Lunch by Design

After reading this, I hope you will have a general knowledge of different issues that affect the design of the kitchen/cafeteria component in K-12 design. This is supposed to be condensed in 800 words or so, so I am counting on two letter words, a lot (nine in this last sentence)!

Seriously, there are numerous criteria to consider in the design of a K-12 kitchen and cafeteria. I think the most important thing to take into account is to:
  • consider the criteria before design begins,
  • do it while conceptualizing the program,
  • meet and discuss options with the users during programming, and then
  • communicate the decisions so everyone is very clear on what has been accepted.
Hopefully a well-planned process in the beginning will lead to a successful design at the end. Let’s use the next 700 words or so to narrow down some of the options.

Do you want to cook from scratch or simply re-thermalize precooked food? This has big ramifications for the design. A cook-from-scratch kitchen means more food-prep space, potentially additional food storage space and more cooking equipment. Conversely, a warming kitchen describes one where food comes to the kitchen precooked and is simply heated up and served.

Oftentimes, a hybrid kitchen works best — prep and serve perishables like lettuce, tomatoes, fruit, fresh vegetables and dairy; reheat and serve prepped frozen food such as hamburgers, pizza, chicken nuggets, frozen vegetables, pasta and tater tots, etc. The size of the storage will generally depend on capacity of the school and delivery schedules. Larger storage will reduce the number of deliveries and conversely less storage will require more deliveries.

How many people should the cafeteria accommodate? To answer this, you need to know how the campus will operate. Questions to ask include the number of lunch periods, whether it is a closed or open campus at lunch (for high school) and the core capacity of the school. These factors will determine how many students the dining area needs to accommodate.

How many serving lines should you have? This is a function of the number of students that are accommodated during a lunch period, length of lunch period and number of lunch periods. The physical length of the serving line, along with queuing space, will be key factors as well. Oftentimes, there are only 30-minute periods in an elementary lunch, so it is very important to get the kids seated with their meals to maximize their dining time.

At the high school level, there may be multiple serving lines that are geared towards a dining court experience. Some offerings may include a soup and salad bar, pizza kitchen, and made-to-order grill and sandwich bar, to name a few. When successful, the food service component of a district can actually be a source of income.

Another factor to consider in sizing the cafeteria is the other purposes for which it may be used. Oftentimes, the cafeteria is actually a cafetorium — cafeteria plus auditorium. Some designs use a folding partition between the cafeteria and gym, giving the space the ability to be opened into one large space for school carnivals, graduations or other forms of general assembly. These factors can determine the cafeteria size rather than the amount of students dining there. These options can make the cafeteria more versatile, in regards to school capacity, length of lunch and number of lunch periods — it is all interrelated.

Okay, now for the nitty-gritty. Will you be washing dishes and silverware, or utilizing disposables? Obviously, scullery space grows when there is more dishwashing space required. And, not just space to wash, but space to dry and store plates, trays, etc. Determining if you are cooking from scratch or reheating is also a factor that affects the scullery size, more cooking equals more dirty pots, cookie sheets and utensils.

We have spent a lot of time, actually 636 words, going over operational requirements; let’s go over some design concepts. Any kitchen needs to flow, just like your kitchen at home. Food needs to flow front to back, i.e. product moves from delivery to storage to prep to cook/reheat to warming to the serving lines and, finally, to the kids.

It is always best if the flow is maintained in order, without intersections or reversal. It is also imperative to locate the kitchen manager’s office or workspace at a location where he or she can monitor the majority of the kitchen and control the rear door where deliveries and personnel will flow.

Adequate workspace needs to be allowed at stations for the equipment to operate properly and for safe and effective circulation.

Lastly, including the factors above, the size of the kitchen staff needs to be taken into account. This is really a result of all the previous research. As you can see, it is all interconnected.

Okay, now you have the functional information, design and layout, let’s look at some materials. There are many, many flooring options, however there are three that are probably most prevalent — quarry tile, poured-in-place acrylic flooring and polished concrete. Be mindful of floor slopes, as a floor that is extremely sloped to the drains makes it hard to level equipment and to navigate with wheeled carts and other mobile units. A lot of this decision may depend on existing conditions and if this is building new or a renovation.

Vinyl-faced ceiling tiles are a standard option. They meet health code requirements and keep the interstitial space above the ceiling very accessible. For walls, painted CMU is a durable option, but not necessarily the prettiest. Ceramic tile adds aesthetics but also adds some cost. Metal stud walls with ceramic tile can be used, especially in a renovation where the floor structure won’t support the dead load of CMU walls and a grout bed.

To add to the longevity, we often specify a four-inch concrete curb for the floor plate of the wall to keep it off of the ground and out of water.

Finally, you need to determine the location in relation to the rest of the campus. Oftentimes, the cafeteria is a focal point of the design, especially if designed for assembly and other showcase functions. Conversely, the kitchen is not a focal point — there are dumpsters, recycling bins, can washing and a service entrance. Location of this component can be a unique design problem; a central location is oftentimes good.

The cafeteria is frequently used to stage kids for pick up or drop off in the morning. Accordingly, it needs to be near vehicular circulation. Access to an outdoor dining space can be another feature to plan around.

In closing, there is a lot of planning that should and must be done. It’s a lot easier to plan for and provide the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, space, adjacencies and durable materials during design before it is under construction.

This is by no means a de-facto guide to kitchen design. However, I hope it stimulates some planning. 

Lowell Tacker is a principal with OCO Architects in San Antonio, Texas.