9 designs that shine

These operations are not just keeping up with consumers; they are setting the pace, creating concepts that are just as transformative, adaptable and resourceful as the people they are serving. 

1. Pilot House

portland pilot house

University of Portland
Portland, Ore.

Pilot House, the University of Portland’s on-campus pub, turned a low-traffic dining area and lounge into a space to recapture off-campus students for the late-night segment. The transformation took a bit of reclaimed wood, a heated patio and a splash of booze. “It feels like every restaurant here in Portland,” says Kirk Mustain, general manager of the Oregon university’s Bon Appetit-run dining services.

When the university took note of the lack of late-night programming for students—some off-campus students walk 15 or 20 blocks for entertainment—it decided to build a multiuse space where students, faculty and the public could gather. UP already held a full liquor license for catering, but serves only beer, wine and ciders at Pilot House, which opened last fall. “Beer is a secondary component to our restaurant,” Mustain says. “We created an environment for responsible drinking.”

To conserve space in the 4,800-square-foot pub, Pilot House stocks small-batch kegs known as sixtals and hosts tap takeovers with more than 200 microbreweries. A 280-foot heated patio sectioned off by a garage door adds 120 seats.

By day, the pub morphs into an espresso cafe, but most of that machinery is below the bar, so it’s not a distraction when Pilot House changes into its evening wardrobe. In addition, a retail operation, Mack’s Market, packs ready-to-eat fare such as antibiotic-free rotisserie chicken, pasta bowls and Spam musubi into a 600-square-foot area near the back of the space. 

2. Harvest

harvest rutgers

Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

Harvest is taking customization and clean labels one bite further—most ingredients served at this dining venue don’t even come with nutrition labels. The cafeteria opened in January in the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. The operation reflects part of the mission of the institute: to help fight obesity and malnutrition. “It’s difficult to serve healthy food to people who are really not educated about it,” says Nick Emanuel, dining services director of operations. “They don’t know how interesting it could be. So when it came to the design, it had to be the ‘wow’ factor right when you walk in.”

The facility includes an ingredient bar, a brick oven whole-grain pizzette and flatbreads station, a Mongolian grill, a salad bar, a broth bar and a juice and smoothie bar, chosen for maximum customizability. “[Diners], mostly Rutgers staff, can go to that salad bar or grain bar area and pick out different vegetables and things they want to put on the Mongolian grill, and the cook will toss it in there,” Emanuel says. All fixings are free of hormones, preservatives, chemicals and added sugar—there is no soda to be found.

Ordering kiosks help Harvest focus labor behind the chef’s counter, where a team lead by Chef Rachel Reuben, a French Culinary Institute alum and winner of Food Network’s “Chopped,” and Chef Ian Keith, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, inform guests as they order. “We want it to be more interactive, explain what we are making and educate people, as opposed to just setting things out there,” Emanuel says. 

3. The Yard

the yard

AT&T Park
San Francisco

With a few shipping containers, the San Francisco Giants transformed an empty parking lot into an elevated tailgating space. The Yard, a feature of the city’s Mission Rock mixed-use project that resulted from a 2015 ballot initiative, includes a beer garden and rotating pop-ups operating entirely out of refurbished shipping containers. The operation’s flexible format allows it to be an incubator for fixed foodservice partnerships as the new neighborhood of Mission Rock develops. “We wanted people to become familiar with this area and regard it as a regular destination,” says Laura Nichol, The Yard coordinator.

Not only do the shipping containers reflect the Giants’ organization-wide commitment to sustainability, but they also provide The Yard with the option to pick up and move as Mission Rock builds out. “We wanted to be able to relocate throughout the process,” says Nichol. Committed to supporting homegrown businesses, The Yard has housed a nose-to-tail barbecue joint called The Whole Beast and a fleet of different SF food trucks. Current tenants Creperie Saint-Germain, Belcampo Meat Company and Anchor Brewing are catering to the lunch crowd from surrounding businesses, and on game day, The Yard turns closed roadways into a street beer garden with 30 pieces of mobile furniture.

However, The Yard’s mobility did come with a hitch or two. Nichol says the shipping container format required multiple building permits, and the boxes had to be staked into the ground to ensure they wouldn’t blow away on a windy day. Despite the flexibility of the complex, Nichol says she’s confident The Yard will become a permanent fixture of the Mission Rock neighborhood.

4. Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability at Sandy Ground

kathleen grimm school solar panels

Staten Island, N.Y.

This fall, New York City’s first net-zero energy school opened in Staten Island. Through alternative solar, wind, water and even bike power, the facility is able to generate as much power as it consumes. Interactive technologies are plugged into nearly every part of the school—especially the cafeteria, where students learn about sustainable eating. “Staying true to our goal of being a net-zero school, our students will learn how to be sustainability leaders and make conscientious choices that will benefit our larger community,” Lisa Sarnicola, Kathleen Grimm’s acting principal, wrote on the school’s website. “They will learn how to conserve and create energy, recycle, grow their own food and manage a greenhouse.”

