Redesign or new construction?

Three steps to finding the best flow for your dining space.

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When revamping an old cafeteria or building a new retail spot, the design process can feel like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle: What needs to fit in the space, and what’s the most efficient flow for staffers, cooks, diners and more?

Cathy Estes, administrative director of nutrition services at four northern Indiana hospitals that are part of the Franciscan Health network, faced the creation of a new in-house dining program at Franciscan’s Munster hospital. Amid all the big plans, design was one of the largest undertakings.

“I was looking at 5,000 square feet on a blueprint, and it kept me up at night: ‘How are we going to do all of this?’” she says.

Step 1: Work backward from the final goal

Because Franciscan Health Munster was previously bringing in patient meals from a nearby sister hospital, Estes says, the company had to determine what kind of operations to offer. “First we were talking about retherming food, then we moved away from that and decided we wanted to go for a kitchen,” she says. “Then we discussed tray service in the cafeteria, room service and more.”

Those decisions helped Estes’ team determine what equipment would be required; with room service, for example, they needed a blast chiller. “It helped us figure out what was nice to have, like a panini maker, versus a must-have, like a grill,” she says.

When it comes to redesigning existing spaces, the concept is similar, says Adam Millman, senior director of dining at Yale University. “If the overall goal is to reduce square footage, that drives a certain layout,” he says. “If it’s to reduce labor, that’s an entirely different consideration.”

Step 2: Glean inspiration from multiple sources

The key to back-of-house design is reduced traffic, Millman says. “If you have a pasta station, for example, you want everything at arm’s reach. You need to group everything you need to support activity within that zone; otherwise you get cross-trafficking and inefficiencies.”

That requires insight into the nitty-gritty of how operations work, so it’s key to get input from staffers—but, Millman warns, remember they “may not have the same values as you, especially if your goal [with the redesign] is to reduce staffing.”

Externally, take note of good flow design—especially opportunities for dual-purpose equipment and furniture. Millman says Starbucks helped inspire a central part of Yale’s Cafe Med retail location: In the middle of the cafe sits a “provisions area with snacks and sundries that allows us to serve more SKUs, but it also serves as a barrier and avoids people crowding.”

Step 3: Don’t forget post-construction work

At Munster, which serves about 300 cafeteria meals and 150 patient meals daily since operations began last spring, the biggest challenge of determining good flow was training staffers on the new equipment and space.

Don’t fear that adjustment period, nor the possibility of making a mistake, Millman says. “To say you’ll get it right the first time is not achievable, so you have to be flexible.”

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