Well-Seated Solutions

Seating areas can have as much impact on a cafeteria’s success as its kitchens and serveries.

Design, seating areasMany non-commercial foodservice operators are turning to consultants and designers to help make their dining rooms more inviting and relaxing because—as has been said before—a happy customer is a repeat customer.

“We are very conscious of creating a warm and inviting dining space for our guests,” says Jim Dickson, vice president of higher education and corporate dining for Metz & Associates, the Dallas, Pa.-based food management firm. “In some of our most recent renovations, we’ve concentrated on providing a comprehensive sensory experience.”

According to Dickson, this includes earth-tone color schemes for walls and fabrics; soft seating areas for study sessions (in a college setting) and informal meetings (at corporate dining accounts); TVs for news, weather and entertainment updates; Wi-Fi access for productivity, and music for overall atmosphere enhancement. All of these, he notes, “have helped us create a more inviting atmosphere for our dining areas. The feedback we’ve received from our guests to these changes has been very positive. Of course, the strongest indicator of our guests’ positive feedback is the increased usage of the renovated dining areas.”

Basic comfort is the goal at Shawnee Mission School District in Shawnee Mission, Kan. “Honestly, we’re doing nothing that is rocket science, nothing that everybody else doesn’t do,” explains Nancy Coughenour, manager of foodservices. “We try to make sure there are fresh coats of paint  to make it aesthetically pleasing. Some  schools have murals or other artwork. Others just have basic school colors. At the high schools, they have their mascots.”

The district includes 50 schools and 28,000 students. All elementary schools have long tables with attached seats. “Our high schools have a mixture: some have tables and chairs that are totally separate, some have round tables and chairs and some have long tables with the attached seats,” says Coughenour.

Design, seating areasEvidence-based: One of the things Philadelphia-based Aramark has worked on is evidence-based design, which is used to great effect in healthcare. According to Dan Muentzberg, director of conceptual design for Aramark’s Innovative Design Solutions division, evidence-based design focuses on “wellness and how to actually help people heal through the environment.” It involves “tying design directly to issues of health and wellness. It revolves around the idea of introducing natural light, calming colors and unifying the environment.”

Evidence-based design also is used “to a great degree in the work we do in universities,” says Muentzberg. “One of the primary approaches our design group takes around resident dining facilities is to unify the space and create a holistic dining experience, so you don’t have a dining room that exists separately from the food experience.”

Aramark designers like to open up the spaces, to put as much of the food preparation up front and center stage as possible “so that the whole dining experience becomes the focus,” Muentzberg says. “We look for ways to build seating in and around what’s going on with the food, and to create pods that allow people to gather in various size groups, from two to eight.”

What’s new: “Most of the newer hospital and B&I dining facilities we see have large-screen TVs,” says Foster Frable, Jr., president of Clevenger-Frable-LaVallee in White Plains, N.Y. “Some foodservice operators get them free from vendors who run zipper ads across the bottom.”

Frable and his colleagues also see “a lot more banquettes used for seating.” In addition, a large area by the dish or tray drop now needs to be allotted for recycling. “I think the green initiatives will drive many facilities to reopen or build dish rooms to use permanentware, particularly since the new dishwashers are very conservative about energy and water.” A decade from now, he predicts, disposables will only be used in fast food outlets.

Rethinking space: “Cafeterias are cafés, the line is now a servery and the dining rooms have become bright, attractive spaces decorated with banks of plants, plasma TVs and billiard tables,” says Angela Phelan, vice president of The Clarion Group in Kingston, N.H. Currently, Clarion is actively involved with all of its clients in the redesign or reconfiguring of their dining venues.

“The law firms, particularly, are very aware of the impression their amenities make on the young, highly prized associates they are seeking to hire,” says Phelan. “Very conscious decisions are made to attract talent that is being courted by the top firms, and part of that attraction is the look and style of their dining facilities. This talent pool is looking for connections with firms that seemingly reveal their corporate style in the way they present themselves in this very public way.”

Colleges and boarding schools are sensitive to the opinions of parents touring their schools prior to making their choices, Phelan points out. The look of the dining facilities in that case is “overridden, of course, by concern for cleanliness, quality of food, variety of options and cost to the student.”

Similarly, corporations are “deeply concerned with employee retention,” Phelan notes. “Management has been rethinking the cost, the look and the opinions of their employees. As always, no matter what the issues, the food in bars is proliferating even in the most modest hospital lobbies.”

Multifunction: “In many cases, the dining room needs to be a multifunctional space,” says John Cornyn, principal at The Cornyn Fasano Group in Portland, Ore. “There is a high level of demand for small dedicated spaces that can be reserved for groups that get their food from a retail or all-you-care-to-eat servery first, as opposed to a dedicated catering dining room. When not needed for a dedicated purpose, the doors are opened to general dining.”

In other instances, the dining room might be converted to a performance space at night or during service. “In some situations, there is a need to alter the atmosphere as a means to encourage fast/high-seat turnover via bright lighting and high noise level,” Cornyn explains. Another option: turn down lighting and “control the noise/music to encourage more of a casual, comfort feeling or to encourage conversation.”

To maximize the number of seats actually used during peak times, it is “wise to consider a mix of table sizes… along with strategically placed counter seating,” Cornyn says. This is important in order to allow for a single person to find a comfortable place to sit “without tying up a table for four or more and leaving three or more empty seats due to a reluctance to share.” Regardless, many patrons in a university or hospital situation will arrange the tables to create the capacity to suit them, “so table compatibility to meet large group demands is critical.”

Calming effect: In the acute care setting “it is about giving the space a calming effect to create an environment for staff and visitors to relax or get away from the stress of caring for a sick loved one,” notes Georgie Shockey, principal of Ruck-Shockey Associates, Inc. in The Woodlands, Texas. Increased circulation around seats and tables is important, as is “creating natural barriers so it is not one big open room. Ideally, if the space and the budget allow, a staff-only seating area is desired.” If a nurse or physician wants to have lunch with his team “but family is also having lunch, they can be interrupted even during breaks.” Shockey also sees a lot of earth tones, warm colors and finishes that reflect the natural elements of the geographical area.

As for technology, wireless connections are in most hospitals, Shockey points out. “There are flat screens for menu signage, directional or promotional at entrances and sometimes in the seating area.” Installing too many would take away from “the atmosphere of getting away,” she feels, “but staff and visitors like to be connected to the outside world, especially those putting in 12-hour shifts that are normal in most acute care settings.”

When it comes to colleges, “open and vibrant” are the words Shockey uses. Operators need “lots of electrical outlets and places to hang out to work on projects and do research. Everyone has a laptop.” Group seating is “highly desired, so community tables are a great feature.” Colors tend to be “more alive, but rich in tone and finishes—again, budget permitting."