Student-Centered Dining Design

Times have changed for college dining facilities. Today’s upbeat, energized, open college dining space is a far cry from the institutional cafeterias that once populated the campus scene. Facilities are now designed to make students feel more at ease, at home, comfortable, and supported. Just as higher ed’s approach to student learning has changed to more diverse student-centered, interactive, collaborative knowledge-building strategies, so have the best dining facility designs developed in comparable ways that support and enhance student learning.

“Campus dining has evolved from an institutional arena to these big social gathering areas. Students are not just eating in these dining areas,” explains Michelle Maestas, senior designer at Denver-based Ricca Newmark Design, an international interior and culinary design firm. “They’re studying. They’re socializing. They’ve made it into an active space now.” To accommodate these activities and encourage student ease and comfort, Ricca Newmark designer Maestas and studio partner Lenny Condenzio emphasize designing for lively, inviting facilities that embrace the whole student dining experience.

Integrating the Whole Space
Today’s campus dining design blends individual spaces to create a contemporary and fresh experience. The back kitchen area has been integrated with the front-of-house spaces, providing a graceful, flowing environment inviting to everyone. Dining and serving areas are intermixed. Open space is created for the gathering of groups of students to eat, socialize and study together, supporting today’s trends for collaborative group study activities and interactive learning.

“We’re integrating the front of the house with the back of the house. We’re integrating the kitchen and the dining all as one unit. Instead of concealing what’s in the back, we’re showcasing what’s being done. We’re creating active stations where culinary staff are preparing fresh meals. We show a lot of different activity that keeps the space lively and energized,” says Maestas.

As Comfortable as Mom’s Kitchen — But Fresh and Contemporary
The space is not only lively, but enticing as well. “We work with colleges and universities to bring in all the elements that make the person feel comfortable, as comfortable as they are in Mom’s kitchen,” notes Lenny Condenzio. How to do that? By appealing to all five senses, he explains.

Take, for example, the bakery at James Madison University East Campus dining hall, front and center, just beyond the check desk. “It’s the first thing you see when you come in the door,” says Condenzio. “The fresh-baked smell — it’s wonderful. Just like home. The entire bakery display counter, mixer, and oven are right there, and then you walk around to the ‘grab-and-go’ where the display shows off fresh food items. Now they’re making homemade ice cream.” The bakery invites lingering and interaction. Staff take pride in their accomplishments and do a better job. Students love it. They feel comfortable, happy, at home, and supported, though “unlike in Mom’s kitchen, you can’t stick your finger in the mixing bowl,” Condenzio jokes.

Showcasing Food and Celebrating Culinary Excitement

Many kinds of specialty cooking are being showcased on campus. This trend appeals for several reasons. It’s fun, it’s personal, and it delivers on the promise of fresh, nutritional food, even when hundreds are being served. A self-serve salad bar might offer an optional station component where salads can be topped off with grilled chicken or salmon. Or perhaps a tossing station, to put the final touch on the salad. Choices are many, whether wok stations, sushi platforms, tandoori ovens, or Brazilian barbecues.

The in-the-open, individualized dining experience extends to self-serving stations, where students can cook their own waffles, grill their own paninis, or select their own salad ingredients. Diverse menu items — products of contemporary restaurant cooking styles — appeal to students’ varied tastes, interests, and backgrounds. At the Ram’s Horn dining facility at Colorado State University many nutritious food options are openly prepared and freshly presented: the Tex Mex station with a rotating salsa display, the Mongolian Grill showcasing gas-fired woks, and the Comfort Foods station featuring its own pasta maker, for instance.

When students see their meals freshly prepared, they are both individually acknowledged and also assured of healthful, nutritional food. They especially appreciate when it’s tied in to a “farm to table” program, one of the many sustainability options particularly important to them. “We get a lot of requests to create a chef’s table, or a chef’s demo,” explains Condenzio. “There might be a chef or even a local farmer there to bring the educational component into the dining experience.”

In this energized, nutritious environment, students don’t just pick up their food and eat — they interact. They learn. They enjoy. They savor. They relax. For students stressed about homework and deadlines, the friendly comfort, easy convenience, nutritious food, and palatable choices make student life easier, healthier — and more productive.

Modern technology enhances this trend towards better nutrition and more healthy food choices. Some dining facilities are incorporating digitized nutrition kiosks, where students can enter food choices to find the calorie and nutrition information. Strategically placed digital screens tell the story behind what’s happening at a particular location — perhaps teaching about the product; displaying enticing photos; or providing other information, art, and entertainment. This digital queuing fills in waiting-in-line time, absorbing students’ interest, adding stimulation, and appealing to the subliminal.

