8 spaces that innovate

dropbox new headquarters

Fresh noncommercial  concepts open their doors with new technology, an eye toward community and inspiration from the good old-fashioned outdoors.

1. A hospital’s breezy retreat

trick lighting

Cafe 640 at Regions Hospital
St. Paul, Minn.

Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., was on the hunt for a way to brighten up its centralized second-floor location, which lacked natural light. “The goal was to create an environment for [a] patient’s family, visitors and staff to relax and get away from the trouble that goes on upstairs,” says Steve Kroeker, director of food and nutrition services.

With an 18-month renovation, completed in 2016, and some trick lighting, Regions transformed Cafe 640 into a more tranquil 297-seat cafe.

Since the cafe does not have outside-facing windows, textured walls with strategic lighting and backlit photos give a taste of sunshine; a highlighted image on the ceiling creates the appearance of a skylight. Kroeker says it was important to create a space that makes guests feel recharged. 

But Cafe 640 isn’t all wide-open spaces. Textured glass partitions create pockets of solitude for families while allowing them to still be around other people. “We wanted to build in ways to allow for families to have private moments,” Kroeker says.

2. A city-inspired corporate escape

dropbox cafe intro

Dropbox headquarters
San Francisco

Comprising six food stations, a cafe and a juice bar, the cafeteria at Dropbox’s headquarters was built to give the file-sharing company’s 1,500 employees the feeling of walking outside without ever leaving the office. Taking a page from the streets of San Francisco, the juice bar’s light fixtures resemble a modern version of the city’s vintage street lamps. Likewise, a chandelier in the main entry runs on adjustable frames meant to represent the city’s transit lines.

Architects continued the industrial vibe throughout, installing such components as exposed pipes and concrete ceilings and floors. To bring some warmth to the space, armchairs, bookshelves, wood furnishings and patterned rugs were added as homey touches.

Cafeteria seating follows an open layout; however, transparent linen screens and easy-to-move furniture allow Dropbox staff to customize the space as needed to hold private meetings or solo work sessions. Led by Executive Chef Brian Mattingly, the menu in the cafeteria’s Tuck Shop changes daily, with such recent offerings as mahi mahi tacos with mango salsa and porchetta with white bean puree.

3. Community cafeteria

living wall

Gathering Place at Sparrow Health System
Lansing, Mich.

The local community is so integral to Sparrow Health System’s newest cafeteria, it’s evident in the name alone.

The new dining space, called Gathering Place at Sparrow, moved from the basement to the first floor in July 2016 with a 4,000-square-foot addition that spills out onto Lansing’s Michigan Ave. “The hospital feels some personal responsibility for making the Michigan Avenue Corridor a nice place to be,” says Laura Fellows, executive chef and interim director of support services for the hospital. 

To help draw community members into the cafe, a well-known local kitchen and bath remodeler donated a demo cooking area. Fellows says both her staff and outside chefs will use the space to teach health-focused cooking to Lansing residents. “My dietitians are really excited,” she says. “It’s such a great space for teaching, education and team building.” The teaching space is designed so that it can be closed off from the rest of the cafeteria to provide a more intimate experience for group events.

4. Imbuing a sense of time and place

sweet home cafe interior

Sweet Home Cafe at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Washington, D.C.

After the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September in Washington, D.C., its on-site eatery, Sweet Home Cafe, drew substantial buzz for its representation of a wide scope of the black culinary experience. Eats from the Agricultural South, Creole Coast, North States and Western Range are all on offer, featuring such dishes as Brunswick Stew, rainbow trout, and gumbo with duck, andouille sausage and crawfish. “We want people to feel comforted and feel at home after seeing some harsh things [in the museum exhibits] … That’s why the name works,” Mallory Bowen, one of the lead cooks, told The New York Times. “We tell people, ‘You’re home now. Welcome home.’”

Meals aren’t the only thing that tells a story in this 12,000-square-foot space: The cafe’s walls showcase large-scale images and text related to black history. That conversation plays into the sense of community the cafe aims to impart. Carla Hall, celebrity chef and Sweet Home Cafe’s culinary ambassador, told Time magazine she views the cafe as a theoretical dining room table for museum guests. “It’s not just here to show off the food,” she says; “it’s also to nurture your soul and your heart 

5. Fostering a connection

laurel view village fresh harvest

Laurel View Village's Fresh Harvest
Davidsville, Pa.

Oakwood Restaurant at Laurel View Village, a senior living community in Davidsville, Pa., drew close to 60% of its business from nonresidents, so the preferences of the outside community played a big part in determining what the restaurant would look like when it debuted this spring as the revamped Fresh Harvest.