The 68,000-square-foot building is about 35 percent more efficient than a typical American school, an important distinction for a district whose 1,600 schools generate 37 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to Architectural Record. The cafeteria gives children an access point to learn about sustainable practices, and energy dashboards provide live updates on the cafeteria’s energy consumption, broken down by power sucks: dishwasher, microwave, lighting, power outlets and cookers.

Upon entering the cafeteria, an expansive skylight gives children a peak of the rooftop gardens, which are used in foodservice production and the teaching curriculum. Skylights like this one, and high-performance open windows maximized with reflective ceiling tiles, provide most of the light for the building.

Induction cookers take the place of gas-fired equipment to curb consumption, and the operation switches between hot and cold lunches to further reduce the kitchen’s carbon footprint. According to Architectural Record, a typical kitchen is responsible for more than 30 percent of a school’s energy use, but the kitchen at Kathleen Grimm dishes out a mere 9 percent of the total energy spent.

5. Cafe Med

yale cafe med pickled veggies

Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

In the fall, Yale University’s Cafe Med increased throughput compared to the location’s last concept, while methodically cutting labor by half and the footprint by two-thirds. “We gave back space to the medical school and the university, and said, ‘You can take this for whatever you need,’” says Adam Millman, Yale Dining director of auxiliary operations.

The scaling-down process started with outsourcing food prep to a centralized kitchen, then looking at labor and sales by daypart. In the morning, where most sales consisted of coffee, pastries and house-made oatmeal, Millman and his team have gotten creative to reduce labor. “We had to make [guests] feel like they are in the space without entering the space,” he says. “If they start entering the space, we just added the potential for more labor, because then they will start touching things or spill something on the floor.” Indirect seating outside the facility took the place of in-cafe seating, and an express entranceway counter with a sliding barn door and glass walls help customers feel like they’re sitting inside. When lunch service begins, the glass wall slides open, employees shift to the inside counter and customers are welcomed in.

The design factors in not only the amount of required labor, but also the cafe’s needs during low-concentration dayparts. By connecting the custom salad station to the hot stew station and coffee bar, employees can quickly move between three spaces without running into each other. Stations are stocked via an 8-by-8 glass door walk-in next to the service counter, which can also be accessed from the storage area. “It created efficiencies for them and less movement, but it also allowed us to create some sort of visual art of the food,” Millman says.

Looking at all possible efficiencies, Millman’s team coupled design elements with a strategic traffic pattern and queue space—and just a touch of school spirit. A Y-shaped divider resembles the Yale emblem and creates a natural barrier, padded with impulse buys, for customers to line up around.

6. Harvest Table

harvest table jars

Garden Spot Village Senior Living
New Holland, Pa.

With residents ranging in age from 50 to more than 100, Garden Spot Village couldn’t justify a one-size-fits-all cafe for its multigenerational population. Instead Harvest Table has been transformed into a fast-casual meets farm-to-table meets senior living foodservice operation. “We have about 1,000 residents on our campus, so we have a lot of diversity in terms of what people are looking for,” says Steve Lindsey, CEO of the New Holland, Pa., community.

Prior to last year’s redesign, the facility featured a cafe with what Lindsey calls “your classic cafeteria lady, slide the tray down” operation. Taking note from fast casuals, Harvest Table emphasizes kiosk and online ordering. Some guests prefer to place their order with cashiers, but participation with the tech is increasing, Lindsey says. Stations including Asian fusion, Neapolitan pizza, handcrafted deli, soups, desserts, grilled items and a chef’s table—all featuring regional ingredients found at local farms—grab inspiration from fast casuals’ flexible formats. 

Although this new layout requires a bit more labor, Lindsey says switching to made-to-order has absorbed extra costs now that Harvest Table isn’t throwing out whole pans of food at the end of the day. In fact, the majority of staff already were working on-premise—but behind a set of double doors. “They never got to know the people they were serving,” he says. “Just bringing them out in front helps them to have a whole other perspective on their job.”

Throughout the design process, Lindsey wanted to maintain a delicate balance of comfort and adventure, using Lancaster County’s agrarian heritage as inspiration. “We pulled different finishes from our local environment—wood, brick, steel, iron—and really created an environment where they feel at home,” he says. For instance, the concept’s faded sign resembles logos painted on old tobacco warehouses in the area, and a communal table was built by a local Amish carpenter using indigenous lumber. “The design of the space inspires people to try new things, because there’s a lot out there they can see and experience visually and by smelling what’s being prepared.”

7. Palettes Café

adobe palatte cafe

Adobe Systems
San Jose, Calif.

When Adobe Systems reimagined foodservice operations at its San Jose, Calif., headquarters, the software company took a hyperlocal, ground-up  approach. “The architect’s vision was to embody the orchard that used to grow in the area,” says Justina Hyland, senior manager of project delivery and customer and employee experience.

From floor to ceiling, the space boasts an airy atmosphere, with green carpet, park benches, swings, murals of open fields and wooden food crates on the wall. Greenhouses were outfitted into conference rooms, and an open kitchen, high ceilings and concrete floors create a modernized rustic vibe.

“The design brings the outdoor inside,” Hyland says. “It brings [employees] back to a day where we had more open space.” The space flows into an outdoor patio dining area with an Alaskan-cedar trellia.