Creating the Sensory Experience
The design focus now is to complete the whole dining experience, to make it even more sensory. “There shouldn’t be any disconnect as you move from one area to the next,” emphasizes Condenzio. “At Ricca Newmark, we try to think about the dining experience more like it’s a production in a theatre, incorporating the lighting, materials, sounds, and whatever it takes to tell the story. For example, setting the stage by toning down the stainless steel and adding in the woods and the stone, so that when you walk through a servery, you begin to know, and become excited about, the culinary experience you are about to have.”

Maestas concurs. “When Lenny talks about the five senses, we really are trying to touch on exactly that,” she says, “trying to grasp the student at the site. We’re working with tastes and smells by bringing the kitchen out into the dining area. In spaces that are abundant with activity we’re trying to control noise factors. We’re making the whole process more of an interactive journey for the student. That’s the biggest trend we’ve been seeing.”

Consequently, today’s designers focus on putting the proper finishes together — lighting and color and texture as well as the functionality of spaces — to make them work in concert for an overall effect. This has elevated the campus dining facility to be more restaurant-like. The designs, of course, vary from one facility to the next. “Across the board, the concept is leaning towards the same trend of bringing all the elements together and creating the experience,” says Maestas. “It’s our job to make it work for our client. That’s where the materials and décor and creativity come into play.”

Lighting and Color Create Balance
For instance, a multilayered lighting design brings balance between toned-down lighting that enhances showmanship cooking and the brighter lighting required in prep areas. At the relativity small dining facility at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO, designers unified the servery area so it had a consistent, connected flow throughout, without individually identifying each venue. Then they used color-changing LED lighting to bring interest and identity to each of the venue areas. “It brought that extra touch and energy into space which was all monochromatic. It brought that pop in,” explains Maestas.

While cost-effective LED lights are widely used, Ricca Newmark designers also incorporate several different types of lighting — halogen lights, fluorescent lights, different wattages and different warmths to highlight different tones of color. Dimming systems help create lighting suitable for a variety of events throughout the day and night. And designing to capture the best natural lighting helps brighten the whole space and reduce energy costs as well.

“We’re seeing more sophisticated color palettes now,” adds Maestas, “more subdued and monochromatic schemes that are more residential feeling.” Of course, she qualifies, designers still incorporate fun colors — after all, students live an active and energetic life — but not as much of the bold bright yellows, oranges, purples, and greens typical of earlier decades. She points to the award-winning Ram’s Horn at Colorado State University — featuring individually themed, bright and artistic venues — where color and texture and art work together to create an energetic whole.

Texture and Space Create Feeling
Historic environments are also being updated. At Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, the tradition-steeped dining hall was renovated to open up the whole dining experience while also preserving its sense of history through the use of rich, sensual tiles and wood cabinetry. “We cleared out the middle space between the two dining rooms and created a big servery on the first floor and on the second floor,” explains Condenzio. “We broke tradition in that the serveries on the first and second floors did not match — this opened up the menu choices and invited a certain flexibility and intermingling — but we preserved tradition through the choice of materials. It was important to preserve and connect the overall pulse of the school experience. It was important to maintain that connection.”

At James Madison University’s East Campus Dining Hall in Harrisonburg, VA, seating arrangements accommodate varied needs. For students who want to gather in larger groups, swivel stools and granite countertops offer space to spread out while interacting with others. For individual diners, other configurations create comfortable options.

The sophisticated use of lighting and colors, the addition of stone and slate and wood textures, the incorporation of artwork and water features, the arrangement of comfortable and collaborative seating — all these components add to the sensual features of the dining space. “We’re really working with our clients to think about all the senses,” says Condenzio, “and make that sensory connection.”

Students Choose Sustainability

Students, enthusiastic about their new and renewed dining facilities, are also actively engaged in many design projects from the beginning. Often selected students will be involved in design planning, making specific decisions about what to implement, what to emphasize.

Students frequently exhibit a strong commitment to sustainability, and many of the eco-friendly options incorporated into dining design and renovations are a direct result of their input. The choices for healthy food, “farm to table” programs, low-energy foodservice equipment, tray-less systems, natural lighting, recycled and recyclable materials, waste composting, vegetarian and vegan menus — all these decisions reflect a conscious commitment to sustainable use and conservation. Through this process, students, staff, faculty, and administration express shared values. They foster a sense of community that helps nurture the educational and civic growth students are there to experience.

Creating the Whole Experience
In today’s campus dining design, the underlying principle is to have an inviting, energetic space that draws people in and makes it a welcoming environment. In creating this experience, both Maestas and Condenzio emphasize that there should not be any disconnect. “The ‘story’ resonates from the front entrance and even includes the restroom and loading docks,” says Condenzio, “inviting students into a welcoming, warm, comfortable, culinary-exciting space with fantastic quality choices and options of food that is authentic as possible.”

This design principle — one of quality, connectedness, completeness, and diversity — underscores an attitude that embraces students. It creates an environment where students will be stimulated, nurtured, and nourished. “If this is a trend,” says Maestas, “it’s a trend that’s going to last the test of time.”