Though Oakwood had been open just six years, Laurel View was looking to give the 54-seat space a warmer, more welcoming feel that would suit the needs of residents while also serving as a destination for outside guests, says Rebecca Williams, catering and marketing manager for Cura Hospitality at Laurel View Village.

Enter Fresh Harvest, home to a Chef’s Creation salad station at lunch, new programming like cooking classes and—what is perhaps its piece de resistance—the Village Table, a 10-seat table where guests can watch chefs prepare meals before their eyes.

The restaurant aims to host both internal and open weekly theme nights centered around the Village Table, such as an Italian night, boosting opportunities for guests to interact with chefs and with one another. According to Williams, the table setup “makes it easy for our guests to become friends.” 

6. Creative tech finds a collegiate home

students line uconn

Putnam Dining Hall at University of Connecticut
Storrs, Conn.

Facing an ever-growing student body, the University of Connecticut revamped its cafeteria-style Putnam Dining Hall into a modern eatery with several food stations. Completed in November, the space—renovated to the tune of  $23 million—seats 700.

Since the dining hall spans two floors, the foodservice team turned to tech to transport dirty dishes from the lower level to the dish room upstairs. Using a Ferris wheel-style system, students on the lower level place used dishes on rotating trays, which then travel to the dish room. 

The team also invested in two largely automated plant walls that supply herbs for campus meals. The 120 plants are equipped with timed sprayers that provide each herb with the proper amount of water and artificial sunlight. Executive Director of Dining Services Dennis Pierce says the foodservice staff’s only role in ensuring the plants’ growth is clipping them. 

7. Efficiency breeds hospitality

vi bentley village east clubhouse azure

Vi at Bentley Village
Naples, Fla.

To accommodate its many senior residents who are well-traveled and who often visit restaurants in downtown Naples, Fla., Bentley Village felt a need to develop a more retail-focused vibe, says John Vogelmeier, parent company Vi’s assistant vice president of food and beverage operations. 

Central to that mission was ensuring servers could focus on delivering hospitality, rather than completing tasks. After rebuilding its two clubhouses as part of an $80 million renovation, Bentley Village last year launched three restaurants: Seaside, Cafe Biscotti and formal dining room Azure. These restaurants also debuted a new POS system as well as a reservation system Vogelmeier likens to “the early days of OpenTable.”

Under the new setup, servers use tablets to take orders, which are transmitted to back-of-house monitors that display the parts of an order that each station—broiler, saute, etc.—is responsible for. Previously, servers would often leave the floor to prep salads, fill beverages and portion soups, Vogelmeier says. Now, waitstaff remain visible to guests throughout the meal, as runners bring food from the kitchen to tables and the tech takes care of the rest.

8. K-12 goes up a grade

chs cafeteria

Carmel High School
Carmel, Ind.

With around 5,000 students to feed on a closed campus, Carmel High School can’t just rely on its cafeteria; the Carmel, Ind., campus also features the underclassmen-tailored Freshman Center and quick-service Greyhound Station (named after Carmel’s mascot).

Last year, the school debuted a revamped version of its main eatery that offers a more flexible “college-esque” feel, along with additional ways for students to customize meals, says Jennifer McFarland, director of food and nutrition services for Carmel Clay Schools. 

The space, which had not been renovated in three decades, got a $900,000 front-of-house turnaround, debuting six service stations such as a fresh fruit bar, a pasta bar and a pizza station.

Menu boards went digital, and an app promotes upcoming offerings—it’s the best way to communicate with the students, as many ignore the school’s morning announcements and online menu, McFarland conceded. Staff can also use the boards to display news and sports clips to engage students.

After the renovation, the number of lunches the cafeteria served from August to January rose 1,389 over the previous year, and a la carte sales increased 12.5%, McFarland says.

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Buckeye Union High School District in Buckeye, Ariz., has introduced monthly chef demos to encourage students to try different foods as well as healthy eating habits, AZ Family reports.

Each month, chefs conduct a lunchtime demo in the cafeteria at the district’s three high schools. After viewing the demo, students are then encouraged to sample some of the dish that was prepared.

The demos were introduced just after each of the cafeterias were renovated with a food court-style layout, allowing students to select from a variety of options during lunch.

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Boston Public Schools is the latest district to join the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit group that aims to help districts provide high-quality student meals while keeping costs down.

With the addition of Boston, the Alliance includes 11 schools and says it now reaches nearly 3.7 million students. The group has grown its total purchasing power to $831 million in food and supplies as it continues to increase its membership.

“Thanks to support from the Kendall Foundation, Boston’s membership in the Alliance will serve our mission of increasing access to locally and...

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