging environment welcomes students and boosts participation. A drab, boring environment feels institutional and does not convey excitement.

Work with design professionals experienced in cafeteria design, like the VisionDesign team at LTI, to develop the concepts that will wow your students and staff and ensure your cafeteria runs like a well-oiled machine.