Carrying the local theme over to the menu, the cashless, self-checkout cafe sources vegetables, meat and fish from local suppliers. Employees grab two or three tapas-style options during lunch, and after 2 p.m. the cafe closes to offer healthy, grab-and-go crudites. “One of our core values is genuine,” she says. “So when we think about the type of food we provide, we keep genuine, wholesome food and sustainability in mind.”

8. Sterling College

sterling wash house

Craftsbury Common, Vt.

Sterling College, a hands-on work college in Craftsbury Common, Vt., has extended the life of its produce used in foodservice from three days to three weeks with one 432-square-foot washhouse.

The college, which boasts a curriculum geared toward environmental stewardship and sustainability, has an agrarian program that produces 20 percent of the vegetables and 16 percent of the meat served at the school’s dining hall. For the past five years, enrollment has been growing, and the college has strengthened its commitment to grow more and more food. 

“We reached a critical tipping point where we needed to have a more effective and innovative way of cleaning and cooling vegetables,” says Gwyneth Harris, Sterling’s farm manager.

In the past, the washing facilities merely housed a couple of wash tanks and tables. Sterling students built the new washhouse, even harvesting the lumber from the college’s grounds. The building is designed to shorten the distance and time it takes to transport produce from the gardens to the kitchen with access doors to hoop houses, different doors to the fields and exits where workers can load trucks headed to the kitchen.

This summer, when Sterling’s budget turns over, Harris plans to install receiving tables, mesh tables, wash tanks with soaking capabilities and industrial-size salad spinners. She says she is most excited about the reduction of labor that will come from a new motor-driven rotating cylinder washer, which will clean root vegetables. “For root crops, it’s probably going to decrease our labor by at least 50 percent, maybe more,” she says.

With containers that have the dual purpose of transport and storage and the installation of walk-in coolers, Harris hopes to be able to reduce food waste. “If it is a hot day, our greens and things might be out in the hot weather for an hour or more,” she says. “This will allow us to cool things within the first few minutes after harvest, which has a huge impact on shelf life—and also on flavor.”

9. Hospitals’ new retail concepts

st elizabeth hospital cafe

As foodservice budgets grow smaller or remain stagnant, hospitals are strengthening their retail game to push out revenue and add choices for guests. In turn, the retail spaces mirror successful commercial models such as Whole Foods Market, fast-fired pizza fast casuals and leading farm-to-table restaurants.

Market-style approach

Drafting on the demand for healthy, organic and all-natural products, hospitals are taking cues from specialty grocery giants. St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, Wis., designed its Marketplace cafeteria with Whole Foods-style signage, display techniques and health-focused branding. “We wanted to be able to provide fresh, healthy food in an atmosphere that promoted the health and well-being of the people using the facility,” Larry Donatelle, St. Elizabeth’s chief medical officer, told The Post-Crescent. “We wanted to improve the nutritional value and appeal of the foods and support local farm-to-table suppliers.”

Banner Health’s North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, Colo., also offers a market-style experience that fuses speed, comfort and functionality. After opening in November, the cafeteria sees about 1,800 transactions per day, so decentralizing the line with self-serve stations was key to increasing speed of service and decreasing labor, says Justin Latham, North Colorado’s director of culinary services. “We try to make things as customizable as possible while keeping speed in mind,” Latham says. “It’s important to get nurses and doctors in and out.” Similar to Rutgers’ Harvest, Latham’s cafe allows customers to mix and match at various stations. The cross-utilization helps keep costs low, he says.

Stone-fired, wood-fired and brick oven pizza

Placing hearths at the center of an operation not only adds a warm design element but also gives operators an experiential dining station with rapid throughput. At Clovis Medical Center in Clovis, Calif., a brick oven fires artisan pizzas within seven minutes at 585 degrees Fahrenheit. The oven fits five to six oblong pizzas at a time. “Pizzas were always a hit before we moved in, so it was really cool to have [the brick oven] as a centerpiece,” says Paul Luchi, the center’s director of nutrition and dining services. Luchi keeps costs down on the $3.59 pizzas by using fresh, local produce.

At Northern Colorado Medical Center, a stone oven gives guests not just pizza, but specialty items such as cedar-plank salmon.


As operators focus on hospitality to wrangle revenue, self-operated restaurants are finding homes in hospitals. In May, Green Valley Hospital in Arizona opened the 100-seat Madera Restaurant & Grill, where Brian Pierce, who has a background in hotel foodservice, is the director of food services. “The trend in the hospital world today is healthy and fresh foodservice, complementing the hospital’s goal of good nutrition for the health of the patients and staff,” Pierce told Green Valley News. “Depending on what their medical issues are and if there are any medical restrictions on a patient’s diet, patients have the opportunity to order and eat the same food that you can order in the restaurant.”

University of Vermont Medical Center’s Garden Atrium also puts wellness center-of-plate. The limited-service, vegetable-forward restaurant opened in September and is connected to a rooftop garden. The restaurant serves as a place where visitors can relax with Wi-Fi, power outlets and a lending library for cook and gardening books.



More from our partners